Mindanao, Philippines – They came together shoulder to shoulder, some without masks, shouting in unison to welcome the 2020 Christmas season. But the wave of coronavirus that doctors had prevented did not happen.
Then, when restrictions were eased slightly in January, tired residents of the blockade in the southern Philippines began to move toward sea neighbors and highland parks.
Once again, there has been no spike in homes and some have begun to wonder if the pandemic was real or “just a money-making venture.”
When the Philippine summer came in March, many were confident enough to pack public halls in cities and small towns to collect government aid, ignoring restrictions on social distance and enjoying the free lunch distributed by elected officials.
Some mayors have also allowed the reopening of the cockfighting arena, a magnet for gaming and mass meetings. Some Catholic priests have also subtly encouraged parishioners to attend Sunday masses in person, although church attendance is limited to a maximum of half the usual capacity.
In farming communities and fishing villages, residents have picked up their usual habits – hanging out with friends, walking around the neighborhood or playing ball and billiards – mostly without mascara.
At the time of the holiday season coming in April and May, many even hosted dinners to visit family and friends despite a ban and the threat of arrest and other sanctions. With each city and town celebrating its own patron saint, the fun was repeated in all the close communities of the region.
Health officials and police, usually from the same district, watched as drinks were passed around the corners of the street and people wrapped their favorite karaoke songs around, as if the second wave of coronaviruses in Manila and other urban areas were a distant universe.
Inevitably homes have started to grow – first slowly, then by fall, which is not always slowed down – a sign, experts said, that the pandemic has become deeply entrenched in rural communities where health facilities are already plagued by excessive capacity.
“This is not isolated in the Visayas and Mindanao provinces,” said Peter Cayton, an associate professor at the University of the Philippines School of Statistics.
“The wave also affected several provinces of Luzon,” he told Al Jazeera referring to the country’s three largest island groups.
Only about 1.5 percent of the 110 million people in the Philippines are vaccinated against the virus, according to the latest data from the Philippine Vaccine Tracker, and government contact tracers are unable to recover the number. explosive of new cases. Hospitals are already at capacity and medical resources are lacking.
Nationally, more than 7,400 new cases were reported Thursday, bringing the total number of infections to 1.29 million.
Growing homes predict more deaths, and southern regions have been hit harder and harder.
Edson Guido, a data analysis expert from the University of the Philippines, said that as of June 7, Mindanao reported a quarter of the new, higher-rise cases of Metro Manila, showing that the pandemic has spread to the regions. far outside metropolitan areas. .
In Dipolog, a city on the southern island of Mindanao, residents had an indication of how serious the situation had become when two former members of the Catholic clergy and a nun died within days of each other. at the end of May. They were buried in fury without the usual elaborate rites. Another senior priest is in quarantine, trying to recover from the illness.
A former mayor and brother from a nearby town were also admitted to a government hospital in the same city, where dozens of people were treated for coronavirus outside in makeshift tents, or connected to oxygen tanks while sitting in the their vehicles, due to lack of hospital beds. A 37-year-old patient died the same day her family learned she had COVID-19.
Hundreds of other patients with mild, or asymptomatic infections, have meanwhile been advised to be quarantined at home.
“COVID is real and travels around our province,” wrote Philip Limsi, a doctor at the city’s only fully-equipped hospital against COVID, on social media.
“Please help us lower the houses. There are no more rooms and the supply of oxygen tanks is short,” he said.
In the nearby town of Polanco, dozens of local government employees have been infected, forcing a blockade of the town hall’s operations.
The city leadership addressed some issues after it allowed a mass rally of hundreds of farmers and motorcyclist drivers to receive government financial aid and food parcels despite a blockade.
The city’s first health official, Dr. Patrisha Quema, agreed to answer Al Jazeera’s questions regarding the pandemic, but then ignored the follow-up questions to back up her response.
Since the third week of May, the city and its largest province of Zamboanga del Norte had already said that their intensive care beds were full and that they had no more respirators, according to data from the Department of Health.
The province has seen even more young people – some as young as 16 – hospitalized, urging officials to declare a two-week closure sentence from 1 June.
The order also includes a ban on public alcohol consumption throughout the province. But Wednesday, some people were still seen sharing liquor and drinking from a single common glass by the side of the road.
Citing her busy schedule due to the wave of cases, Zamboanga del Norte’s first health official, Dr Esmeralda Nadela said she could only answer Al Jazeera’s questions “next time” .
‘Rest well, Mom’
Among those who succeeded 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 elderly person, she had been careful not to go outside when the pandemic spread. But shortly after her 79th birthday in early May, she fell ill after a home helper became ill. He spent three weeks in hospital in Dipolog on a ventilator.
Her daughter, Patty, had hoped that her mother would recover and that she would be home in a few days. Instead, the family received news Wednesday that their mother was dead.
“Rest well, Mama,” Patty wrote in a tribute to her mother, whose remains were buried furiously after sunset Wednesday, giving up traditional Philippine rites of nine days ’vigil before burial.
Patty’s older sister, Marichu, who lives in Chicago, has not been able to return home due to travel restrictions. With her mother’s death, she was left wondering if she could have done more for her mother.
“I’ve done enough to [her] who has prayed day and night for success? This question will always be [left] without answer “.
Randy, his brother, is private.
“[It is] sad, painful and very unfair that COVID has taken its own life, ”he told Al Jazeera.
It rises south
Dipolog is not even the worst hit of the provincial zones.
Nearby holidays in the Visayas recorded a 206 percent increase in infections between May 31 and June 6, which returns to the top of the list of cities facing a wave of national coronaviruses.
Recent victims in the university town include a retired judge, whose wife is still struggling with the disease, and the city’s deputy mayor, Alan Cordova, who suffered a heart attack and died while riding a bicycle, a few days after his recovery from the 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 response on the wave, there was already “Community Transmission.”
“Most importantly, we need to isolate the danger,” he said, warning that all hospitals in Dumaguete are in an overflow capacity, noting that the latest infections in the city have been traced to dinners with family and friends.
“No party, please.” No mass rally, please, is my request to the community. ”
Many cities in Mindanao are also facing growth such as South Cotabato, General Santos, and even Davao City, where Duterte has been mayor for more than 20 years. Among the latest victims was Davao del Sur provincial governor Douglas Cagas, who died Thursday.
In a news briefing on Wednesday, the OCTA Research Group, which tracks coronavirus cases in the Philippines, said the national government should consider sending medical workers and equipment to Mindanao.
OCTA’s Ranjit Rye has warned that if the whisper continues, hospitals could be overwhelmed.
“Our appeal to the national government is to let them explain people, equipment and support in these areas,” Rye said, adding that the growth could last a month.
As for Limsi, a provincial doctor and respiratory specialist, he appealed to people to stay home, adding: “Your birthday party wouldn’t be worth the pain your visitors could face. [if they are infected with COVID]. “