A new COVID-19 surge now threatens to overshadow campaigning for the country’s presidential election on May 9.
A healthcare worker checks the blood pressure of a senior citizen prior to administering a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Las Pinas, Metro Manila, Philippines, June 2021.
The Philippines yesterday reported the third straight day of record high COVID-19 cases, as the country deals with a sudden new spike in infections driven by the virulent Omicron variant of the disease. Yesterday, the country’s health authorities reported 33,169 confirmed COVID-19 infections.
This came after the Philippines logged 28,707 new cases on Sunday and 26,458 on Saturday, both of which beat the country’s previous daily record of 26,303 cases, which was reported on September 11 of last year. The new surge in cases, which Philippine health officials assume is being driven by the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, brought the country’s total number of infections to just under 3 million, and its total death toll to 52,293.
Most worryingly, the infection rate – namely, the percentage of tested people who returned positive results – rose yesterday to an astonishing 46 percent, itself a new record. The rapid outbreak, which comes after the government painstakingly depressed the wave of cases that spiked in the middle of last year, has been mostly concentrated in the capital Manila and its penumbra of periurban sprawl.
On Sunday, the government also ordered an increase in hospital beds and medical resources in and around Metro Manila. This came after the government on January 3 hiked the COVID-19 alert for Manila and surrounds to Alert Level 3 on the country’s five-level scale. Level 3 restrictions ban all in-person classes, contact sport, live voice and wind instrument performances, and fairs, according to the Associated Press. Casinos are also ordered to close, while restaurants, gyms, barbershops, and other establishments can only operate at limited capacity.
Under Alert Level 3 restrictions, unvaccinated people in the capital region can only leave their homes for essential trips, and last week President Rodrigo Duterte warned that unvaccinated people could be arrested if they disobey stay-at-home orders. “If he refuses, if he goes out his house and goes around the community, he can be restrained. If he refuses, the captain is empowered now to arrest recalcitrant persons,” Duterte said, according to Reuters. (At the height of last year’s COVID-19 outbreaks, he also threatened to arrest people for refusing to get inoculated.) “If you don’t get a jab you put everybody in jeopardy,” he added, with the virus “galloping in our community, in our country, and in the world.”
Duterte also went so far as to ask nurses from the communist New People’s Army, currently in active rebellion against the central government, to join the fight against COVID-19.
Despite the outbreak consuming the Philippine capital, government officials have so far resisted raising the curbs to Alert Level 4, which would lead to much more serious curbs on movement and public gatherings. “For the meantime the mayors see no need to raise to Alert Level 4,” Benhur Abalos of the Metro Manila Development Authority, said yesterday, citing the metro region’s high vaccination rates relative to the rest of the country.
But while health officials and independent experts expect that the wave of infections will crest by the end of the month, it is probably time to begin considering how the pandemic might affect the country’s presidential election in May. The official 150-day campaign period kicked off on January 9 and formal campaigning will begin on February 8, heralding a wave of large rallies and other election events that could act as potent vectors of disease transmission. Without judicious action, the exercise of the vote in one of the world’s largest democracies could result in yet another wave of COVID-19 cases.