MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte chooses health over anything else. The president rejects placing the entire country to a modified general community quarantine (MGCQ) status, which experts earlier warned could put Metro Manila under a “constant” threat of a surge in infections.
The Covid-19 task force recommended that the capital region and 13 other provinces be placed under MGCQ starting March, to respond to the need to reopen more establishments for economic recovery.
The Palace says in a briefing, in making the decision, the president opted to give a “higher premium to public health and safety.”
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque says the president “also wants vaccination to start the soonest possible time in order to ease the community quarantine.”
With the delays in delivery of the much-needed doses, it is still uncertain when the vaccination rollouts will start, in stark contrast with neighboring countries that have theirs ahead.
Easing restrictions is not widely accepted
Easing restrictions, the IATF (inter-agency task force) proposed, for areas under general community quarantine (GCQ) divided policy-makers and local executives. Nine mayors were in favor of the IATF proposal during a meeting of the policy-setting Metro Manila Council. But eight mayors opposed it.
The OCTA Research group earlier gave its warning that cases in Metro Manila could reach 2,400 coronavirus cases a day if the metropolis is under MGCQ. The group described the move as risky and “also contrary to sensible epidemic management.”
Covid-19 cases continue to rise
These past few days, the number of Filipinos contracting the deadly virus kept rising, with Monday’s (22 February) figures reaching 2,288. It the highest reported in the past three months.
As if the rising daily tally is not enough, the Department of Health (DOH) has confirmed detection of COVID-19 mutations in Central Visayas, which it said is of “potential clinical significance.” Samples were sent to the Philippine Genome Center for sequencing, as further investigation is needed to determine the public health implications of the newly-detected mutations.
“Currently available data are insufficient to conclude that mutations found in the local samples will have significant public health implications,” DOH said.
Mutations are to be expected
Viruses, like the SARS-CoV-2, mutate all the time and, as a consequence, the emergence of new variants is expected.
When a virus mutates, its genetic sequence is altered and may result in the virus being more transmissible, increase in disease severity, or influence efficacy of diagnostics or vaccines says the World Health Organization. A changed virus is called a variant of the original virus.
When variants increase the risk to human health, they are classified as “variants of concern,” and they are of clinical significance such that they have increased transmissibility, as of the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first detected in the United Kingdom.
Public health implications
The DOH recognizes the potential public health implications of samples of mutations from the central Visayas. The region’s Center for Health and Development has already “initiated measures to contain the transmission in the region and investigation to characterize the causes and areas of concern.” More samples will be sent for genome sequencing
Meanwhile, “bio-surveillance efforts extend beyond this enhanced response in Region 7 and is inclusive of all regions to give us better national and regional pictures of these mutations and variants,” says DOH.
DOH emphasizes anew the need to practice minimum public health standards to keep infection rates low and to reduce the chances of viral mutations.
Stalled economic recovery could cut deep in Southeast Asia
S&P Global Ratings says in a report that, should economic recovery stall for a half year, the country would experience a “permanent loss” of 12.6%. Permanent loss, in S&P’s estimate, is the gap between the achievable new normal for an economy and the pre-COVID trend.
Under this scenario, the output is unlikely to return to the pre-pandemic level until May 2022, which is later than the credit rating agency’s baseline forecast for the Philippines to fully recoup losses by the end of this year. This would also shave off 2.5 percentage points of S&P’s 9.6% baseline growth projection for the country in 2021.
Thailand is also seen to sustain a large permanent loss but a lower rate of 10.8% should rebound from pandemic shock if delayed for six months.
“The Philippines suffered from a deep contraction in 2020 amid exceptionally tight mobility restrictions. For Thailand, the issue is structural and related to the tourism sector which is expected to be one of the last industries to recover from COVID,” S&P says.
Meanwhile, Malaysia is forecast to sustain a permanent loss of 8.6% under the same scenario, while Indonesia is projected to suffer from a milder 7.7% damage. For entire Southeast Asia, S&P estimates a permanent loss of 9.2%.
“Southeast Asia has been struggling with sporadic outbreaks of COVID-19. The major emerging markets in this region—Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand—are living with the effects of new waves that only recently look to have peaked. This could prolong their paths to recovery,” S&P says.
The detection of two virus mutations in Cebu and pushing reopening a little further is not inspiring confidence among consumers amid a lack of a broad immunization program.
Household spending is key for growth
This is a big problem that is otherwise not unique to the Philippines, says S&P. “In our view, the biggest threat to timely economic recovery is individual consumer behavior, as people stay home more and spend less,” S&P said. “Household spending is key for growth in these (Southeast Asian) economies.”
A 6-month delay in recovery would slow growth this year to 7.1% as S&P projects. Shorter pushbacks of 2 months or a month would result in gross domestic product expanding 7.4% or 7.7%, respectively. The baseline projection was for a 9.6% growth this year.
Moving forward, S&P said Southeast Asia may benefit from improving demand in the US and China while consumer appetite in the region remains anemic. This would be true once the nascent Biden administration rolls out a massive spending plan to blunt the pandemic pain while China gears ahead of its recovery. However, the windfall would not be enough to fully shore up the region’s own rebound.
“The EMs (emerging markets) of Southeast Asia cannot rely on external demand alone to drive a pick-up to above-trend growth later this year. Still, these tailwinds could add momentum to a domestic recovery built on the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel,” S&P says. (BG/Headline PH)