Rural Philippines pays price for ignoring COVID warnings


Experts tracking the number of COVID cases call on the government to immediately send health care reinforcements to the southern Philippines.

Mindanao, Philippines They gathered side by side, many without masks, shouting in unison to welcome the 2020 Christmas season. But the coronavirus wave that doctors had warned about did not happen.

Then, as restrictions eased slightly in January, weary residents in the southern Philippines began to head to nearby beaches and highland parks.

Again, there was no increase in cases and some began to question whether the pandemic was real or “just a money-making enterprise”.

As the Philippine heat arrived in March, many were forced to seek government aid, enough to pack public halls in towns and small towns, ignore social distancing restrictions, and enjoy free lunches distributed by elected officials. Had faith.

Some mayors allow the reopening of cockfighting arenas, a magnet for gambling and mass gatherings. Despite church attendance being limited to a maximum of half the normal capacity, some Catholic clergy also encourage parishioners to attend Sunday public in person.

In farming communities and fishing villages, residents resumed their normal habits – hanging out with friends, walking around the neighborhood or playing basketball and billiards – mostly masked.

By the time the festive season arrived in April and May, many were hosting dinners to meet family and friends, despite the ban and threats of arrest and other punishments. Carnivals were repeated in intimate communities throughout the region, with each town and village celebrating its own patron saint.

Health officials and police, usually from the same district, looked the other way as drinks swirled around on street corners and people played their favorite karaoke tunes, as the second coronavirus wave hit Manila and other urban areas in a universe. was away.

Cases inevitably began to rise – first slowly, then in a cascade that still isn’t slowing down – a sign, experts said, that the pandemic has become deeply embedded in rural communities where health facilities already exist. Exceeding capacity.

“It is not isolated in the Visayas and Mindanao provinces,” said Peter Keaton, associate professor at the University of the Philippines’ School of Statistics.

“The surge is also affecting several Luzon provinces,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to the country’s three major island groups.

According to the latest figures from the Philippine Vaccine Tracker, only 1.5 percent of the Philippines’ 110 million people have been fully vaccinated, and government contact-tracers have been unable to capture the explosion number of new cases. Hospitals already lack capacity and medical resources.

Nationwide, more than 7,400 new cases were reported on Thursday, bringing the total number of infections to 1.29 million.

Rising cases predict more deaths, and southern regions have been increasingly affected.

Edson Guido, a data analytics specialist at the University of the Philippines, noted that as of June 7, Mindanao accounted for a quarter of the new cases compared to Metro Manila, indicating that the epidemic has shifted to areas outside metropolitan areas. .

bad sign

In Dipolog, a city on the southern island of Mindanao, residents received a signal of how dire the situation had become when two senior members of the Catholic clergy and a nun died within days of each other in late May. They were buried hastily without the usual elaborate rites. Another senior priest is in quarantine trying to recover from the disease.

A former mayor of a nearby town and his brother were also admitted to a government hospital in the same city, as dozens were being treated outside in temporary tents, or connected to oxygen tanks while sitting in their vehicles. was. Lack of hospital beds. A 37-year-old patient died on the same day his family came to know that he had COVID-19.

Hundreds of other patients with mild infection, or no symptoms, were meanwhile advised to quarantine at home.

“COVID is real and circulating in our province,” wrote Philip Limci, a doctor at the city’s only hospital, on social media.

“Please, let us help ease the cases. There are no more rooms and the supply of oxygen tanks is running out,” he said.

In the nearby town of Polanco, dozens of local government workers became infected, prompting the shutdown of town hall operations.

The city’s leadership faced some questions after hundreds of farmers and motorcyclists were allowed to receive government financial aid and food packs despite the lockdown.

The city’s top health official, Dr Patrisha Quma, agreed to answer Al Jazeera’s questions about the pandemic, but later ignored follow-up requests to send back her response.

By the beginning of the third week of May, the city and its larger province of Zamboanga del Norte had already notified that its intensive care beds were full and there were no more respirators, according to health department data.

The province also saw more young people – some just 16 years old – being hospitalized, prompting officials to announce a strict two-week lockdown from June 1.

The order also includes a ban on the consumption of alcohol in public throughout the province. But on Wednesday too, some people were seen distributing and drinking liquor from a single, shared shot glass on the side of the road.

Esmeralda Nadella, Zamboanga del Norte’s top health official, said she would only be able to answer Al Jazeera’s questions “next time”, citing her busy schedule as the reason for the surge in cases.

Despite strict restrictions on mass gatherings, Polanco city officials allowed hundreds of farmers and motorcyclists to gather in public gyms on May 25 to receive government financial aid and food packages, amid COVID cases in the region. among the growing number of [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]

‘Rest well, mom’

Among those who died of COVID was former primary school teacher Rosalina Okupe, who returned to her hometown of Polanco in the United States after spending her retirement years in Chicago.

As a frail old man, she was careful not to go out as the epidemic spread. But soon after her 79th birthday in early May, she fell ill after a domestic help took her to life. He spent three weeks on a ventilator at DePolog’s hospital.

Her daughter Patty was hopeful that her mother would recover and that she would be home in a few days. Instead, the family received news on Wednesday that their mother had died.

“Well, mama,” Patty wrote in tribute to her mother, whose remains were hurriedly buried after sunset on Wednesday, bypassing the traditional Filipino rites of nine days before burial.

Patty’s older sister, Marichu, who lives in Chicago, was unable to come home due to travel restrictions. With the death of her mother, she is left wondering whether she could have done more for her mother.

“Have I done enough for this? [her] Who prayed day and night for my success? this question will always be [left] unanswered. “

Randy, his brother, is homeless.

“[It is] Sad, painful and very unfair that COVID took his life,” he told Al Jazeera.

southern boom

Diplose is also not the worst hit in the provincial areas.

Nearby Dumaguete in the Visayas reported a 206 percent increase in infections between May 31 and June 6, placing it at the top of the list of cities facing a coronavirus surge nationally.

As of Thursday, about 1.5 percent of the 110 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated, according to the Philippine Vaccine Tracker. [File: Ted Aljibe/AFP]

Recent deaths in the university town include a retired judge, whose wife is also currently battling the disease, and the city’s deputy mayor, Alan Cordova, who suffered a cardiac arrest and died while riding his bicycle. Died, just days after recovering from coronavirus.

In an interview with reporters on Monday, Dr. Kenneth Koo, a Dumaguet-based physician and national president in crisis management of the Philippine College of Physicians, said that even though the city closes its doors to outsiders in response to the boom, already It was “Community Broadcasting”.

“Most important, we have to isolate the threat,” he warned, adding that all hospitals in Dumaguete are at overflow capacity, noting that the latest infections in the city were found at dinner parties with family and friends.

“No party, please. No mass gathering, please this is my request to the community.”

Several cities in Mindanao are also facing growth such as South Cotabato, General Santos, as well as the city of Davao, where Duterte was mayor for more than 20 years. Among the latest deaths was Douglas Cagas, the provincial governor of Davao del Sur, who died on Thursday.

At a news briefing on Wednesday, the OCTA research group tracking coronavirus cases in the Philippines said the national government should consider sending health workers and equipment to Mindanao.

OCTA’s Ranjit Rai warned that if the boom continues, hospitals could be overwhelmed.

“Our appeal to the national government is to deploy people, equipment and support in these areas,” Rai said. He said the increase could last up to a month.

As for Limsey, a provincial doctor and respiratory specialist, he appealed to people to stay at home, saying, “Your birthday party will not be worth the agony that your visitors may face. [if they are infected with COVID]”

Meanwhile, Keaton of the University of the Philippines said whether the Philippines will see a spiral of growth and slowdown of infections depends on the government’s ability to implement contact-tracing, testing, vaccination and treatment.

He said so far there is not enough indication that the government is doing so.

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