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The Philippine Government's COVID-19 Response Has Devastated Its Economy

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

If you look at Southeast Asia, COVID-19 cases in the Philippines are surging ahead of most other parts of the region. The surge has come despite weeks of stay-at-home orders. That lockdown devastated the economy and has led to the worst downturn in 30 years. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on how Filipinos are viewing their government's response.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Jeepneys, with their eye-catching designs, were the Philippine kings of the road. They evolved from U.S. military jeeps left behind after World War II. More motorized tricycles now ferry passengers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTOR ENGINE)

MCCARTHY: The government banned traditional jeepneys because they pollute and because they are petri dishes for the coronavirus, packing passengers in face-to-face. Some 250,000 drivers of this iconic mainstay for poor and working class commuters are now out of business.

JELBERT LINCALLO: (Non-English language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Before the COVID-19 lockout, Jelbert Lincallo (ph) says if he was lucky, he earned about $20 a day driving his jeepney in Manila. Through a black mask, the 37-year-old says he earns a fraction of that manning a tricycle.

LINCALLO: (Non-English language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "In one day, I earn 600 or 700 pesos. And I have to split that with the owner," meaning Lincallo and his family are living on about $6 a day. And his 13-year-old son needs medication for a heart condition.

LINCALLO: (Non-English language spoken).

MCCARTHY: The city sometimes provides medicine for half the month, he explains. He covers the rest. But Lincallo has used up all the family savings and says the equivalent of $160 handout from the government didn't stretch far.

LINCALLO: (Non-English language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "I have three children and rent, electricity and water to pay for. Is $160 enough for a household for four months of a lockdown? Not at all," he says.

President Rodrigo Duterte recently told the nation if there's anybody who wants lockdowns lifted, it's him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: (Non-English language spoken).

MCCARTHY: "In truth, I want to live normally. I don't want this lockdown. I hate it," Duterte said. Business leader Calixto Chikiamco says the pandemic has revealed that Duterte has no serious policy. He says he approaches the coronavirus the same way he approaches his war on drugs. And he says, unlike the United States, the Philippines is not rife with division over COVID-19.

CALIXTO CHIKIAMCO: It's not a problem of not being united. It's a problem we have an incompetent government that just relies on one approach, which is the bureaucratic military approach.

MCCARTHY: Manila has eased but not lifted its lockdown. Special commandos are enforcing a hard stay-at-home order in the virus hotspot of Cebu City. Emergency rooms are filling up. Medical doctor Julie Caguiat says morale is sinking, Testing is below the government's targets, and the dead, she says, are undercounted.

JULIE CAGUIAT: We have patients who die without being tested in the emergency room of public hospitals. They seem to be COVID patients, but they are not counted into the statistics because they weren't tested already. There are a lot of cases like that. You should take everything they say with a grain of salt.

MCCARTHY: Caguiat says contact tracing is scattershot. Health experts say without reliable data, authorities are unable to pinpoint where to best contain the virus. Broad lockdowns, says economic analyst Robert Herrera Lim, have not only failed to flatten the curve. They have crushed the Philippine economy. Unemployment is near 18% and hit informal workers hardest. The government expanded its social welfare rolls to give them relief. But those who had never received assistance before, Herrera says, had trouble signing up.

ROBERT HERRERA LIM: A lot of it depended on whether you knew the local village chief, whether you knew the guys processing the papers. But if you were a down-on-your-luck jeepney driver, you wouldn't get the money.

MCCARTHY: Herrera says the wave of overseas Filipino workers pouring back home means money they ordinarily send to their families has dried up. Business leader Calixto Chikiamco says compounding the pain is the government's reluctance to take on more debt to fight the pandemic. He says it has put the Philippines near the bottom in the region for spending on its cash-strapped citizens. Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.