Typhoon-drenched Philippines prepares to reopen economy from virus

Arianne Merez and Jamaine Punzalan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at May 15 2020 01:23 PM

Residents brave rains and strong wind as they walk past uprooted trees along a highway in Can-avid town, Eastern Samar on May 14, 2020, as Typhoon Ambo makes landfall. Alren Beronio, AFP

MANILA -- Soaked from a powerful typhoon, the Philippines on Friday prepared for the cautious easing of a 2-month-old coronavirus lockdown to revive its shrinking economy and halt job losses that topped the 1-million mark.

Starting Saturday, Metro Manila, which accounts for a third of gross domestic product, will allow select sectors to restart up to 50 percent capacity.

Malacañang said different government agencies are on alert as it appealed for public cooperation ahead of the transition.

"We ask the public, especially those who will be hit by Typhoon Ambo, to remain vigilant and to cooperate with authorities as they implement their disaster preparedness and response to ensure everyone's safety," Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said Friday.

Aside from the capital region, the so-called modified enhanced community quarantine will stay until May 31 in Laguna, home to factories and economic zones, and Cebu City, the Visayas' commercial capital.

In all areas, people will be required to wear face masks, observe physical distancing and bring their quarantine passes with them when running errands.

Public transport is banned in modified ECQ and limited in the rest of the country, which is under a general community quarantine or GCQ. Mall operators agreed to cut free WiFi and lower aircon settings to discourage loitering

In the run-up to the quarantine easing, restaurants also ramped up delivery and takeout services. During the lockdown, consumers relied on motorcycle deliveries for almost everything from fresh produce to medicine.

Dining, gyms, barbershops, salons, and spas are barred in all areas under community quarantine. Outdoor exercises such as running are allowed, but with face masks and physical distancing.

ECONOMY SHRINKS

The Philippines recorded close to 12,000 confirmed coronavirus infections with 790 deaths and 2,337 recoveries as of Thursday. The Department of Health said it would soon release case data in real-time instead of once daily to guide lockdown protocols.

"The easing up of the restrictions, hindi iyan ibig sabihin na wala na ang COVID, just because we allow certain people," President Rodrigo Duterte said in a taped address, aired on May 12.

(The easing of the restrictions, just because we allow certain people outside, it doesn't mean COVID is gone.)

"We cannot afford a second or third wave na mangyari (to happen)," he said. 

The economy shrank by 0.2 percent in the first quarter, the first contraction in 22 years as the lockdown that started on March 17 shut businesses and forced people to stay at home. The government revised its growth forecast for 2020 to a contraction of 2 to 3.4 percent.

The economy lost up to 1.5 million jobs permanently or temporarily because of the pandemic, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said on May 12, as he unveiled a 5-point plan to restart the economy.

NEW NORMAL

Private cars began plying EDSA, the capital's main highway in the lead up to Saturday. While buses and jeeps are banned, companies can shuttle their employees to work.

The MRT, which runs from the north to the south ends of the highway, also began test runs. What appears to be dividers to enforce physical distancing are visible from the ground level.

Metro Manila's busiest train system ferries on average half a million passengers daily.

On entrances to groceries, foot baths and temperature checks have become commonplace. More establishments are now offering cashless and contactless payments.

In supermarket checkout and pharmacy counters, plastic shields separate staff from shoppers.

FIRST OF THE YEAR

Typhoon Ambo (international name: Vongfong) hit land for the sixth time on Friday morning and moved south of the capital, as pandemic protocols complicated the evacuation of tens of thousands.

Ambo earlier made landfall in Eastern Samar, Dalupiri and Capul islands in Northern Samar, and Ticao and Burias islands in Masbate.

Provincial and city governments, many of which are already strapped for resources due to the outbreak, are grappling with logistical and space issues, with an estimated 200,000 people needing evacuation from flood and landslide-prone areas.

The health department requires a one-meter distance between evacuees.

In Albay, shelters accepted only half their capacity while evacuees in churches were asked to sleep one bench apart to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Hundreds of evacuees in neighboring Buhi, Camarines Sur, were given face masks before they were allowed in the evacuation centers.

Camarines Norte also used COVID-19 resources and re-aligned funds from other projects to feed up to 15,000 evacuees, said incident management commander Atty. Don Culvera.

The storm also knocked down power and communication lines in the whole Northern Samar, where some 10,600 people evacuated, said provincial disaster chief Josh Echano. Authorities, he said, had yet to receive reports of any resident killed or missing due to Ambo.