Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was set to meet with health experts and former heads of the Department of Health (DoH) on Monday to receive “critical information” that would help him decide whether to extend the lockdown on Luzon island anew or allow partial business re-openings to stave off an economic disaster.
Secretary of Justice Menardo Guevarra said on Sunday that the critical information will be provided during the meeting of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases, the temporary government body that oversees the administration’s response to the new coronavirus pandemic.
The government, Guevarra said, cannot wait until the entire country reaches zero transmission, “as by then we may have hit the tipping point where it would be extremely difficult to recover from the economic and social devastation”.
Duterte placed the entire island of Luzon on lockdown in mid-March, ordering half of the country’s population of 107 million to stay at home, shuttering schools and businesses, and suspending public transportation in a bid to halt the spread of Sars-CoV-2, the new coronavirus that causes Covid-19.
The lockdown was originally set to expire on April 13, but Duterte extended it to the end of this month on the recommendation of the task force to prevent an almost certain resurgence of the virus.
However, the economy was so damaged then that the government’s economic managers were talking of zero or, at best, minus one per cent growth in the first quarter.
Businesses cautioned against another extension, recommending phased re-openings and selective shutdowns to stimulate the economy while suppressing the spread of the virus.
“We have to restart somewhere sometime, taking all necessary measures to prevent a resurgence, and imploring the aid of Divine Providence to get us through,” Guevarra said.
In a radio interview, Senator Christopher ‘Bong’ Go, the president’s former longtime aide who is now head of the Senate health committee, said the next 11 days would be “crucial” as he appealed to the public to heed Duterte’s call for compliance with lockdown measures to curb the spread of the virus.
Duterte first wants to hear the opinion of health experts and former health secretaries to balance the concerns of various sectors over the impact of the lockdown on the economy and public safety, he said.
“As a legislator, I want to put primacy on the life of every Filipino. But we also have to consider that they have to eat. We have to consider our economy,” said Go.
However, Secretary of Defence Delfin Lorenzana said only a sustained reduction in infections would work toward a decision to partially lift the lockdown.
He said he had directed military chief of staff General Felimon Santos Jr to deploy more troops to Metro Manila and other places where there were high numbers of coronavirus cases to strictly enforce the lockdown.
The military has deployed 2,000 troops to Metro Manila and has 2,000 more on standby.
Duterte on Thursday threatened a “martial law-like” enforcement of the Luzon lockdown if violations of the quarantine measures continued. The warning followed reports of thousands of private motorists taking to the streets, especially in Metro Manila, despite the president’s stay-at-home orders.
Philippine National Police (PNP) deputy chief for operations Lieutenant General Guillermo Eleazar on Sunday said the Highway Patrol Group had been directed to set up checkpoints in the regions to enforce the lockdown.
PNP chief General Archie Gamboa has authorised police regional directors to introduce measures that would ensure observance of quarantine regulations, said Eleazar.
He said the licences of private motorists who would violate the lockdown would be confiscated. They would also be cited and fined.
Secretary of Interior Eduardo Ano on Sunday said the military would enforce the lockdown only in areas where violations of quarantine measures were rampant.
“We expect that more arrests will be done, especially [of] those not only violating the quarantine but even engaging in other activities like drinking and gambling,” Ano said.
However, the crackdown does not mean that local officials can enforce lockdown rules with a high hand. Malacanang Presidential Palace on Sunday urged the public to report human rights violations by local officials.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the Department of the Interior and Local Government, which oversees the local governments and the police service, and the PNP would “not tolerate any violation” of human rights during the lockdown.
Roque’s remarks came amid reports of abuses by some local officials in dealing with violators of lockdown measures.
Last week, the PNP reported the apprehension of 108,088 violators of the quarantine during the last 27 days. Luzon had the highest number of violators – 64,946.
“While … protection measures spell the difference between life and death, they are implemented well within the rule of law, and are respectful of the human dignity and human rights of everyone,” said Roque.
PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK