Panic buying has broken out among wealthy and middle-income residents in Metro Manila, some of whom have fled for the countryside, as the number of coronavirus cases in the Philippines rose to 49.
Health secretary Francisco Duque told lawmakers that “the rise of a local transmission is a big possibility”, which would trigger a lockdown.
The Department of Health on Wednesday confirmed the death of a 67-year-old Filipino woman with no history of travel abroad or exposure to a known case. She was the first Filipino to die from the disease, although a Chinese traveller, one of the country’s earliest cases, died previously.
The government also confirmed 16 new infections without elaborating on the cases, although assistant health secretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said one of the patients – an 82-year-old Filipino woman – “remained intubated”.
She is the wife of an 86-year-old American man who recently travelled to the United States and South Korea. He tested positive for the virus on March 8 and remains in critical condition.
In addition, the man spread the illness to three other people, including two 69-year-old relatives, according to Marcelino Teodoro, the mayor of Marikina City, an area northeast of Manila that is home to almost half a million residents.
There are five coronavirus infections in the city, all in one family.
Mayors of the 17 cities in Metro Manila, which has a total population of 12.8 million, have been separately announcing cases, at times resulting in data inconsistent with that released by the health department.
For instance, Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte said a 27-year-old doctor who had treated an infected patient later tested positive himself, but the health department did not mention this case. This is likely because health department officials list patients based on the hospitals they are admitted to, while local governments confirm patients according to their residential addresses.
The sudden rise in infections this past week prompted the health department on Saturday to raise the health alert level to “Code Red Sublevel 1” – the step before a community quarantine or lockdown is imposed. President Rodrigo Duterte also signed a proclamation declaring a “state of public health emergency” throughout the country.
Earlier this week, Duterte gave a rambling and at times incoherent press conference on the coronavirus. In the nearly hour-long forum, he attempted to reassure residents, saying that every epoch in human history had experienced epidemics, including the bubonic plague and Spanish flu.
Wearing a portable air purifier, the president said it was not yet time to impose lockdowns because “we have not reached that kind of contamination”, but that he would consider taking such action “if fatalities reach 20,000 or 5,000 in one place”.
“For sure, I will lock down … with heavy chains,” said the 74-year-old leader.
Duterte added that he would fly to the resort island of Boracay on Thursday to attend an event planned by the Department of Tourism to drum up local travel as well as to hand out land titles to the natives living there.
He also said he would defy the “no-touch” policy issued by his Presidential Security Group (PSG) which dictates that crowds should stay 10 metres (33 feet) away from him and avoid shaking his hands.
“No, I will not decline invitations,” he told reporters. “I will shake hands with everybody.”
Far from calming residents, Duterte’s speech seemed to have the opposite effect, with supermarkets in Manila unusually packed with people hours after he had spoken. The shoppers emptied shelves of cleaning supplies, toilet paper, noodles, canned goods, bottled water and even beer.
One customer, who declined to be named, said she decided to join the wave of panic buyers because “the government is not consistent with its messaging”.
Dr Anthony Leachon, a health reform advocate, criticised Duterte’s speech. “He sows confusion when he speaks. As a leader, it’s his job to practise the behaviour he wants others to follow.”
In a local television broadcast, a passenger on a bus bound for the provinces said she was so scared of contracting the coronavirus that she decided to return to her hometown.
In response to the panic buying, the health department on Wednesday said in a statement that it was “not instructing people to stock up on ready-to-eat food due to an alleged imminent lockdown in Metro Manila”.
Meanwhile, with stores running out of supplies, not many people in the area have been able to get their hands on protective face masks.
The health department has advised residents that instead of relying on masks, they should practise “social distancing”, and it promised to come up with guidelines.
One taxi driver in the capital said he had devised his own mask by cutting up his wife’s bra. “It smells nice and it always makes me think of my wife,” he said.
Asked if this would ward off the virus, infectious disease doctor Edsel Salvana said there was “no evidence that it will help”.