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(L) Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo from the Presidential Communications Operations Office Facebook page. (R) Hospital workers in Manila. Photo by Jaime Paolo Berba. 
Coronavirus

The Philippines Is Struggling to Contain the Coronavirus. The Government Is Making It Worse.

Philippine hospitals are in the thick of battling rising coronavirus numbers but some government officials are only adding to the problem.
April 2, 2020, 10:26am

The instructions were clear: stay indoors and self-isolate.

But in late March, a Philippine senator broke quarantine protocol when he stepped inside a busy private hospital in the heart of Manila to accompany his pregnant wife. He was infected with the novel coronavirus.

In the days leading up to the hospital visit, he was already experiencing symptoms typical of the coronavirus: fever, diarrhoea, and a sore throat. He was tested and told to self-isolate. The test results confirmed that he had COVID-19, and that he had endangered the lives of doctors and patients.

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The hospital chastised Senator Koko Pimentel in a viral press release, calling his actions “irresponsible and reckless” and said affected personnel will undergo quarantine, “further [depleting] the dwindling workforce of the hospital.”

The public did not take kindly to the senator’s apology. Netizens called for his resignation, while others are preparing to press criminal charges.

But he’s not the only official to put lives at risk out of their own self-interest.

After a handful of lawmakers and cabinet officials discovered that they were potentially in contact with someone who had COVID-19, most senators were tested right away, despite not showing any symptoms and amid a shortage of test kits in the country. This, even though the Department of Health requires that a person must show symptoms of the disease to qualify for a test. Only two senators listened to doctors’ advice and refused tests, opting to self-quarantine for 14 days instead.

News of this sort of VIP treatment spread at the same time as horror stories from the frontlines — like dire equipment shortages and the death of health care workers — emerged.

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The Medical City, a hospital in Metro Manila. Photo by Jaime Paolo Berba.

As of writing, there are 2,633 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 107 deaths in the Philippines. At least 12 were doctors on the frontlines. The Philippine medical community is bracing for the outbreak to peak, which could buckle the healthcare system further.

VIP Treatment

Almost 60 percent of the population is already under enhanced community quarantine, a mandate that severely restricts movement in many parts of the country. It was the third country behind China and Italy to implement such extreme measures. Anyone who violates this quarantine period, which is expected to last until mid-April, is subject to fines and arrest.

Authorities have already arrested curfew violators including a homeless woman who resisted police and “persons under monitoring” who were caught outdoors. One village head even locked curfew violators in dog cages. The arrests have targeted the urban poor, much like President Rodrigo Duterte's drug war. In an April 1 press conference, Duterte ordered police and the military to “shoot [violators and troublemakers] dead.”

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But politicians seem to get a free pass.

Amid calls to hold Pimentel accountable for breaking his quarantine, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the Department of Justice “will temper the rigor of the law with human compassion.”

Pimentel’s actions, as well as VIP testing of politicians, are a stark contrast from other stories of those not as fortunate.

“How many patients have to die without the dignity of a proper funeral, without a proper farewell from their families all because the results couldn't come out because of these VIPs congesting an already overwhelmed testing system?” Jaime Paolo Berba, a resident at The Medical City, told VICE.

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Health workers in The Medical City. Photo by Jaime Paolo Berba.

A whistleblower from the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), the country’s primary testing laboratory, revealed that many test results were forced to wait due to certain politicians’ insistence that their results be prioritised. This burden added to an already increasing backlog. Whereas it used to take two to four days to get results, the approximate time has now become five to seven days.

A hold up in test results means hospitals can’t free up isolation units, which leads to an overflow of patients in the emergency room. This is already happening in hospitals that were caught off-guard by the uptick in admissions.

Johann Mendoza, a 24-year-old music producer, lost his father on March 24. The official cause of death remains unknown, although he showed common coronavirus symptoms of fever and difficulty breathing. Mendoza never got to see his father who spent his last days in isolation. He was tested in the hospital but, ultimately, the results didn’t arrive in time.

“I am profoundly furious,” Mendoza told VICE. “Especially when I check the news and social media, after an update on reported cases, deaths, and recoveries — it’s a flurry of content that all points to the government's ineptitude and lack of compassion.”

Mendoza may never know if his father did or did not die of coronavirus, but his father’s death did show how overburdened hospitals already are.

“We end up having patients both on the floors and in the ER queued for days while hooked to ventilators, awaiting availability of rooms in the ICU,” Berba said.

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“While there is a general sentiment of frustration, there's also a feel of helplessness and resignation to our commitment to fulfill our duties regardless of what is happening in the outside world.”

The Poor Are Most Affected

As is, the Philippines has responded too slow to COVID-19. Lulled into a false sense of safety over low numbers through much of February, the Philippines remained unprepared for the pandemic. When the numbers jumped in early March, the country only had 2,000 test kits available and not enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to handle the surge of cases.

It wasn’t until five weeks after the country’s first confirmed case when Duterte declared a public health emergency.

In late March, Congress granted Duterte "special powers" to fight the pandemic. This allows him to "direct" privately-owned hospitals and health facilities and "reprogram, reallocate, and realign" parts of the government's 2020 budget. Critics say the president could abuse this privilege, but the administration argued that it was necessary to stop the spread of the virus. Still, a week later, the government still has no comprehensive plan to address the problem.

The extent of the coronavirus’ spread in the Philippines is still unknown. Though the actual numbers remain low compared to other countries, its mortality rate suggests that the disease is going undetected in some communities.

“It seems that the greater number of patients are actually admitted in the private hospitals as compared to government hospitals,” Dr. Josefino Hernandez, a doctor at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH), told VICE.

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Hernandez explained that because testing happens in hospitals, the people who are on the official tally are most likely those who have the money to get admitted. Poorer communities, especially those who live in cramped informal settlements, are particularly vulnerable to the disease but their cases are also least likely to get counted.

The coronavirus has, in many ways, exposed the deep social inequality that exists in the country: from who gets to be tested, who can practice social distancing, even those who deserve the law’s “compassion.”

There does however, appear to be sustained public outcry. The testing of VIPs led to greater calls for widespread testing in the country, and the hashtags #NotoVIPTesting and #MassTestingNowPH quickly gained momentum. Online conversations have revolved around frustration with Duterte’s government and its seeming inability to present a clear plan for the outbreak, and Filipinos are reminding each other to vote more wisely in the 2022 elections.

“Though Filipinos have historically not been known to vote based on issues, the COVID pandemic is certainly unprecedented and is affecting all Filipinos across classes,” Jean Encinas-Franco from the University of the Philippines’ Department of Political Science told VICE.

“Health issues, especially the salaries and work conditions of frontliners will be a key electoral issue as well. Those who have lost their jobs due to COVID will also figure in.”

Still, it’s uncertain how the country’s response will reflect on elections, especially among Filipinos who have, time and time again, voted incompetent, corrupt, and even convicted politicians back into power.

“Will those who had VIP testing be punished in the next polls? Hopefully. But as we have seen throughout history, issues—even big ones—are swept in the rug when the next big issue comes,” historian and academic Xiao Chua told VICE.

But Chua also points to the success of younger, more proactive local officials as shining beacons at a time of discontentment towards the national government. These agile politicians appear more responsive to their respective constituencies, and their rising popularity is an indication that perhaps if not now, then one day, Filipinos could put their trust in the government.

“No decent Filipino wants the government to fail in this battle,” he said.