With the economy in trouble and Covid-19 spreading, these residents collect free food packets from volunteers on a road in Quezon City in suburban Manila on April 21. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

The Philippines is grappling with an intensifying double-crisis – as the Southeast Asian country’s economic recession deepens, new Covid-19 variants from India have entered the country and the number of daily infections is high.

According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, the Philippines’ gross domestic product, or GDP, shrank by 4.2% in the first quarter of the year, following a steep 9.6% contraction in 2020. 

Meanwhile, the Philippine Department of Health (DOH) has confirmed two cases of the more transmissible Covid-19 variant first identified in India, also known as B.1.617, which has raised concerns over a new wave of infections in the Southeast Asian country.

“We need to continually monitor what other variants we may be able to detect locally, as well as monitor the spread of the variants we have already detected,” said Alethea De Guzman, director of the DOH’s epidemiology bureau. 

Following a month-long lockdown, daily infection rates have declined from a peak of 15,310 in early April, but the Philippines’ daily average numbers are still way higher than the roughly 1,700 cases throughout 2020.

The country, which has posted the second-highest infection rates in the region after Indonesia, has also a high Covid-19 positivity rate, reflecting its weak testing capacity to detect the true extent of the crisis. 

Antipolo City Police apprehend a quarantine violator for not wearing a face mask and face shield in Antipolo City on April 1, 2021. Photo: AFP/Ryan Eduard Benaid/NurPhoto

In fact, experts have also raised concerns over the reliability of government data, given the sudden reduction in testing rates in recent days. The Philippine government’s economic managers, however, have insisted that the country’s economic trajectory is “on the mend,” and that a relaxation of lockdowns is on the way.

Duterte praises China

Instead, the burden has been shifted to incoming travelers, including thousands of returning Filipino overseas workers, who now have to endure up to 10 days in government-designated quarantine facilities upon arrival. 

During his regular national address on Monday, President Rodrigo Duterte defended his handling of the crisis and underscored China’s assistance, including large-scale vaccine donations, amid rising tensions in the South China Sea. 

“It’s true. They sent [vaccines] to us, we accepted it, we used it. But it does not mean that I will accept the vaccines, then say I will forget the claim to the [South China Sea],” the president said in Filipino, choosing to use China’s vaccine diplomacy to deflect blame over his handling of a recent Philippine-China maritime stand-off over the contested Whitsun Reef. 

“I said, Mr President [Xi Jinping], I would like to ask for your help. Until now, the Philippines is really at a loss on how to get the vaccines. He said, ‘It’s okay, we will help you.’ That’s it. He didn’t say forget Scarborough,” Duterte claimed, following his conversations with his Chinese counterpart. 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (L) receiving a dose of China’s Sinopharm from the Secretary of Health Francisco Duque at Malacanang Palace in Manila. Photo: AFP/King Rodrigues/Presidential Photo Division

Last week, Duterte made another effort to augment China’s vaccine diplomacy, when the presidential office released photos of him receiving a Chinese Sinopharm shot by no less than the Philippines’ health secretary, Francisco Duque III. 

The China-friendly publicity stunt, however, soon backfired, since the Chinese-made vaccine was yet to be approved by either the Philippines Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Don’t follow my footsteps,” said Duterte, asking the Chinese Embassy to take back 1,000 donated Sinopharm vaccines due to concerns over safety and effectiveness.”It’s dangerous because there are no studies. It might not be good for the body. Just let me be the sole person to receive it,” the Filipino leader added, rather apologetically. 

Vaccinations ramped up

In the past week, the Philippine government has ramped up its mass vaccination program in order to contain the latest wave of infections. The country has received an additional 15,000 doses of the Russian-made vaccine Sputnik V, while several thousand Pfizer vaccines sourced from the WHO-supervised global vaccination platform Covax have also been administered across Metro-Manila.

Workers unload the first batch of the Russian-made Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine on May 1 at the international airport in Manila. Photo: AFP/Presidential Communications Operations Office

As many as 194,000 doses of Moderna’s vaccine are also expected to arrive later this month. Yet the overall vaccination rate is still at a snail’s pace, with the Philippine government managing to administer just over 2.5 million doses, with the majority of people only receiving their first jabs, in a country of more than 100 million. 

Some experts have also raised concerns over possible under-reporting – if not manipulation – of data by authorities. Earlier this week, DOH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire admitted that the reduced number of confirmed cases reflects “low testing output” from accredited laboratories.

Duplications and misreporting of active cases have also added doubts over the reliability of government data, with the reported positivity rate (14.7%) way higher than the WHO’s recommended threshold of 5%. 

“[This] affects all data points such as the positivity rate, or the percentage of positive test results relative to the individuals tested,” a major media Data Analytics Team earlier noted in response to a reduction in test results by the DOH, which has distorted a more accurate assessment of the true numbers on the ground. 

Unproven drugs given okay

In a sign of growing desperation, the Philippines’ FDA has approved the limited use of unproven and controversial Covid-19 treatments, including Remdesivir and Ivermectin, despite warnings by leading health experts about potential side-effects and false senses of safety. 

A relative wearing personal protective equipment attends to a family member with Covid-19 at a makeshift ward in a hospital in Manila on May 6. Photo: AFP/Jam Sta Rosa

“The FDA gives compassionate permits for drugs like Remdesivir … Ivermectin has also been granted a compassionate special permit in several hospitals. These are products that are not registered,” FDA Director-General Eric Domingo told the media.

Hindi sila approved ng (They are not approved by the) FDA, only based on the request of the doctors and hospitals do we allow it to be imported for that particular use,” the top regulator added, leaving the decision to use it ultimately to the doctors. 

By all indications, the Philippines seems determined to push ahead with the relaxation of lockdowns in order to recover from its worst economic recession since 1946. Over the past 15 months, the Philippine economy has shed P2 trillion (US$40 billion), raising concerns over a humanitarian catastrophe amid the raging pandemic. 

Nonetheless, Duterte’s technocrats insist the country is on a good trajectory for a full recovery in the near future. 

“The latest economic performance shows the limits of economic recovery without any major relaxation of our quarantine policy,” Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Karl Chua said this week, as the government contemplated loosening social distancing restrictions. 

“These are improvements that will support our recovery towards our growth trajectory or target of 6.5 to 7.5% (this year),” he added, but admitted that much will depend on how effectively the government will “ramp up [vaccinations] in the middle of the year.”