A woman wears a mask as a precautionary measure against the spread of Covid-19 coronavirus in Manila on March 13, 2020 Photo: AFP/Maria Tan

MANILA – The Philippines registered its highest daily Covid-19 infection cases for a fourth straight day over the weekend, raising concerns of new lockdowns ahead of presidential elections scheduled for May 9.

The country registered 33,169 cases on January 10 as the highly transmissible Omicron variant takes a rising toll across Southeast Asia weeks after the disease set record daily infection rates in the West. The Philippines’ latest daily figure topped the previous record of 26,303 last September, when the Delta variant was the dominant driver of the pandemic.

The number of active cases stood at 157,526 over the weekend, significantly higher than the October record of 106,000 active cases. But with a positivity rate of 43.7%, with one in nearly two suspected patients testing positive for Covid-19, there is fear of a new and especially devastating wave almost two years into the pandemic.

In response, the Rodrigo Duterte administration has placed the National Capital Region (NCR), Cavite, Laguna, Bulacan and Rizal, which collectively account for more than a third of total national economic output, under Alert Level 3 restrictions.

In a national address last week, the Filipino president went so far as to order the arrest of unvaccinated residents for violating stay-at-home orders.

Just months before the presidential elections, concerns are rising that Duterte, who is constitutionally restricted to a single six-year term, could exploit the latest Omicron-driven wave to declare martial law and extend his term in office by suspending polls for health reasons.

After weeks of large gatherings during the holiday season, major Philippine cities have suddenly turned into ghost towns. In Manila and nearby cities, all in-person classes, casinos and contact sports have been suspended while various neighborhoods have come under localized lockdowns amid surging Covid-19 cases.

Beauty salons, fitness gyms, amusement parks, dining areas and various tourist attractions have been forced back into low-capacity operations after just a few months of recovery. After five quarters of recession, the Philippine economy began to show signs of recovery in the final quarters of 2021, with gross domestic product (GDP) expanding 7.1% year on year in the third quarter. 

Shoppers stand apart as social distancing measures amid concerns over the Covid-19 epidemic while queueing outside a supermarket in Manila. Photo: AFP / Maria Tan

“As things stand, we see no reason to change our below-consensus 4.5% GDP growth forecast for 2022, though the arrival of Omicron implies that risks are tilted to the downside,” warned Pantheon Macroeconomics senior Asia economist Miguel Chanco in his weekly monitor this month.

“Another setback can’t be ruled out in the current quarter, either, if Omicron forces households to dip back into their savings, in the same way that Delta did in the third quarter,” the economist warned, highlighting concerns of a potential dip in consumer spending amid new economic uncertainties and prospects of stricter lockdowns.

The UK-based think tank also warned of political risks posed by the potential victory of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, who is now leading in all major surveys, at mid-year elections. It noted that “elections in the Philippines are rarely fought on economic policy” but “they still carry significant event risk.”

“Overall, a healthy recovery in private consumption will be critical for the Philippines this year, as we expect the upcoming presidential election in May to apply temporary, but material, brakes to government spending and investment,” added Chanco, referring to spending restrictions during the election period, which officially kicks off next month.

Eager to avoid further economic decline, the Duterte administration as well as local government leaders have resisted the reimposition of strictest lockdowns under Alert Level 4. Health officials have also tried to downplay the latest surge by maintaining that the new variant is “milder” in its effect despite its increased transmissibility.

“As long as we are able to keep our healthcare workforce healthy and everyone cooperates, we can minimize deaths and hospitalization in four weeks,” said Edsel Salvana, an advisor to the Department of Health (DOH), claiming that relatively high vaccination rates in big cities provide “a fighting chance” against the new variant.

But reports show that major hospitals, including the Philippine General Hospital, the country’s largest state-run health facility, are now nearly at full capacity. The Covid-19 reproduction rate has recently soared to 5.69, way higher than the acceptable level of 1.

DOH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire has reported a doubling every 2.2 days in infection cases, suggesting that the new Omicron variant may be five to six times more transmissible than Delta in the Philippines.

Some public health experts have openly called for circuit-breaking lockdowns to avoid a worst-case scenario of overwhelmed public health facilities

“With the enormous number of people (testing) positive within just a short duration of time… and with hospitals now (seeing higher Covid-19 admissions) and (experiencing) staff shortage, we need a higher alert level than we have now,” said Rontgente Solante, a leading infectious disease expert who has advocated for Alert Level 4 restrictions.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte holding a vial of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine during a ceremony at a military airbase in Manila, shortly after the vaccines arrived from Europe on March 4, 2021. Photo: AFP / King Rodrigues

So far, however, the Philippine president has resorted to his usual antics. “I am now giving orders to the [village chiefs] to look for those persons who are not vaccinated and just request them or order them, if you may, to stay put,” Duterte said in his first major national address this year in which he predictably relied on draconian measures to curb the pandemic.

“And if he refuses and goes out of the house and goes around in the community or maybe everywhere, he can be restrained. If he refuses then the [official] is empowered to arrest the recalcitrant persons,” the Filipino leader added.

The Filipino president’s remarks were immediately criticized by opposition and human rights groups.

“While the 1987 Constitution provides that liberty of movement can be restricted in the interest of national security, public safety or public health, it still requires a law to make the said restriction legal,” Jacqueline de Guia, spokesperson for the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), said in a statement.

The Department of the Interior and Local Government has tried to downplay the issue and clarified that the president’s order was only to be applied as a last resort.

“The president is merely exercising his authority as chief executive under the public health emergency. He was very clear in his directive that an arrest will only be a last resort,” Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said in a statement over the weekend.

But there are growing fears that the authoritarian Duterte, who previously issued a shoot-to-kill order against lockdown violators, will exploit any major surge in cases to postpone the upcoming presidential elections and stay in power beyond his six-year term.

In recent days, rumors of an impending lockdown have intensified over a clip of unidentified women warning people to stock up on basic necessities. Intent on preventing widespread panic, Cabinet Secretary and acting presidential spokesman Karlo Nograles dismissed the clip as “fake news.”

He reassured the public that the government doesn’t intend to impose martial law, which is only constitutionally allowed “in case of invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it.” Even Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had to reassure the public that “there is no compelling reason to declare martial law.”