MANILA -- Metropolitan Manila will go into lockdown on Sunday to contain the spreading coronavirus outbreak in the country, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Thursday.
Land transport as well as domestic sea and air travel to and from Metro Manila will be suspended through April 14, the president said, adding that the situation will be reviewed daily.
Metro Manila, home to around 13 million people, is the Philippine commercial capital and generates over one-third of the country's gross domestic product. It was not immediately clear how the travel suspension would be enforced, as thousands of workers from nearby provinces travel to the capital for work daily. The president encouraged flexible work arrangements for the private sector.
Duterte ordered a "community quarantine" in Metro Manila, as well as similar quarantine measures in areas outside the capital with at least two cases of COVID-19. Suspension of school classes in Metro Manila is also extended until April 12 while mass gatherings are prohibited, the president said.
"They are afraid to call it a lockdown, but it is a lockdown," Duterte said in a televised address from Malanacang Palace. "It is a matter of protecting and defending you from COVID-19."
The drastic measures come as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the Philippines climbed to 52 on Thursday, up from five on March 6. Three more patients died Thursday, bringing the number of fatalities to five.
Duterte, 74, was tested for COVID-19 on Thursday after cabinet officials who have regular contact with the president went into self-quarantine following their exposure to a person who tested positive. Duterte's test result is expected to be known within 48 hours.
Amid rumors of a lockdown, panic buying hit some grocery stores in Metro Manila, with people hoarding sanitizers and food.
Heightened fears over the spread of the virus sparked a massive sell-off Thursday on the Philippine Stock Exchange, triggering a circuit breaker after the PSE index lost over 10%. The index closed 9.7% lower at 5,736.27.
Duterte said he might ask China for help if the coronavirus situation in the Philippines deteriorates.
"To the Chinese government, especially to President Xi Jinping, thank you for the consoling words," Duterte said. "I hope it will not reach that point, but maybe we will need your help."
Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano sought to clarify Duterte's remarks after his speech, telling the radio station DZMM that Metro Manila workers who live outside the capital will be allowed to travel.
Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles told DZMM that this is not an "absolute lockdown."