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Despite imposing the longest, strictest lockdown in Southeast Asia, coronavirus cases in the Philippines have now surged to almost 120,000, eclipsing Indonesia to become the region’s biggest outbreak.

The country re-imposed this week a second lockdown on Manila and nearby areas to curb infection spread, even as the economy suffered its deepest contraction on record, shrinking 16.5 percent in the second quarter from a year ago.

It’s yet another example of how the premature easing of restrictions has given the virus an opening to come back even stronger, illustrated by the new waves of infection now sweeping countries in Asia and parts of Europe. In the Philippines, the virus’s resurgence was fueled by testing gaffes and failures in quarantine protocol in the face of over 100,000 overseas workers arriving back home after losing their jobs in other countries.

After enduring a strict lockdown from mid-March to the end of May, the Philippines re-opened its capital although new cases were still growing by up to a thousand every day. As people returned to offices and families gathered again, infections surged 500 percent in over two months of easing before the government re-imposed a lockdown this week.

The Philippines reported 3,561 new infections on Thursday to take its total to 119,460, past Indonesia’s 118,753. The rising number of cases is partly due to its heightened surveillance and increased testing, which is now the highest in Southeast Asia, the Department of Health said in a statement. The Philippines has tested 1.5 percent of its population compared to Indonesia’s 0.34 percent, it said.

President Rodrigo Duterte’s government loosened restrictions too soon, without ensuring that local officials could trace and treat infections, said Anthony Leachon, an internist at the Manila Doctors Hospital. Problems with hospitals’ capacity to accept patients were also recognized too late, he said.

“When we realized it, the cases were too enormous for us to control and at a time when we are short on budget,” said Leachon, a former adviser in the government’s coronavirus task force.

A protracted battle against the virus will deal another blow to the Philippine economy. Record-high unemployment and a steep decline in money sent home by Filipinos as they’ve lost jobs abroad have weighed on private consumption, which drives roughly two-thirds of GDP. Fitch Solutions Inc. drastically cut its outlook for the Philippines on Friday as a second lockdown likely delays recovery. It sees a 9.1 percent contraction this year from the previous estimate of a 2 percent decline.

Health workers in protective suits transport a corpse at a hospital in Manila on Thursday. | AP
Health workers in protective suits transport a corpse at a hospital in Manila on Thursday. | AP

The nation’s virus containment efforts were complicated by a deluge of returning overseas workers who had become unemployed due to the pandemic, failures in testing and a lack of qualified health care professionals.

Officials used rapid test kits, mostly manufactured in China, that promised to deliver results in minutes in an attempt to process the returning overseas workers quickly, but the kits delivered a high proportion of false negatives — allowing infected workers to return home to their families, unwittingly spreading the virus.

“The over-reliance on rapid testing, which we know can miss about a third of COVID-positive patients, may have let some asymptomatic carriers through,” said Edsel Salvana, an infectious disease expert from the National Institutes of Health at the University of the Philippines Manila. “Though the 14-day quarantine was still in place for incoming travelers, enforcement was variable.”

The Health Department will no longer use rapid test kits, and the new lockdown will give officials time to trace and treat all clusters of infections through house-to-house checks, said Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire on Wednesday. A University of the Philippines study based on government infection data estimated that tighter curbs could prevent up to 70,000 new cases.

But there’s growing evidence from other countries fighting resurgences, like Australia, that second lockdowns are not delivering results due to people tired of social distancing and unable to endure the further economic hit. In the Philippines, the military and the police have been deployed at checkpoints to enforce movement restrictions.

Government workers in hazmat suits sell fresh produce amid the reimposed lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus in Navotas, Metro Manila. President Rodrigo Duterte’s government loosened restrictions too soon, without ensuring that local officials could trace and treat infections, said Anthony Leachon, an internist at the Manila Doctors Hospital. | REUTERS
Government workers in hazmat suits sell fresh produce amid the reimposed lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus in Navotas, Metro Manila. President Rodrigo Duterte’s government loosened restrictions too soon, without ensuring that local officials could trace and treat infections, said Anthony Leachon, an internist at the Manila Doctors Hospital. | REUTERS

Still, Duterte’s government is projecting confidence about the outbreak, emphasizing that the health care system will be now reinforced by the thousands of nurses and doctors returning home who had previously held medical jobs overseas. The tendency for medical workers to go abroad due to poor conditions and bad pay at home had left the local hospital infrastructure quickly overwhelmed by the pandemic.

The government is seeking to immediately hire 10,000 additional health workers, including those who’ve just returned home, with improved benefits like hazard pay, free life insurance and lodging, Vergeire said.

“While cases are rising, we are confident they can be contained effectively and efficiently during this time,” she said at a virtual briefing Wednesday, adding that the country now has more testing capacity, hospital beds and isolation facilities.

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