President Rodrigo Duterte has announced a month-long lockdown of the whole of Metro Manila as the Philippines looks to contain the spread of Covid-19, adding that he might call on China to help deal with the outbreak.
Land, domestic air, and domestic sea travel to and from the National Capital Region will be suspended from Sunday to April 14, while mass gatherings have also been banned, according to local media.
In a speech on Thursday night, Duterte also said Chinese President Xi Jinping had written a letter to him to offer assistance.
“If things deteriorate, I may have to call on China to help,” he said. “Maybe we will need your help, President Xi.”
Duterte met Huang Xilian, China’s ambassador to the Philippines, on Wednesday night to discuss the countries’ economic cooperation as well as the challenges caused by the novel coronavirus.
Dr Anthony Leachon, a health reform advocate and former president of the Philippine College of Physicians, had earlier told the South China Morning Post the only way to contain the virus was a lockdown of Metro Manila and its 12.8 million people.
“If we will not avert the epidemic through a lockdown like in Italy, then our private and public hospitals will be swamped with patients and risk the lives of our health care professionals,” he said.
Leachon said it was “unfortunate that the government did not accurately project the need for more test kits. But with lockdown and social distancing we will be able to contain the epidemic.”
He estimated that since the local outbreak started only a few weeks ago, “it is likely this won’t go away in the next two to three months based on the China experience” and warned that the outbreak “will get worse before it gets better after a few months”.
Duterte’s announcement comes as at least 15 Philippine officials and lawmakers scramble to get tested for the novel coronavirus or embark on home quarantine.
The Philippines has 52 confirmed cases and has reported five deaths from the virus. Duterte, who at 74 is in a vulnerable age group for the virus and has health issues, underwent testing because he has been in regular contact with some of those officials.
“President Duterte and I will undergo testing for Covid-19. We are not doing this because we have symptoms [but] to ensure that we are fit and healthy to engage the public and perform our duties in the coming days and weeks,” said Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, Duterte’s former chief aide, in a Facebook post on Thursday.
“Considering that some cabinet members we engage with regularly have been exposed to individuals who tested positive for Covid-19 and have decided to undergo self-quarantine, it is just prudent for us to take precautionary measures in compliance with the advice of our health officials.”
Go added that he would not be quarantining himself, and told reporters the result of the test on Duterte was expected in 48 hours.
Soon after the announcement Duterte would be checked, trading in Manila’s stock market was halted for only the second time ever as it plunged 10 per cent in the latest rout to hit global equities over the virus.
The Philippine Stock Exchange reopened 15 minutes later and ended 9.71 per cent lower at 5,736.27, its lowest level in more than six years.
Philippine central bank governor Benjamin Diokno, finance secretary Carlos Dominguez, public works secretary Mark Villar and transport secretary Arthur Tugade on Thursday said they would be going into quarantine after meeting with an infected person at an inspection of the North Luzon Expressway (NLEX) Harbor Link Circumferential Road 3 on March 5, an event Duterte also attended.
Besides Go, also present were economic planning secretary Ernesto Pernia, Duterte’s executive secretary Salvador Medialdea, Bases Conversion Development Authority chief executive Vince Dizon and local government officials. None of the officials has exhibited any symptoms.
Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said that some finance officials who had been with Dominguez later held a news conference at a presidential palace briefing room. The press area was later disinfected, along with a media working area and presidential conference halls.
“Some members of the Malacañang [palace] press corps who covered the economic briefing also deemed it best to undergo self-quarantine,” Andanar said.
Separately, a resource person who attended a senate hearing of the committee on basic education, also on March 5, later tested positive for the coronavirus and is now in critical condition. His wife, from whom he contracted the infection, died on Wednesday.
Senators Sherwin Gatchalian, Nancy Binay, Panfilo Lacson, Imee Marcos and Joel Villanueva were also present at the event and have since isolated themselves.
Duterte’s daughter Sara – the mayor of Davao City – on Thursday announced that she too would go into quarantine as she had lunch with Gatchalian on Wednesday, and that while she had no symptoms a member of her staff had since become ill.
The president’s elite guards announced early this week that they would enforce a “no-touch policy” for Duterte to protect him from the virus and screen politicians and dignitaries who get near him. But Duterte played down the restrictions and suggested he was not intimidated by the disease.
“That protocol is foolish. I will shake hands,” he said. “If God calls me now, I’ll go. I’m done. I’m the president now, the highest post anybody could reach.”
The Philippines, which has a population of more than 100 million, had only 2,000 novel coronavirus test kits available earlier this week as the number of people who sought a diagnosis surged, assistant health secretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said on Monday.
Health secretary Francisco Duque said that persons could only be tested if they had travelled to a place with a local outbreak or if they had come physically close to an infected person.
“Will we test 104 million Filipinos? That doesn’t seem to be the correct approach,” he said on Tuesday.
The health department said 2,000 more test kits from the World Health Organisation would arrive this week.
The Philippine Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday approved a test kit developed by the Philippine Genome Centre at the University of the Philippines, which can be made more cheaply and provide results faster than imported kits. The first 1,000 locally made kits are expected to be deployed on Friday, according to Philippine media.
Due to the lack of testing kits, a 26-year-old man was initially misdiagnosed as having dengue before a second test on Thursday showed that he had been infected with the coronavirus.
“But because the hospital had no more beds, he was sent home. It was only later that a team from the health department picked him up to bring him to another hospital for confinement,” said Quezon City mayor Joy Belmonte, who worried that other members of the man’s family had also been infected because his three other siblings were also coughing.
Belmonte said “hospitals not just in Quezon City are getting filled up” because there were many persons under investigation for the virus.
So often people are working hard at the wrong thing. Working on the right thing is probably more important than working hard.