As coronavirus cases surge in the Philippines, a new one-week lockdown went into effect in the capital region on Monday during the holiest week in the Catholic-majority country.
Lasting through Easter on April 4, the strict protocols include shutting down non-essential establishments and banning mass gatherings including religious activities at a time when churches in Manila are usually packed. Only essential personnel like healthcare workers and individuals working in the food and delivery sector can travel.
It will be the second year in a row that Filipinos have had to endure one of the most important weeks on the calendar under stringent health guidelines. Authorities worried that major gatherings could lead to a super spreader event in a country where more than 13,000 people have died and where 9,000 cases have been logged daily in the past three days. A new local variant is also adding to fears that the problem is only going to get worse.
But on the eve of the lockdown, Palm Sunday brought many into the streets of the capital. Outside the National Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Parañaque City in Metro Manila, devotees wearing face masks waved palm fronds and prayed.
Mila Sikat, 33, a vendor at the church, expressed concern over the rules, as the pandemic drags on and life has not returned to anything near normal.
“This used to be a special day in our community. The devotees would overflow to the streets from the church, and we would jostle in the crowd to sell our palm leaves,” she said. “These are tough times now. It's scary to go under lockdown again. We feel helpless, and the only thing we can do is wait for the blessings from God and the government to come.”
The densely populated community living besides the church is known for producing the elegant palm leaves, hand-woven for the occasion and sold to the faithful. They are still making them this year, but not in the same amount as in times past before the virus.
“We can’t do anything. The kids can’t leave. We’ll just make as many palm fronds as we can hoping it will sell. It’s a sad scene here since the pandemic came, and making a living has been harder. But what can we do?” said Marcelo Lindor, 47, as he carefully weaves palm leaves together with his kids.
The new wave of cases started earlier this month, and many neighborhoods have already put local streets under informal lockdowns before the government took action.
The Philippines has one of the worst outbreaks in Southeast Asia, but is also lagging behind other countries in the region on vaccines. Donated jabs only recently arrived, and authorities are cracking down on line-jumping during the rollout that is supposed to prioritize healthcare workers.
Following the lockdown announcement, people living in the capital made the most of the weekend to prepare. While some flocked to grocery stores, others made sure to sort out their businesses and other commitments.
Cielo Juezan, 23, said she and her family bought home improvement items like plants to keep them busy, stirring memories of previous stay-at-home orders that went on longer than initially planned.
“I work in a hotel’s kitchen and I don’t have work at the moment since the government announced indoor dining is not allowed a week ago,” she said. “We don’t know what can happen, this lockdown might extend indefinitely like last time.”