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Coronavirus

Philippines to ease lockdown as hunger and unemployment surge

More businesses and mass transportation set for gradual restart in June

Workers wait for a ride as some businesses reopen despite limited public transportation on May 18 in Quezon, a city in Metro Manila.   © Reuters

MANILA -- The Philippines will ease the country's lockdown starting Monday after more than two months of strict quarantine measures that officials say slowed the spread of the coronavirus, but which left millions of people jobless and hungry.

In a televised speech Thursday night, President Rodrigo Duterte said Metropolitan Manila, the capital region and economic engine, will be downgraded to a "general community quarantine" in June from the current "enhanced" quarantine.

The rest of the country will be under "modified general community quarantine," Duterte said, adding that the government "will update if there will be changes from time to time."

The move comes amid calls by businesses and local governments to ease the lockdown, in order to reignite the economy after months of restrictions took a heavy toll on trade and commerce.

Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade, who spoke in the same briefing, said public transport, railways and domestic flights will resume gradually.

The government has distributed cash aid to around 20 million impoverished and low-income families to help them cope with the lockdown. Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello told a Philippine Senate hearing last week that 2.6 million people lost their jobs during the lockdown. Up to 10 million could be unemployed, the labor chief said.

Hunger also surged. A survey by local pollster Social Weather Stations conducted May 4-10 found that 16.7% of residents, or an estimated 4.2 million Filipino families, experienced hunger at least once in the past three months, doubling from 8.8% in December.

The government's economic team expects gross domestic product to shrink this year between 2.0% and 3.4%, the worst contraction in over three decades.

Duterte in mid-March placed the capital region of Metro Manila and the wider main island of Luzon -- home to nearly 60 million people -- under "enhanced community quarantine."

The lockdown shut public transport and businesses, and restricted people from leaving their homes save for buying food and medicine.

The decision to ease the lockdown was made even as the Philippines reported a daily record of 539 new cases Thursday, bringing the total to 15,588 infections, with 921 deaths overall.

But Health Secretary Francisco Duque said during the briefing that the rise included workers returning from overseas who contracted the virus abroad.

Philippine health officials and medical experts have said the lockdown slowed virus transmission. But experts are divided on whether the Philippines is flattening the infection curve.

Duterte urged people to remain vigilant and avoid further transmission.

"Remember that the entire nation is still under quarantine," the president said. "Let us move to the so called new normal, and see what develops ahead."

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