By Beatrice M. Laforga and
Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporters
THE NATIONAL Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) backed the imposition of localized lockdowns and curfews by local government units to curb a fresh surge in coronavirus cases, but economists warned this could dampen recovery prospects this year.
This as the Health department on Monday reported 5,404 coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases, the largest single-day increase since August 2020 (Read related story: “Daily COVID-19 infections highest since August“).
“We have to balance and use the localized lockdown and curfew to reduce cases while allowing the majority who are not affected to work,” NEDA Acting Secretary Karl Kendrick T. Chua said in a Viber message.
Several villages in Metro Manila have been placed under localized lockdowns due to rising infections. Uniform curfew hours were also implemented in Metro Manila.
Mr. Chua did not comment on the impact of the renewed surge on the economy, saying only that the government is “working urgently together to prevent this.”
Economic managers target 6.5-7.5% growth this year and expect the economy to expand by 8-10% in 2022.
Renewed lockdowns and curfews will likely keep consumer confidence muted and weigh on an already sluggish economic recovery, ING Bank N.V. Manila Senior Economist Nicholas Antonio T. Mapa said in a note on Monday.
“Currently, we now know that we can no longer simply blame the lockdowns or the virus for the ongoing economic slump as we see our neighbors and developed nations well on their way to recovery, aided in large part by effective vaccination efforts and fiscal stimulus efforts,” Mr. Mapa said.
Malacanang on Monday said President Rodrigo R. Duterte would not place Metro Manila under the strictest level of lockdown this month.
“Sa buwan ng Marso, hindi pa po,” Presidential Spokesperson Herminio “Harry” L. Roque, Jr. told a televised press briefing.
The Palace official said the decision to put the National Capital Region (NCR) back under an enhanced community quarantine status would be based on the health sector’s capacity to treat coronavirus patients.
“Mayroon pa tayong 55% available ICU (intensive care unit) beds, around 60% available COVID ward beds, 60% pa rin ang ating isolation facilities,” said Mr. Roque, who tested positive for the COVID-19 virus.
The spike in COVID-19 cases should not be blamed on the government’s decision to gradually reopen the economy, he said. Mr. Roque said this could be due to the presence of more contagious variants of the virus.
The OCTA Research Group from the University of the Philippines on Sunday said coronavirus infections in the Philippines could reach 8,000 by end-March and 20,000 by mid-April if the government fails to contain the pandemic.
HERD IMMUNITY UNLIKELY IN 2021
A successful vaccine rollout and herd immunity is critical to economic recovery in the Philippines, which has struggled to curb the rise in COVID-19 infections.
In a March 13 note, Romeo L. Bernardo, country analyst for the Philippines at GlobalSource Partners, said the government’s projection that herd immunity would be reached by yearend is unlikely to be achieved.
“Based on current reported vaccine arrival schedules and assuming that government, typically strong in planning but weaker in implementation, is able to reach the upper end of the range of 300,000 daily vaccination target, our back of the envelope estimate suggests that herd immunity by yearend is unreachable,” he said, adding that the government also has to address the public distrust of vaccines.
Vaccine czar Carlito G. Galvez, Jr. earlier expressed optimism that the government would achieve its target of inoculating about 70% of the population within the year.
“The pessimists are worrying that herd immunity by end-2021 is purely aspirational, and even end-2022 is a hard stretch. The optimists, meanwhile, are hoping that even if the share of immunized population fall short of target, there will be a period when inoculations in the major urban areas will be done quickly, especially with the private sector paying its own way, enough to boost confidence and allow resumption of a more normal level of economic activity,” Mr. Bernardo said.
Meanwhile, the Philippine government is “grossly misrepresenting the post-enhanced lockdown rebound as a recovery,” IBON Foundation Executive Director Sonny A. Africa told BusinessWorld in a Facebook messenger chat.
“There’s even less employment today than in July 2020 after the strict lockdown was lifted. Despite easing months of restrictions, there’s still only 41.2 million employed in January 2021 compared with 41.3 million in July 2020,” he said.
“The over-reliance on crude lockdowns and population control to contain COVID and the unconscionable refusal to spend to stimulate the economy is the cause of the year-long economic hardship of tens of millions of Filipinos,” he said. “To this day, we’re still being given the false choice between health and the economy.”
Mr. Africa also cited the government’s poor spending of funds under the two major stimulus laws enacted last year.
“It only spent P340 billion of the P386-billion Bayanihan I budget. Even more poorly, despite such huge economic needs it has only used up P43.4 billion of P175.9 billion in Bayanihan II funds,” he said.
Mr. Africa urged the government to improve its health-based coronavirus prevention measures, distribute another round of emergency cash aid and increase support to micro, small and medium enterprises “to alleviate the economic distress the government caused and to spur more rapid recovery.”