COVID-19 in the Philippines – at a Glance

Marjorie Pajaron, assistant professor at the University of the Philippines School of Economics, describes the unfolding of the pandemic in the country and how Filipinos have coped with the evolving situation.
People queue while wearing face masks Residents queue while wearing face masks before undergoing rapid antibody testing for COVID-19 in Quezon city, Metro Manila, Philippines, May 20, 2020.

Portrait of Marjorie Pajaron
Marjorie Pajaron’s research lies at the intersection of applied microeconomics and health policy, with a focus on gender, health, development, and labor economics. Prior to her appointment at the University of the Philippines School of Economics, she was a postdoctoral fellow in Asia health policy at APARC.

This is the third installment in our series, “Stories in a Time of Pandemic,” in which APARC alumni across Asia share their perspectives on the responses to and implications of COVID-19 in their communities. In part 1 and part 2 of the series, we feature observations from our alumni in China, Mongolia, Myanmar, and Singapore.

The first case of COVID-19 in the Philippines was reported on January 30, 2020, and local transmission was confirmed on March 7, 2020. As of May 21, the number of cases of COVID-19 has risen to 13,434 and the number of deaths attributed to the virus increased to 846, according to the Philippine Department of Health COVID-19 Case Tracker. It is quite alarming that among the ASEAN countries, the Philippines had the second-highest mortality due to COVID-19, next to Indonesia (as per May 5 date by the WHO COVID-19 Dashboard). This could be attributed to several factors, including whether the country’s health system can handle the overwhelming demand for health care due to the COVID-19 crisis and how effective the government’s response is in stemming the spread of this new pathogen. Inherent in the death statistics is the capacity of a country to conduct COVID-19 tests, which means that there should be a sufficient number of test kits available and that the health workers are properly trained to conduct the tests, trace the contacts, and isolate identified individuals.

The President of the Philippines imposed a total lockdown called enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) for the entire island of Luzon, which encompasses eight administrative regions, including the national capital region, from March 15 to April 30. Other parts of the country have also been under some degree of quarantine at different periods since the appearance of local transmission. Executive Order 112, signed on April 30, 2020, was issued to further extend the ECQ in identified high-risk areas and a general community quarantine (GCQ) in the rest of the country. The inter-agency task force for the management of emerging infectious diseases defines ECQ as the implementation of temporary restrictions on the mobility of people, strict regulations of industries, and a heightened presence of uniformed personnel. GCQ is, in a nutshell, a less strict version of ECQ.

A table showing COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asian countries compared with U.S., China, and total global case count
Image captured from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Southeast Asia COVID-19 Tracker, May 21, 2020.

The Philippines has faced a lot of challenges during this crisis. First, the health system lacks adequate surge capacity to safely handle a nationwide outbreak of COVID-19 due to shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), mechanical ventilators, and hospitals with ICUs and isolation beds (see this World Bank report and this Rappler article). More importantly, the insufficient number of health workers, especially in areas outside the metropolitan, is a major concern. Nonetheless, the Department of Health has worked hard to meet the surge in demand due to COVID-19, including partnering with the private sector to repurpose structures and providing data to the public to ensure transparency and accountability. As in other countries, the health workers and those with frontline responsibilities have truly been the new heroes or “bayani” with their tireless efforts and sacrifices. 

A significant challenge pertains to the adverse economic impact of COVID-19. The Philippines has a relatively large informal sector and the income of many families depends on daily transactions with no formal job or social security.
Marjorie Pajaron

Another challenge pertains to the adverse economic impact of COVID-19. The Philippines has a relatively large informal sector and the income of many families depends on daily transactions with no formal job or social security. This has prompted the government to extend cash or in-kind support to vulnerable populations – a response that has posed several challenges, particularly related to the who/what/how framework. First, the Philippine government had to properly identify those in need (who). Second, it had to ensure that sufficient resources can be allocated to the identified groups (what). And third, it had to distribute aid in an efficient, timely, and equitable way (how). The government's social welfare efforts to provide for the vulnerable groups have mixed results: at times, the distribution of aid is organized and efficient, at other times insufficient and disorderly (see these CNN Philippines reports of April 7 and April 30).

COVID-19 in the Philippines – How Filipinos Have Coped

There has been a strong spirit of “bayanihan” or collectivism in the country amidst the COVID-19 crisis. People are volunteering, distributing goods to vulnerable groups, or donating PPE to those with frontline duties. Some enterprises also rose to the occasion by repurposing their businesses to meet the local demand for medical products and PPE.

Different individuals have coped differently: some have welcomed the work hiatus that the quarantine has afforded them, some connected more with friends and family, others become more productive working from home. Staying healthy and being mindful are also factors that contribute to remaining calm and rational in this time of national distress.

Despite the challenges, we will continue to face, especially once the quarantine has eased and the new normal is in effect, we can say that Filipinos have also learned some valuable lessons amid this crisis. For one, Filipinos have become more mindful of the importance of good sanitation and non-pharmaceutical public health measures in mitigating the transmission of the virus. Most Filipinos have also become more proactive in their approach, keeping social distance, wearing masks, and practicing proper handwashing, among others. Furthermore, this crisis has redefined and created new heroes who rose to the challenge – from those staying at home to avoid the further spread of the virus to those on the frontline who have dedicated their time and effort to combat the pandemic, to government and business leaders who have served the country sincerely during this crisis.

Perhaps there really is a silver lining in every cloud.

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