Philippines Starts to Get Act Together on Covid

Draconian policies, corruption, mismanagement finally somewhat behind them

After 20 months during which President Rodrigo Duterte’s main weapon against the Covid-19 coronavirus was to threaten to jail anybody who went outside, the Philippines seems to be getting its act together.

Southeast Asia as a whole has begun to emerge from the worst effects of the pandemic, with new cases in the Philippines down by 33 percent over the past week, 28 percent in Myanmar, 25 percent in Cambodia, 18 percent in Singapore, and 6 percent in Thailand, with Indonesia’s cases basically flat.

Vaccinations in the Philippines have finally begun increasing sharply after botched efforts and the usual continuing scandal, with the independent Commission on Audit alleging in September that up to PHP 67.32 billion (US$1.33 billion) of Covid-19 management and relief funds were either misspent, unspent or underutilized, including at the Department of Health, headed by a crony, Francisco Duque III, whom Duterte refused to fire. While scandal, mismanagement and a botched approach to the pandemic have cost Duterte politically, he remains relatively popular.

A three-day effort is scheduled to start on November 27 to jab 5 million arms – a goal, according to one country risk analyst, that seems unrealistic. Nonetheless, the public health sector is reacting vigorously to the pandemic. On one recent day, health personnel vaccinated more than 1.1 million people.

“Fifteen million in three days lacks credibility in my opinion,” the analyst said. “But regardless, the vaccination numbers have gone up fast. Even if they just stay at the current rate, the Philippines will hit 70 percent by February, and 85 by March assuming vaccine hesitancy improves. But vaccine hesitancy HAS improved. Both OCTA and SWS are reporting about 64 percent of the population is willing to get vaccinated. It's all good news right now. Everything is going well right now in terms of vaccination.” 

Landing in the Philippines from overseas sends passengers through a relatively efficient, if somewhat cumbersome, process that ends up in five days of quarantine at a government-designated hotel followed by another five days at home, with mandatory QR coding for all passengers. Authorities are now debating opening to tourism.

Malls are filled with vaccination stations, with scores of people lined up willingly on stack chairs, an indication that vaccination reluctance has waned to some extent from 2017, when health officials inoculated 700,000 people with the Dengvaxia vaccine against Dengue fever only to learn that the shot posed a risk to individuals vaccinated without having a prior dengue infection. Some 600 children died after receiving the vaccine although it is uncertain how many of the deaths were attributable to the shots.

It has been a long slog since the coronavirus landed in the Philippines. The country has endured the world’s longest lockdown, beginning on March 12, 2020, with Duterte a few weeks later in April announcing the military would kill quarantine violators on the spot if found. While there is no record that has actually happened, police early on occasionally manhandled people who dared go outside. various alerts have kept people inside, especially with the onset of the Delta variation of the virus while the economy has nosedived. Duterte has also threatened to have any anti-vaxxers arrested

Today, those under 15 and over 65 are still not allowed in malls and various regulations remain in place. Early on, asked about the schools, Duterte’s response was “let them play.” The impact on the nation’s children and young has been severe.

With Venezuela now having sent its students back to school, the Philippines is the only country in the world whose schools are closed, although openings are finally being phased in.

“In 2020, schools globally were fully closed for an average of 79 teaching days, while the Philippines has been closed for more than a year, forcing students to enroll in distance learning modalities,” said UNICEF Philippines Representative Oyunsaikhan Dendevnorov in a public statement. “The associated consequences of school closures – learning loss, mental distress, missed vaccinations, and heightened risk of drop out, child labor and child marriage – will be felt by many children, especially the youngest learners in critical development stages.”

So far, more than 2.8 million of the country’s 109 million citizens have contracted the coronavirus, and more than 47,200 have died from it, according to the World Health Organization. Cases peaked at more than 20,000 in September with daily deaths topping out at 423 in October. Daily infections have fallen to about 1,100, with deaths now at about 190.

But the economic toll from the lockdown and empty schools has been high. Fitch Ratings last week said the country’s credit rating may be downgraded if the debt-to-GDP ratio fails to improve in the medium term, especially as finances in the rest of the Asia Pacific continue to improve.

Prior to the onset of the coronavirus, economic growth had been robust for nearly a decade, with GDP increasing by a 6.4 percent annual average from 2010 through 2019, according to the World Bank, with poverty declining from 23.3 percent in 2015 to 16.6 percent in 2018 while the Gini coefficient declined from 44.9 to 42.7 over the same period.

The pandemic and the lockdown put paid to that, according to the World Bank, with growth contracting significantly in 2020, “driven by heavy declines in consumption and investment growth, and exacerbated by the sharp slowdown in exports, tourism, and remittances.”

Similarly, the previous trend in real wages—particularly those from the lower income groups—has been severely hampered by the impact of the COVID-19, with negative consequences also for poverty reduction in the Philippines, the bank said.

The International Monetary Fund, in its World Economic Outlook published in September, projected 3.2 percent annual growth for 2021, sharply down from its June forecast of 5.4 percent, itself a downgrade from the initial 6.9 percent. The IMF said it expects slower growth next year at 6.3 percent, down from an earlier forecast at 7 percent.

“The downward revision for 2021 reflects a downgrade for advanced economies—in part due to supply disruptions—and for low-income developing countries, largely due to worsening pandemic dynamics,” the IMF said.

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