Metro Manila to stay locked under GCQ until end of July

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has opted to once again extend the general community quarantine (GCQ) over Metro Manila until July 31. PIXABAY

With the continuous increase in confirmed Covid-19 cases in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has opted to once again extend the general community quarantine (GCQ) over Metro Manila until July 31.

Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque announced on Wednesday night that Duterte “agreed” to keep Metro Manila under GCQ after a “lengthy discussion” with members of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) and experts from the University of the Philippines (UP).

Roque said Duterte initially agreed to return Metro Manila to the more stringent modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) as proposed by the UP to curtail the further spread of the respiratory disease.

However, Roque said Duterte changed his mind after Covid-19 response chief implementer Carlito Galvez and Secretary of the Interior and Local Government Eduardo Ano appealed to keep Metro Manila under GCQ, which has been its status for six weeks now, citing the promise of the region’s mayors to implement stricter enforcement of health protocols and quarantine restrictions.

He said: “So the president agreed not to put Metro Manila again under MECQ for the next two weeks.

“But it was clear from the discussion that the spread of Covid in Metro Manila has not slowed down. It’s possible that it would return to MECQ after two weeks.”

Secretary of Health Francisco Duque III said the country’s case doubling time – or the time it takes for new cases to increase two-fold – is now between eight and 12 days, way better from the 2.5 days during the initial phase of the pandemic.

Duque also cited the improved mortality doubling time, which he said was now under the “moderate risk” classification.

But there has been a continued rise in Covid-19 cases nationwide – which health authorities attributed largely to the country’s improved testing capacity and the increased contact among the population as a result of the relaxation of quarantine measures to reopen the pandemic-battered economy.

Meanwhile, Philippine police are being deployed to ensure people who test positive for the coronavirus and cannot self-isolate at home are taken to state-run quarantine centres, sparking warnings on Wednesday of potential rights violations.

The move comes as authorities step up efforts to slow the rapid spread of the disease by increasing testing, re-imposing lockdowns, and building dozens of quarantine centres to isolate patients with mild symptoms.

To clamp down on local transmission, police are accompanying health workers to the homes of people who have tested positive and taking them to government facilities if their homes are considered inadequate for self-isolation or if they live with “vulnerable” people, officials said.

Defending forced quarantine as legal, Roque said: “We prefer that the asymptomatics and the mild cases voluntarily surrender and confine themselves in isolation centres.

“It’s a paid-for vacation in an air-conditioned facility. It’s not as if they are going to . . . the gulag and to the jails.”

Ano had sparked an outcry on Tuesday when he said police would search for infected people and threatened imprisonment for anyone who tried to hide Covid-19 symptoms.

“House-to-house police searches have led to thousands of gruesome killings in the government’s sham drug war,” said local rights group Karapatan, referring to Duterte’s controversial campaign against drugs.

“These searches would only intimidate patients and their families – and what are the police going to do when patients refuse to come with them, shoot them dead?”

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers said it would “sow fear in our communities and trample on our rights”.

The police on Wednesday appeared to row back on Ano’s comments, saying officers would serve as a “last resort” to get people with the virus into quarantine centres.

“We will not, on our own, knock on the doors of individual houses,” Guillermo Eleazar, police deputy chief for operations, told a local radio station.

“We will accompany the town’s local task force against Covid-19 led by health workers.”

To handle the growing number of cases, the government plans to build 50 quarantine facilities, Secretary of Public Works and Highways Mark Villar announced on Monday.

Villar on Wednesday said he had tested positive for the virus.

The Philippines already has more than 8,300 quarantine centres with over 73,000 beds. The average utilisation rate is 32 per cent, Department of Health figures show.

The country has had 10 consecutive days of over 1,000 newly reported cases, a significant number of which were recorded in Metro Manila, which remains as the epicentre of the contagion in the country.

To date, there are 58,850 Covid-19 cases nationwide, of whom nearly half, or 29,015, are in Metro Manila.

Meanwhile, 20,976 patients have so far recovered and 1,614 have died.