Mindanao, Philippines – They gathered shoulder to shoulder, many without masks, calling in unison to welcome the 2020 Christmas season. But the wave of coronaviruses that doctors had warned of did not happen.
Then, as the restrictions eased slightly in January, blockade-weary residents in the southern Philippines began heading to the promenades and parks of the nearby highlands.
Again, there was no increase in cases and some began to question whether the pandemic was real or “just a business with the goal of making money.”
When the summer of the Philippines arrived in March, many had enough confidence to pack public halls of small towns and cities to collect government aid, ignoring restrictions on social distancing, and enjoying the free lunch distributed by elected officials.
Some mayors even allowed the reopening of cockfighting arenas, a magnet for games and mass gatherings. Some Catholic priests also subtly encouraged parishioners to personally attend Sunday Masses, although church attendance is limited to a maximum of half the usual capacity.
In farming communities and fishing villages, residents resumed their usual habits: staying with friends, walking around the neighborhood, or playing basketball and billiards, most without masks.
When the holiday season arrived in April and May, many also organized dinners to visit family and friends despite the ban and the threat of arrest and other sanctions. With each city and town celebrating its own pattern, the fun was repeated in all the nearby communities in the region.
Health officials and police, usually from the same district, looked away as they drank on street corners and people listened to their favorite karaoke songs, as if the second wave of coronavirus in Manila and other urban areas was in a universe.
Inevitably, cases began to rise (first slowly, then in a cascade, which is not yet slowing down), a sign, according to experts, that the pandemic has spread deep into rural communities where health facilities they are already facing an overcapacity.
“This is not isolated in Visayas and Mindanao provinces,” said Peter Cayton, an associate professor in the Faculty of Statistics at the University of the Philippines.
“The increase also affects many provinces of Luzon,” he told Al Jazeera in reference to the country’s three largest island groups.
Only about 1.5 percent of the 110 million people in the Philippines are completely vaccinated against the virus, according to the latest data from the Philippine vaccine locator, and government contact locators are unable to catch up. per day with the explosion of the number of new cases. Hospitals are ready and medical resources are scarce.
Nationwide, more than 7,400 new cases were reported on Thursday, bringing the total number of infections to 1.29 million.
Growing cases predict more deaths and the southern regions have been increasingly affected.
Edson Guido, an expert in data analysis at the University of the Philippines, noted that as of June 7, Mindanao accounted for a quarter of new cases, higher than Metro Manila, showing that the pandemic has shifted to the regions located outside metropolitan areas. .
In Dipolog, a city on the southern island of Mindanao, residents obtained an indication of the seriousness of the situation when two senior members of the Catholic clergy and a nun died a few days after the end of May. They were buried in a hurry without the usual elaborate rites. Another high priest is in quarantine and trying to recover from the illness.
A former mayor and his brother from a nearby city were also admitted to a government hospital in the same city, as dozens of people were being treated for coronavirus outside in makeshift tents or stuck in oxygen tanks while sitting. to their vehicles, due to the lack of hospital beds. A 37-year-old patient died the same day her family discovered she had COVID-19.
Meanwhile, hundreds of other patients with mild or asymptomatic infections were advised to be quarantined at home.
“COVID is real and circulating in our province,” Philip Limsi, a doctor at the city’s only fully equipped hospital against COVID, wrote on social media.
“Please help reduce cases. There are no more rooms and the supply of oxygen tanks is running out, ”he said.
In the nearby town of Polanco, dozens of local government employees were infected, forcing a shutdown of city hall operations.
City management faced some questions after it allowed a massive rally of hundreds of peasants and motorcyclists to receive government financial aid and food packages despite a blockade.
The city’s top health official, Dr. Patrisha Quema, agreed to answer Al Jazeera’s questions about the pandemic, but later ignored follow-up requests to send her response.
As early as the third week of May, the city and its largest province in Zamboanga del Norte had already reported that intensive care beds were full and no longer had respirators, according to data from the Department of Health.
The province also saw younger inmates (some as young as 16) hospitalized, prompting officials to declare a strict two-week closure from June 1.
The order also includes a ban on public alcohol consumption throughout the province. But on Wednesday some people were still seen sharing liquor and drinking from a single shared glass by the side of the road.
Citing her busy schedule due to the increase in cases, Zamboanga del Norte’s top health official, Dr Esmeralda Nadela, said she would only be able to answer Al Jazeera’s questions “next time”.
“Rest well, mother”
Among those who have succumbed to COVID was Rosalina Ocupe, a former elementary school teacher who had returned to her hometown of Polanco after spending her retirement years in Chicago, USA.
As a vulnerable elderly person, he had been careful not to take to the streets as the pandemic spread. But shortly after she turned 79, in early May, she fell ill after a home helper became ill. He spent three weeks in Dipolog Hospital with a ventilator.
Her daughter, Patty, hoped her mother would recover and that she would return home in a few days. Instead, the family received news Wednesday that their mother had died.
“Rest well, mother,” Patty wrote in a tribute to her mother, whose remains were hastily buried after dusk on Wednesday, renouncing traditional Filipino rites of nine days ’eve before burial.
Patty’s older sister, Marichu, who lives in Chicago, was unable to return home due to travel restrictions. With the death of his mother, he has been left wondering if he could have done more for his mother.
“I did enough for [her] who prayed day and night for success? This question will always be [left] no answer “.
Randy, his brother, is abandoned.
“[It is] sad, painful and very unfair that COVID took his life, ”he told Al Jazeera.
Dipolog is not even the most affected of the provincial areas.
Near Dumaguete, in Visayas, there was a 206 percent increase in infections between May 31 and June 6, topping the list of cities facing an increase in coronavirus nationwide. .
Among the recent fatalities in the university city are a retired judge, whose wife is also battling the disease, and the city’s deputy mayor, Alan Córdoba, who suffered a heart attack and died while riding a bicycle, few days after recovering from coronavirus.
In an interview with reporters Monday, Dr. Kenneth Coo, a Dumaguete-based doctor and national president in crisis management at the Philippine College of Physicians, said that even if the city closes its doors to outsiders in In response to the increase, there was already “Community Transmission”.
“The most important thing is that we need to isolate the danger,” he said, warning that all Dumaguete hospitals have overflow capacity, noting that the latest infections in the city were sought at dinners with family and friends.
“There are no parties, please. There are no mass meetings, please, this is my request to the community. “
Several cities in Mindanao are also facing a wave like South Cotabato, General Santos, and Davao City, where Duterte was mayor for more than 20 years. Among the latest fatalities was South Davao Provincial Governor Douglas Cagas, who died Thursday.
The OCTA research group, which monitors coronavirus cases in the Philippines, said in a briefing on Wednesday that the national government should consider sending medical personnel and equipment to Mindanao.
OCTA’s Ranjit Rye warned that if the rise continues, hospitals could be overwhelmed.
“Our call to the national government is to let us deploy people, equipment and support to these areas,” Rye said, adding that the climb could take a month.
As for Limsi, a provincial doctor and breathing specialist, he appealed to people to stay home and added: “Your birthday party would not be worth your visitors suffering from. [if they are infected with COVID]”.
Meanwhile, Cayton, of the University of the Philippines, said whether whether the Philippines will see a spiral of rises and slowdowns in infections depends on the government’s ability to implement contact tracing, testing, vaccination and treatment.
So far, there are still not enough indications that the government will do so, he said.