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Philippines ignored neighbors' lessons on how to tackle coronavirus

Manila lockdown comes far too late after Duterte tried to placate China

| Philippines
Rodrigo Duterte speaks during an Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Malacanang presidential palace on Mar. 16: the Philippine president has been trying to please China.   © Malacanang Presidential Photographers Division/AP

The Philippine government has taken drastic action. In response to the threat of a coronavirus epidemic outbreak, it has placed the country's capital under a de facto lockdown or, as President Rodrigo Duterte euphemistically said, "enhanced community quarantine."

Metro Manila, home to more than 12 million and the most densely populated urban center on earth, will face unprecedented restrictions on movement of its residents from now at least until April 12. The Philippines is the first country in the region to have placed its administrative and commercial capital under collective quarantine.

Authorities have portrayed it as a preemptive measure against widespread transmission. As many as 75,000 people, they warn, could get infected over the coming months without extreme policies.

But the unprecedented lockdown in fact reflects recklessness and failure on the part of Duterte's administration to nip the crisis in the bud, exactly when it should have been learning from its neighbors. Instead, Duterte has been trying to avoid China's wrath, to the potential detriment of his own people.

To put things into perspective, consider the Philippines' immediate neighbors, both developed and developing, which have largely avoided the need to quarantine major cities so far.

Neighbors such as Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam swiftly implemented preventive measures, which allowed them to skip more draconian steps such as those in China, Italy and, most recently, the Philippines.

Despite their geographic and cultural proximity to China, as the January celebration of the Lunar New Year drew in countless tourists from the mainland, they all managed to largely contain the epidemic.

This was accomplished through a combination of policies such as large-scale public health campaigns, calibrated restrictions on public events and gatherings, deployment of state-of-the-art technology to track and assess the spread of the epidemic, proactive contact tracing to prevent intra-community transmission and regular and transparent communication between top officials and the citizenry.

One important factor, however, was the swift and decisive imposition of travel restrictions to prevent the entry of potentially infected individuals to the country.

Although a global hub and a major tourist destination, Singapore was among the first countries to ban entry of all inbound flights from Wuhan, while subjecting incoming Chinese tourists, especially those with potential symptoms, to detailed health inspections and mandatory quarantine. Three university hostels were rapidly converted to quarantine individuals coming from affected areas in China.

Meanwhile, Taiwan rigorously inspected inbound visitors from China, then quickly suspended flights by four major airlines between Taipei and Wuhan as soon as the epidemic threat became clear.

The Philippines, however, responded with stubborn dismissiveness. Almost two weeks into the Wuhan lockdown, Duterte nonchalantly claimed that "everything is well. There's nothing really to be extra scared of that coronavirus thing" since it will eventually "die on its own."

He asked his people not to be "hysterical" but instead "have faith in humanity," especially since the Filipinos are a "resilient" people. Almost two months into the crisis, this attitude may explain why the Philippines is yet to procure large numbers of test kits to assess the real extent of the crisis.

Ruling out a proactive nationwide campaign to prevent an epidemic outbreak, Duterte and his top officials also hesitated to place travel restrictions on Chinese citizens, even as 135 Wuhan residents came to the Philippines to avoid lockdown at home.

When a number of Filipino senators called on the government to follow in the footsteps of neighboring countries, the Philippine Health Secretary warned about the "political and diplomatic repercussions" of any travel restrictions on China.

As the epidemic turned into a pandemic, incoming flights from China continued despite the imposition of an official ban. Officials claim that the flights only carried Filipinos and permanent residents, but there are reasons to doubt this claim.

With a recent senate investigation revealing the large-scale illegal entry of Chinese citizens, especially those working in the sprawling and largely shoddy Chinese online casino industry in the Philippines, it is hard to ignore gaping loopholes in the existing travel ban on mainland China.

By keeping the Philippines' doors way open weeks into the emerging pandemic, the Duterte administration recklessly exposed the country to a heightened risk of epidemic. Even if officially the Philippines has a relatively low number of confirmed cases, the true extent of the epidemic threat is largely "underreported," according to one senator, because of that lack of kits.

As Duterte announced a virtual lockdown in Manila, he still could not help but praise the Chinese leadership and said, supposedly to allay fears among his citizens, "if things deteriorate, I may have to call on China to help." It was far from reassuring to many who oppose the president's China-friendly policy.

By blindly prioritizing strategic ties with China and recklessly dismissing the possibility of an epidemic, the Duterte administration has risked an outbreak and been forced to place a megacity on lockdown.

Richard Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, columnist and author of "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy" and the "The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery."

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