The Philippines officially breached one million total COVID-19 cases on April 26, 452 days since it recorded its first case on Jan. 30, 2020, thus marking a distressing milestone in the country’s continuing uphill battle against the pandemic.
At 1.014 million cases as of April 27, the Philippines cemented its position as the second worst hit by the pandemic in Southeast Asia after Indonesia, and accounting for one of every three COVID-19 cases in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
In stark contrast, Vietnam, with a comparable population, tallied a total case count of a mere 2,852, with just 35 deaths against the Philippines’ 16,916. It was also one of a handful of countries whose economy actually grew in 2020 despite the crisis that has wreaked havoc on the global economy and plunged the Philippines into its worst postwar recession.
The grim statistics should be urgent reason for honest government introspection about serious missteps and oversights, as well as more decisive action to control the latest surge in infections. But Malacañang has again chosen to downplay the situation, appealing to the public to consider the more “positive” statistics, such as the high recovery and low death rates.
“Let us not just look into the one million cases,” said presidential spokesperson Harry Roque. “First, [more than] 900,000 have recovered so the active cases are [less than] 100,000… The surge in cases, it’s not only happening in the Philippines. Based on our world rankings, we can see that we are managing, [even with] the new variants, rather well.”
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III — who has been spared the ax by the President despite repeated calls for his resignation by various sectors over the bungling of the COVID-19 response — made the same spin last Monday: “I think we should focus on the recoveries more than the total number of affected individuals since [the] majority have already recovered.”
Burying their head in the sand, however, does not dispel the reality that the health care system has been stretched to its limit, particularly in the National Capital Region where 69 percent of intensive care unit beds for COVID-19 patients are occupied, just shy of the high-risk category. That also goes for 59 percent of isolation beds, 64 percent of ward beds, and 58 percent of ventilators.
These worrying figures already mark an improvement following the return to strict quarantine measures beginning late March, a costly but necessary measure that is feared to delay the country’s economic recovery and will mean more business closures and job losses.
The official data may be vastly underestimated and the actual number could be even five times more, warned Sen. Joel Villanueva. “What is worrying is that we have reached this number on the crest of yet another surge. The daily installment which put us over the 1-million mark was again in several thousands, an alarming rate by global standards.”
Total new cases had been hitting 10,000 to 15,000 new cases a day early this month, when the Philippines was seeing twice as many infections than it recorded in August last year when health workers called for a “timeout” and the strictest quarantine controls were again imposed.
“Ang isang milyon ay red line na dapat magpaigting ng ating determinasyon na puksain ang pagkalat ng COVID-19” (One million is a red line that should bolster our determination to contain COVID-19), Villanueva added.
The World Health Organization rang the alarm early this month that the country was headed toward the feared “red line,” beyond which COVID-19 cases will exceed the capacity of the health care system, such as what is happening in India. The WHO described the dire situation in India, where oxygen supplies, hospital beds, and other medical supplies have run out, as “beyond heartbreaking.”
The Philippines having reached 1 million cases is likewise a heartbreaking watershed momentʍand the fact that the administration refuses to acknowledge the gravity of the situation even then is precisely why the country has come to this pass.
In Sen. Risa Hontiveros’ outraged retelling: “Hindi tayo dapat umabot sa ganito. Habol-hininga na ang publiko sa kakahabol sa gobyerno. Buong taon, paulit-ulit ang mga panawagan ng lehislatura at ng taumbayan na magkaroon ng systematic testing, tracing, treating, isolation, at treatment, ngunit hindi tayo pinapakinggan” (We shouldn’t have come to this point. The public and the legislature have been running after the government for a year, repeatedly calling for systematic testing, tracing, isolation, and treatment, but we’ve not been listened to).
The administration still insists it’s handling the situation “very well,” and no meaningful changes are discernible in the task force that has mismanaged the national response. That can only guarantee that more harrowing red lines are ahead for the country.
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