Temporarily-Free Filipinos Storm Malls, Told to Go Home

Provincial governor shuts down his state over lack of physical discipline

With hordes of shopping-starved Filipinos storming malls after two months of arguably Asia’s severest lockdown, at least one governor ordered all the malls in his province closed again just two days after they reopened. Presidential spokesman Harry Roque followed that up today (May 18) with a threat to return to the lockdown in the six provinces where rules had been relaxed. 

Jonvic Remulla, the governor of Cavite, a populous province just south of the 21 million population Manila conurbation, said the malls had failed to ensure physical distancing after President Rodrigo Duterte had ordered a cautious nationwide easing of community quarantine restrictions last week. Cebu City, on the island of Cebu, and Mandaue City, both of which faced severe outbreaks, opted to remain under restrictive lockdown even as other areas were allowed to stay under enhanced quarantine. There have been severe outbreaks in several jails.

Duterte ordered the nationwide lockdown on March 14 as the Philippines came under attack from the coronavirus, which escaped from the city of Wuhan in China and began to spread across the world. Thousands of mainland Chinese – many of them illegal -- work in the Philippines’ POGOS, or Philippine online gaming organizations.  As of May 18, the country had suffered 12,513 total coronavirus cases, with 824 deaths, the second highest in the region after Indonesia. With a substandard health system and a lack of testing and tracing capability, the strict quarantine was arguably the country’s only weapon against the virus.

Roque, in a May 11 briefing for the press, told reporters the lockdown was crippling the economy and that relaxation was necessary. “Government resources are limited, so we have to generate resources for the long-term fight against Covid,” he said. “In the future, if without economic interventions, the result would be more harmful than the effects of the virus.”

As expected in a country where public services are inefficient at best, the government has come under criticism for slow and spotty delivery of food and relief funds of PHP6,000 per person.  Under what was known as an enhanced community quarantine, only one person per household has been allowed to go out for essential errands. The rules were so strictly enforced that Human Rights Watch and other rights organizations complained of unnecessary repression and brutality on the part of local officials.

So far, the lockdown appears to have done its job. Although statistics are questionable at best, the country has plateaued at 200 to 300 new cases daily for several weeks. Testing has risen to only 1,866 per million population, far behind projections. However, as testing has continued to rise, the numbers of new infections have remained steady, an indication that the trend remains subdued.

After early reports of widespread infections of frontline workers and concerns about capacity, hospital space so far hasn’t been breached and there are no indications of distressing spikes. All five major hospitals in the Metro Manila area report spare capacity in intensive care units – for now, barring a further outbreak.  

But when authorities opened up what was called a general community quarantine last Saturday, Filipinos stormed the malls. Many malls succeeded in controlling the crowds, forcing people to line up for entry while observing social distancing, with security guards checking temperatures and dousing hands with disinfectant. But in too many, the crowds got out of hand, forcing Remulia to close them again. He told reporters the province, with 4 million residents, had recorded 36 new cases between May 13 and May 17.

Certainly, the lack of discipline has caused concern, with many complaining that the two months of grueling quarantine, with liquor sales suspended, are wasted if widespread breaches of discipline continue.

“It was supposed to be that people must follow the guidelines, but it’s difficult in the actual scenes,” said architect Rolito Ramos, who dared the crowds and came away furious. “People are not observing social distancing. It’s really scary. Now that more shops are open, I think locals must focus on strict compliance of the passes and barangays (community) should schedule to minimize the crowds.”

As with much of the rest of the world, the Philippines faces an unappetizing dilemma. The rating agency Fitch forecast earlier this month that the country’s economy is expected to shrink by 2 percent, echoing a similar figure by the Asian Development Bank, after years starting in 2011 in which the economy chugged along at 6 percent-plus, among the best performances in Asia. 

Inward remittances, which make up 10 percent of Philippine GDP and bring in US$34 billion annually, could fall by 20 percent, according to economists at Ateneo University quoted by the South China Morning Post. After having sat in quarantine in ports across the world for months, an estimated half of the 100,000-odd Filipinos aboard 250 cruise ships won’t be able to return to work in 2020 and the future of cruising after that remains in doubt.

Other components of GDP are suffering variable levels of damage. Business process offshoring, along with inward remittances described as one of the two pillars of the economy, employs 1.3 million workers and contributes 9 percent to GDP with multipliers. The BPO companies were allowed to continue operations using skeleton workforces, maintaining social distancing and providing staff with either temporary housing or shuttle service. Many are working at home. Given the importance of offshoring to western companies, the industry has suffered little damage.  

Duterte, who has been exhibiting authoritarian tendencies since he was elected in 2016, has doubled down in several areas by engineering the passage of the “Bayanihan to Heal As One Act” which Human Rights Watch has complained is being misused against critics who have been charged with sedition including activists trying to distribute food aid. They were charged with incitement to commit sedition after newspapers and magazines with anti-government content were discovered in their car. One was a former opposition congressman. Duterte’s suggestion that police shoot quarantine violators has drawn international criticism.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace accused Duterte of following “his typical playbook of adopting strongman tactics to confront political challenges. He authorized “shoot to kill” orders for quarantine violators and has reportedly rounded up over 17,000 individuals for curfew-related infractions. Popular frustration with his leadership has boiled over on social media with #OustDuterteNow trending globally with almost 500,000 tweets.”

Nonetheless, the president remains relatively popular even despite a decision by an ally, Jose Calido, to force the cancellation of the franchise country’s biggest broadcast network, ABS-CBN, which Duterte had vowed to wipe out. Congress has since extended ABS-CBN’s franchise for another five months, to November.

How long the country can go on under severe lockdown is uncertain So far, Filipinos have remained remarkably docile, with few incidents. People who are stopped at checkpoints meekly turn around and go back. One major incident in Quezon City, in which dozens of residents rioted over lack of foodstuffs, ended with arrests of people who were then forced to sit in the sun for several hours. Barangay officials seem to have done a mostly creditable job of getting rice and other provisions to residents.

“Many of you will get mad at me,” Remulla said as he shut down the malls again. “I’d rather that you hate me but you’re Covid-free, than having you like while more people get infected.”