Philippines COVID-19 cases top one million

·2-min read

Coronavirus infections have surged past one million in the Philippines as officials assess whether to extend a month-long lockdown in the Manila region amid a grim spike in cases or relax it to fight a recession, joblessness and hunger.

The Department of Health reported 8929 new infections on Monday, bringing the country's total to 1,006,428, including 16,853 deaths - the second-highest in Southeast Asia after Indonesia.

The Philippines imposed its first virus lockdown in March last year, confining millions of people to their homes and shutting public transport and most businesses. The heavy restrictions were eased later in the year but the economy still contracted by 9.6 per cent in 2020, with unemployment and hunger at their worst in years.

Infections, however, spiked again last month to some of the worst levels in Asia, prompting President Rodrigo Duterte's administration to reimpose a lockdown in the Manila region, the country's financial and commercial hub with more than 25 million people. Several hospitals in the metropolis reported being overwhelmed, with new patients waiting in hospital driveways, ambulances and cars.

Hospital officials say many health workers have been infected or have had to take a break due to stress and fatigue.

Despite a slight decline in new cases, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said he believes the current lockdown should be extended by another week or two. Economic officials have warned that a prolonged lockdown would increase unemployment and slow an economic recovery.

"Our health system's capacity hasn't improved that much," Duque told the DZMM radio network, adding the shortage of hospital intensive care units in some cities remains critical.

The Philippine Red Cross said surging infections have placed hospitals "under siege," and that it has set up field hospital tents and converted unused classrooms and buildings to quarantine patients.

Duterte and his administration have faced widespread criticism over his handling of the pandemic and the sluggish start last month of a vaccination campaign which has been hampered by supply problems, delivery delays and public hesitancy.

Concerned Filipinos have set up footpath stalls across the country marked "community pantries" to hand out donated rice, noodles, eggs, vegetables and other food items to the poor. The stalls have drawn swarms of people, sparking concerns from lockdown enforcers.

Cabinet officials and medical experts are to meet on Tuesday to recommend whether to continue the lockdown to Duterte, who may announce a decision on Wednesday, Roque said.