Duterte's virus defense faces test as Philippines lockdown eases

Arianne Merez, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 01 2020 06:08 AM

President takes 'biggest gamble' with shift to general quarantine

Duterte's virus defense faces test as Philippines lockdown eases 1
President Rodrigo Roa Duterte updates the nation on the government's efforts in addressing the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the Malago Clubhouse in Malacañang on May 28, 2020. Ace Morandante, Presidential Photo

MANILA -- Wearing face masks, millions in the Philippine capital will emerge from one of the world's longest virus lockdowns on Monday in a test of how well President Rodrigo Duterte built the country's pandemic response.

For the first time in over 2 months, train, taxi, ride-share cars and some buses will resume operations and office work in some sectors will return under a new normal that requires minimum to no physical contact.

The enhanced community quarantine or ECQ shut the capital region that accounts for a third of gross domestic product, causing the economy to shrink for the first time in 22 years. Some 22 million jobs were lost temporarily or permanently, officials said.

"This is his biggest gamble yet because whatever happens, it's on him," University of Santo Tomas Political Science Professor Dennis Coronacion told ABS-CBN News.

The 75-year-old leader eased restrictions despite logging the biggest number of daily cases last week, which was due to the resolution of testing backlogs.

"Lahat na ito po ay ginagawa namin (We are doing all of this), believe me, because the interest of the nation calls for it, demands for it actually," Duterte said in his public address prior to the shift from modified ECQ to general community quarantine or GCQ.

Nearly all sectors, except for entertainment and leisure, are allowed to operate in GCQ areas. The GCQ is a step above the "new normal," with only minimum health standards required.

Duterte's virus defense faces test as Philippines lockdown eases 2
A reminder of safety precautions is posted outside a branch of a clothing brand at SM Mall of Asia, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Pasay City on May 27, 2020. Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

Duterte is betting on his COVID-19 policies to strike a balance between public health and the economy, Coronacion said.

Community quarantines that started as early as March 15 in Metro Manila bought Duterte nearly 80 days to put up a lockdown system—ranging from the strictest ECQ to a modified GCQ.

It also bought time for his lieutenants to draft an economic recovery plan and boost the country's COVID-19 testing capabilities with "mega" swabbing or sample collection centers and massive quarantine facilities.

The lockdown easing risks spawning "chaos" if the virus safeguards prove inadequate, said University of the Philippines political analyst Jean Encinas-Franco.

She said poor healthcare and social infrastructure "should have already warned the administration from the very beginning" that the pandemic will deal the Philippines a "much harder" blow compared to other nations.

"This would very much affect the public's confidence in him mainly because if you think about it, the people who will most likely be affected by the GCQ are the working population, and the small and medium-scale industries,” she told ABS-CBN News.

“I guess the length is a factor of the fact that we are not prepared,” she said, referring to the lockdown.


Duterte's virus defense faces test as Philippines lockdown eases 3
Jeepney drivers plying the Sangandaan-Divisoria route solicit donations from passing motorists along Mabini Street in Caloocan City on May 25, 2020, as jeepneys remain prohibited on the road amid continuing COVID-19 restrictions. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Since the beginning of the lockdowns on March 15, the President has made it a point to make late-night public addresses that deal with a variety of topics.

From the government's response to the pandemic, to martial law, and even attacks by communist rebels, Duterte kept the public glued to their screens late at night.

Duterte failed in terms of communicating the government's handling of the crisis to Filipinos, analysts said.

"Most of his statements were vague and do not generate confidence…In fact, at times, combative pa ang words na kaniyang ginagamit," Coronacion said.

(In fact, at times, he even uses combative words.)

Encinas-Franco said the President's public addresses "do not invite trust" but rather leaves more Filipinos on the edge about the pandemic.

The pandemic "will definitely affect the way the public sees him as a leader and his rhetoric is not also very inspiring, and does not invite trust," she said.


Duterte's virus defense faces test as Philippines lockdown eases 4
People visit SM North in Quezon City on May 27, 2020. Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

The easing of restrictions came as confirmed COVID-19 cases surpassed the 17,000-mark. 

Other areas that will transition to a more relaxed GCQ are Pangasinan province, Cagayan Valley, Central Luzon, Central Visayas, Davao City, and Zamboanga City.

The rest of the country will shift to a modified GCQ, the transition point to the "new normal."

Officials earlier said progress was made on handling the crisis, touting a low mortality rate, and improving critical care capacity.

Ahead of the easing of restrictions, Duterte reminded the public that the government was continuously working to "prevent a mass contagion" and is fighting for the "survival" of the Philippines.

"Remember that the nation is still, the entire nation is still under quarantine," he said in his public address last week.

Whether Duterte took the right steps to respond to the crisis remains to be seen, analysts said.

"It’s going to be ‘wait-and-see.’ We’ll find out once we have a second wave, if there will be another spike in COVID-19 cases that are new ones, and not due to backlogs," Encinas-Franco said.

"Whether or not it is the best move, we'll find out later," Coronacion said.