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The Philippines Becomes Coronavirus Hot Spot In Southeast Asia

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Philippines has overtaken Indonesia as Southeast Asia's coronavirus hotspot even though Indonesia has twice as many people. The Philippines now has more than 136,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and, critics say, no coherent strategy for defeating the virus. Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Like other countries in the region - South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam, for example - the Philippines recorded its first COVID case back in January. Those neighbors acted swiftly.

RANJIT RYE: They started locking down when they had a few hundred cases, and the timeliness of that response was key to the success of Vietnam, Korea and Taiwan.

SULLIVAN: University of the Philippines COVID researcher Ranjit Rye...

RYE: They decided to do something significant when they only had relatively few cases. And they were successful with tracing and with the isolation - very different from the Philippines, where we already had the case in January and we decided not to do anything about it until March.

SULLIVAN: And it wasn't just the Philippines' lockdown that was late, health workers say. Dr. Tony Leachon is a former adviser to the government's COVID task force.

TONY LEACHON: They started late with the building up of the health system capacities in terms of testing, isolation and contact tracing. We wasted so much time, about two months, instead of trying to build up our infrastructures.

SULLIVAN: Adequate testing and contact tracing are still a huge problem. But the lockdown that went into effect in March, one of the longest and most severe in Southeast Asia, did help reduce the number of new cases - until it was lifted in June, when cases started to skyrocket. Over the weekend, the country's medical front-liners issued an urgent virtual plea to President Rodrigo Duterte to reimpose the lockdown to allow them to regroup.

Medical Association president Dr. Jose Santiago Jr...

JOSE SANTIAGO JR: Our health care system has been overwhelmed. Our health workers are burnt out with seemingly endless number of patients trooping to our hospitals for emergency care and admission. We're waging a losing battle against COVID-19.

SULLIVAN: President Duterte's initial response was less than empathetic, accusing the health workers of inciting a revolution against his government.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: You will give me the free ticket to stage a counterrevolution - how I wish you would do it.

SULLIVAN: The next day, he retreated and ordered a new 15-day lockdown. But it's not as stringent as the first. Public transportation has been stopped, but businesses and retail outlets can operate at half capacity in an effort to both halt the spread of the virus and allow some economic activity in a country that's now slipped into recession. But critics say this 15-day lockdown light won't stop the spread of the virus.

GUIDO DAVID: If it goes only 15 days, it will start increasing again. And the problem is that our health care is now at full capacity. We have two cities in metro Manila which are at 100% occupancy, so that's a real problem.

SULLIVAN: That's University of the Philippines professor Guido David who's been modeling the spread of the virus along with his colleague Ranjit Rye.

RYE: If we don't manage this this month - we don't take the opportunity to extend the MECQ, that small window of opening, lives and livelihoods would suffer. The disruption will become greater. And my sense is if we prematurely open, it could be catastrophic for us.

SULLIVAN: But he acknowledges extending the lockdown will be a tough sell for both the politically powerful business community and the everyday Filipino who's going to suffer because of these extended lockdowns.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.