MANILA - The Philippine government’s lockdown is about to turn a year old, yet COVID-19 is still present, and it is killing Filipinos at its fastest rate in 7 months. Is it now time to consider easing lockdown measures? Is the Philippines once again losing its fight against the pandemic?
The Philippine Government’s Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) has endorsed the loosening of all quarantine measures across the Philippines to the Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ) level, the lightest form of lockdown.
Usually conservative local government units, specifically the Metro Manila mayors of the National Capital Region, have also agreed to the move. This is the same group of mayors who spent months blocking orders from the IATF to ease movement restrictions.
Businesses have also endorsed the move, saying Filipinos are smart enough to stay safe and keep the virus at bay, even in a more open environment. They say the community is ready, especially after collectively experiencing 2020, and it is time to pay more attention to reviving the economy. The decision is now up to President Rodrigo Duterte.
What do the numbers say?
The ABS-CBN Data Analytics Team broke them down for you.
This is by far the most alarming statistic. The chart shows the Philippine case fatality rate, or the percentage of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Philippines that results in death. It is at its highest level in seven months. That means COVID-19 deaths are growing faster than confirmed cases. It means the disease is killing Filipinos at a faster rate. This is happening in spite of all the experience and knowledge the Philippine government and healthcare system accumulated over the last year.
This chart looks at the data used to compute the case fatality rate. The daily reporting of confirmed COVID-19 deaths remains inconsistent. From February 14 to 16, daily deaths reported were in single digits. Then 239 deaths were reported on February 20th. That was the second highest total reported by the Philippine Health Department in a single day.
Two hundred twenty of those deaths happened just this 2021, which means these are no longer late reported deaths. Nearly 70 percent of the day’s tally were initially called recoveries by local government units and disease reporting units.
The inconsistency can be viewed in two ways. It can mean the current fatality rate is overstated, meaning there is nothing to be worried about. It could also mean that the fatality rate is understated, meaning things are much worse. What is certain is the inconsistency in reporting is blinding the government and the public to the true state of conditions on the ground.
This has been a persistent problem with government data, and it is rooted in several issues in data collection and even connectivity and digital literacy in the Philippine healthcare system and Philippine government.
There is also a third, worse consideration. The data is inconsistent and incomplete because not everyone gets proper hospital care.
Out of the 12,088 total COVID-19 deaths in the Philippines as of yesterday (February 21), DOH data show that only 4,569 were admitted to a hospital.
This chart shows confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Philippines. If this number was down, it would have contributed to the elevated fatality rate. It hasn’t gone down, but it has plateaued for more than a month now. This is in contrast with the global trend, with most countries seeing a significant decline in their cases.
The daily positivity rate of the Philippines is shown here. It is a percentage of positive individuals against total individuals tested. For the Philippines, the positivity rate was at 5.9 percent for the last 14 days.
The World Health Organization recommends a positivity rate of 5.0 percent or lower for at least 14 days before reopening or easing mobility restrictions. This chart shows the Philippines has not hit a daily positivity rate of 5.0 percent or below for two straight weeks in recent months. From February 17 to 20, the positivity rate was above 6.0 percent daily. The last time this happened for four straight days was in November 2020.
The regional testing data of DOH are limited because COVID-19 tests are tagged based on the location of the testing laboratory, not the residence or origin of the patients. The data however are still useful, and the numbers paint a more alarming picture compared to the national data.
This chart shows positivity rates in three regions have been above 10 percent over the last two weeks. Region 7, the biggest regional economy in the Philippines outside Luzon, was problematic as early as January (its positivity rate was 7.0 percent in the last two weeks of January). Now the 14-day positivity rate of Central Visayas has nearly doubled.
The National Capital Region meanwhile has done well, with a 4.5 percent positivity rate in the same period, still below the WHO benchmark. But that is nearly one percentage point higher compared to the last two weeks of January. Worse, the daily positivity rate for Metro Manila on February 19 and 20 were both above 5.0 percent, marking the first time the rate in NCR breached the WHO benchmark this 2021.
Going back to Region 7, the number of cases there, by date of onset of illness, has already exceeded the July 2020 peak when Cebu City was placed under the highest quarantine level, Enhanced Community Quarantine or ECQ. This chart prepared by the DOH shows Central Visayas’ 7-day moving average is still rising.
Taking a closer look at confirmed cases in the NCR, the DOH reported 618 from Metro Manila on February 21. That is the fourth straight day of more than 500 cases reported from NCR, and the highest single day total since mid-December.
Are hospitals being overwhelmed with the number of cases again rising? The data say no. Most of the regions in the Philippines are in the DOH determined safe zone, meaning less than 60 percent of Intensive Care Unit beds allocated for COVID-19 are occupied. However, the data show an increase in occupancy in Region 7, which is now at 51 percent as of February 20.
The last time Central Visayas had an occupancy rate this high was in July 2020, when officials decided to place Cebu City under ECQ. Other regions with high occupancy rates include Region 11 or the Davao Region, Region 2 or Cagayan Valley, and the Cordillera Administrative Region or CAR. The Cordillera is where health officials are dealing with confirmed cases of new COVID-19 variants.
As always the data is limited, but these are still the numbers President Duterte will use to decide on easing lockdown restrictions ahead of the one-year anniversary of the longest, and arguably, one of the most economically destructive COVID-19 lockdowns in the world.
COVID-19 is somehow getting deadlier for Filipinos. More Filipinos are dying of COVID-19 outside of hospital care. New variants have arrived in the country. On the other hand, the Philippine economy just suffered its worst contraction post-war, and many jobs lie in the balance. Duterte is expected to decide on MGCQ this week.