Philippines has two virus mutations, no vaccine, but will reopen further

Philippines has two virus mutations, no vaccine, but will reopen further

MANILA, Philippines — Not even two new mutations of the coronavirus can stop the Philippines from scaling down more restrictions next month.

Friday started with presidential spokesperson Harry Roque telling state-run TV that the pandemic task force has recommended to President Rodrigo Duterte to place the entire country under modified general community quarantine (MGCQ) next month, the lowest quarantine level there is.

That means Metro Manila and seven other areas under the stricter GCQ would see more businesses reopen, including arcades and cinemas, an easing that will happen while cases of the coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) remain elevated. As if that was not enough, on the heels of Roque’s announcement was a Department of Health briefing that revealed two virus mutations detected in Cebu yet to be closely studied by scientists.

All these while the much-awaited vaccine deliveries face fresh delays that could potentially push back pilot inoculations of health workers to March from February. “No date yet,” Dr. Jonas del Rosario, spokesperson of the Philippine General Hospital where vaccinations will pilot, said in a text message when asked when immunization will start.

Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, in the daily Laging Handa briefing, was unfazed. “Again, I’m quoting (NEDA) Sec Karl (Kendrick Chua). It’s no longer between health and economy. It’s really between health and health issues coming out,” Lopez said.

“In the past when we reopened, there were no spikes because everyone was complying,” he added.

The succeeding news to welcome the weekend did not bode well to observers already flabbergasted by an initial recommendation from the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) to ease prohibitions meant to put the virus under control. "Will sales outweigh the risks? With so many 'don'ts', isn't it easier to just have one (don't open cinemas)?" Muntinlupa Rep. Rozanno Rufino Biazon said in a tweet.

Indeed, virus cases have not spiked even after the holidays last year, but they also did not go down either, stuck within the 1,000-2,000 daily range for at least the past 3 months. On Friday, 1,901 new COVID-19 cases had been recorded, while deaths because of the disease spiked to their highest in over 5 months.

What was once a goal to flatten the virus curve is no longer being discussed, instead the Duterte government repeatedly insisted that people should “learn how to live with the virus” supposedly because it will not go away soon. Hopes were pinned instead on coronavirus vaccines, but to date, contracts had not been signed with drug-makers and donations expected to arrive this month are now on the brink of getting delayed.

“We are asking for patience as we do not have any say as to the supply chain of vaccines,” Carlito Galvez, the official in charge of negotiating vaccine deals and head of the National COVID-19 Task Force, said in a separate briefing on Friday. At least six Southeast Asian countries including rating peer Indonesia had already started broad vaccination drives.

No difference?

So with no certainty on when vaccines would arrive, and mutations found out there, the Philippines is inclined to reopen further next month. NEDA’s Chua reasoned out opening up more sectors was needed to fight hunger experienced by one in four Filipinos in Metro Manila after the economy shrank a record 9.5% last year.

Currently, most businesses are running at 50% capacity, but under MGCQ, some may go up to 75%. In addition, new establishments like cinemas are bound to open. Ayala Malls housing some of these cinemas, for instance, said it is preparing for this eventuality.

“We are still waiting for the formal implementing rules and regulations from DTI (Department of Trade and Industry) and DOH. Likewise, we have to wait for the clearance of the respective LGUs (local government units)…,” the mall chain said in a statement.

“We wish to reassure the public that Ayala Malls will continue to observe the highest standards on health and safety protocols…,” it added. Other malls chains are yet to respond to request for comment.

Whether or not consumers would go out under MGCQ remains to be seen, although Senator Risa Hontiveros said it is not likely. But for Jojo Garcia, general manager of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, a shift to the looser MGCQ would hardly make any difference anyway, apart perhaps for plans to increase public transport options.

“If we look at it, the GCQ right now is an MCGQ. There is no difference what establishments are open now,” Garcia said in the Laging Handa briefing.