Mindanao, Philippines – They gathered shoulder to shoulder, many without masks, shout in unison to welcome the 2020 Christmas season. But the wave of coronavirus that doctors warned did not happen.

Then, as restrictions were eased slightly in January, residents weary of the lockdown in the southern Philippines began to head for the waterfronts and highland parks nearby.

Again, there was no spike in cases and some began to question whether the pandemic was for real or “just a lucrative business.”

As the Philippine summer arrived in March, many were confident enough to fill town halls and small towns to collect government aid, ignoring social distancing restrictions and taking advantage of the free lunch handed out by elected officials.

Some mayors have even authorized the reopening of cockfighting arenas, a magnet for gaming and mass gatherings. A few Catholic priests also subtly encouraged parishioners to attend Sunday Masses in person, although church attendance was limited to a maximum of half the usual capacity.

In farming communities and fishing villages, locals have resumed their usual habits – hanging out with friends, walking around the neighborhood, or playing basketball and billiards – mostly without masks.

As the holiday season arrived in April and May, many were also hosting dinner parties to visit family and friends despite a ban and the threat of arrest and other sanctions. With each town and village celebrating their own patron saint, the revelry was repeated in the tight-knit communities of the region.

Health officials and police, usually from the same neighborhood, looked away as drinks were distributed around street corners and people sang their favorite karaoke tunes, as if the second wave of coronavirus in Manila and other urban areas was at one universe.

Inevitably, cases began to increase – slowly at first, then cascading, which still does not slow down – a sign, experts say, that the pandemic has taken hold in rural communities where health facilities are already. faced with overcapacity.

“It’s not isolated in the provinces of Visayas and Mindanao,” said Peter Cayton, associate professor in the School of Statistics at the University of the Philippines.

“The surge is also affecting many provinces in Luzon,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to the country’s three main island groups.

According to the latest data from the Philippine Vaccine Tracker, only about 1.5% of the Philippines’ 110 million people are fully vaccinated against the virus, and government contact tracers are unable to catch up with the growing number of new cases. . Hospitals are already at full capacity and medical resources are insufficient.

Nationally, more than 7,400 new cases were reported as of Thursday, bringing the total number of infections to 1.29 million.

The increase in cases portends more deaths and the southern regions are increasingly hit hard.

Edson Guido, a data analysis expert 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 moved to regions well outside of metropolitan areas. .

threatening sign

In Dipolog, a town on the southern island of Mindanao, residents got a feel for the gravity of the situation when two senior Catholic clergy and a nun died within days of each other in late May. They were hastily buried without the usual elaborate rites. Another senior priest is in quarantine, trying to recover from the illness.

A former mayor and his brother from a nearby town were also admitted to a government hospital in the same town, as dozens of people were treated for coronavirus outside in makeshift tents, or hooked up to tanks oxygen while they were seated in their vehicles, due to the lack of hospital beds. A 37-year-old patient died the same day her family found out she had COVID-19.

Hundreds of other patients with mild infections, or no symptoms, have been asked to self-quarantine at home.

“COVID is real and roams our province,” wrote Philip Limsi, a doctor at the city’s only fully equipped COVID hospital, on social media.

“Please let us help reduce the 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 workers were infected, forcing town hall operations to be locked down.

City leaders have faced some questions after allowing a mass rally of hundreds of farmers and motorcycle riders to receive government financial assistance and food packages despite a lockdown.

The city’s top health official, Dr Patrisha Quema, agreed to answer Al Jazeera’s questions regarding the pandemic, but then ignored follow-up requests to return his response.

As early as the third week of May, the city and its large province of Zamboanga del Norte had already reported that its intensive care beds were full and that there were no more ventilators, according to data from the Ministry of Health.

The province has also seen more young people – some as young as 16 – being hospitalized, prompting authorities to declare a strict two-week lockdown from June 1.

The ordinance also includes a province-wide ban on public alcohol consumption. But on Wednesday, some people were still seen sharing alcohol and drinking from a single shared shot glass by the side of the road.

Citing her busy schedule due to the increase in the number of cases, Zamboanga del Norte’s top health official, Dr Esmeralda Nadela, said she could only answer Al Jazeera’s questions ” the next time”.

Despite a strict ban on mass gatherings, authorities in Polanco town allowed hundreds of farmers and motorcyclists to gather in a public gymnasium to receive government financial aid and a food parcel on May 25 in the middle of the growing number of COVID cases in the region. [Ted Regencia/Al Jazeera]

‘Rest well, mom’

Among those who 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 in the United States.

As a vulnerable senior, she had been careful not to go outside as the pandemic spread. But shortly after her 79th birthday in early May, she fell ill after a housekeeper fell ill. She spent three weeks in Dipolog hospital on a ventilator.

Her daughter, Patty, had hoped her mother would recover and be home in a few days. Instead, the family learned on Wednesday that their mother had passed away.

“Rest well, mom,” Patty wrote in a tribute to her mother, whose remains were hastily buried after sunset on Wednesday, forgoing traditional Filipino rites of nine days before the burial.

Patty’s older sister, Marichu, who lives in Chicago, was unable to return home due to travel restrictions. With the death of her mother, she wondered if she could have done more for her mother.

“Have I done enough to [her] who prayed day and night for me to be successful? This question will always be [left] without answer.

Randy, their brother, is helpless.

“[It is] sad, painful and very unfair that COVID took his life, ”he told Al Jazeera.

South push

Dipolog is not even the most affected of the provincial regions.

The neighboring city of Dumaguete in the Visayas recorded a 206% increase in infections between May 31 and June 6, placing it at the top of the list of cities facing a nationwide coronavirus wave.

About 1.5% of the 110 million Filipinos are fully immunized as of Thursday, according to the Philippine Vaccine Tracker [File: Ted Aljibe/AFP]

Recent deaths in the university town include a retired judge, whose wife is also currently battling the disease, and the city’s deputy mayor, Alan Cordova, who suffered cardiac arrest and died while cycling. , just days after recovering from the coronavirus.

In an interview with reporters on Monday, Dr Kenneth Coo, a Dumaguete-based physician and national president of crisis management at the Philippine College of Physicians, said that although the city was closing its doors to foreigners in response to the outbreak, it there was already “community transmission”.

“Most important is that we have to isolate the danger,” he said, warning that all hospitals in Dumaguete are at overflow capacity while noting that the latest infections in the city have been attributed to dinners with the family and friends.

“No parties, please. No mass gatherings, please, this is my request to the community.

Several cities in Mindanao are also facing a wave like South Cotabato, General Santos, as well as Davao City, where Duterte served as mayor for over 20 years. Among the latest deaths is the governor of Davao del Sur province, Douglas Cagas, who died on Thursday.

In a press briefing on Wednesday, the OCTA research group, which tracks coronavirus cases in the Philippines, said the national government should consider sending health workers and equipment to Mindanao.

OCTA’s Ranjit Rye warned that if the wave continues, hospitals could be overwhelmed.

“Our appeal to the national government is to let us deploy people, equipment and support to these areas,” Rye said, adding that the push could last for a month.

As for Limsi, a provincial physician and respiratory specialist, he called on people to stay at home, adding, “Your birthday party would not be worth the suffering your visitors may endure. [if they are infected with COVID]. “





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