The Philippines has once again eased movement restrictions in a bid to boost economic activity amid its worst recession since World War 2. But is it the right move?
The COVID-19 spike in April 2021 was the worst to date for the Philippines, and it came after similar moves to ease movement restrictions toward the end of 2020. The ramped up COVID-19 vaccination program has been cited as justification for the easing of quarantine restrictions alongside another dip in infections. Are these enough?
Data from the Department of Health showed 1.2 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with nearly 4 million having received their first doses as of May 30th. The data showed the pace of inoculation at over 144,000 a day over the last 7 days. At that pace, it would take 2.6 years to vaccinate 70 million people. That means herd immunity will only be achieved by December 2023.
The DOH chart also showed vaccination was ramped up in May, before it slowed on the final week of the month. To vaccinate the target of 70 million individuals by the end of 2021, the government must vaccinate more than 600,000 individuals per day.
If the goal is revised to 58 million for 2021, the pace of vaccination should be over 500,000 per day. For each day the daily vaccination average is below these thresholds, this adds to the number of vaccinations needed daily to hit the year-end goal.
Government data on distribution of vaccines by priority showed 671,422 health workers in the A1 category have been fully vaccinated or have received both doses. The second highest priority group, the A2 or senior citizens, have only 245,244 fully inoculated individuals. Among those under the A3, or individuals with comorbidities, 286,670 have been fully vaccinated.
The vaccination of health workers has so far covered nearly 94 percent of the target population in terms of first doses. Only about 14 percent of the target population of senior citizens, however, have been inoculated with their first dose.
This was outpaced by individuals with comorbidities, with 23 percent of that target population having already received their first doses.
These data showed the pace of vaccination has lagged behind the required levels to hit the government's own targets. The data also showed the vaccination effort hasn’t necessarily followed the priority structure of government, with senior citizens lagging behind individuals with comorbidities.
Another important data set to consider would be COVID-19 deaths. This has remained high, even after the surge in cases finally fizzled. The death toll breached 21,000 on June 1st, just one week after it exceeded the 20,000 mark.
Confirmed COVID-19 cases have also decreased, but it ended last month on an uptrend. The Department of Health reported more than 655,000 cases from March to May, more than half the running total of the Philippines. April and May’s combined total of 485,000 is also higher than 2020’s full-year total of about 472,000.
The distribution of cases has widened, with more confirmed COVID-19 cases coming from areas outside the National Capital Region, for long the virus hotspot. This would help justify the easing of lockdown conditions in the economic heart of the Philippines. However, the data still showed a slight uptick in cases in Metro Manila toward the end of May.
The positivity rate of the Philippines has fallen from the 25.2 percent peak of 2021, but it has now plateaued at 12 to 13 percent. The World Health Organization’s benchmark for easing mobility restrictions is at 5 percent.
Regional data showed NCR is closer to the 5 percent benchmark at 9.3 percent in the last two weeks of May. But that is still double the preferred level. Only Region 7 had a positivity rate below 5 percent. Every other region’s positivity rate was above it.
The most concerning is Region 4-B or MIMAROPA, which had a positivity rate of 51.5 percent. That means half of all individuals tested were positive for COVID-19. That, however, is also related to a lack of testing in the region.
Region 2 or Cagayan Valley had the second worst positivity rate at 35.9 percent in the last two weeks of May. Cases in Region 2 also saw a 133-percent increase in the last week of May, compared to the previous week. It is the only region that saw a growth rate of over 100 percent.
Testing numbers also showed a steady decline from the 2021 peak of 67,563 tests in a day. Tests averaged 54,254 a day in April, and 50,024 a day in May. Testing done right can improve the government’s view of conditions on the ground, and aid in better informed decisions on quarantine conditions.
The decision to ease quarantine conditions in NCR this June has already been made and the Department of Trade and Industry has released guidelines for more businesses to open, and for others to accept more customers. The vaccination rate is expected to rise sharply this month and the next, as more vaccine doses procured by the government and the private sector finally arrive.
The result of the easing of lockdown conditions will come out in the data two weeks from now.