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Wider lockdown possible ahead of Holy Week as COVID-19 infections spike in Philippines

Catholic churches will implement strict health protocols during the annual observance of the Holy Week

A wider lockdown in the Philippines, especially in the capital Manila, ahead of the annual observance of the Holy Week cannot be ruled out if its surge in COVID-19 infections continues, the Health department said on Wednesday, March 17.

The government is facing renewed criticism over its handling of the epidemic after a jump in coronavirus cases — nearly 20,000 in the past four days — a year after it imposed one of the world’s strictest and longest lockdowns.

Officials attribute the spike to a relaxing of some mobility restrictions to allow people to return to work and revive the economy after a 9.5 percent contraction last year, Southeast Asia’s deepest economic slump.

“If nothing changes and cases continue to rise, then the possibility of a more widespread lockdown is strong,” said Health Secretary Francisco Duque in a television interview.

Although some curbs have been eased, many restrictions have been in place for a year, including inter-regional movement and the closure of schools.

Restrictions during Holy Week observance

Some churches are planning to decrease the number of people who will be allowed to attend religious services.

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Several parish churches in the capital were reportedly to have been placed under lockdown this week after some of its personnel and priests tested positive of the coronavirus disease.

Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan, vice president of the Catholic bishops’ conference, said Church leaders are currently in talks with authorities on the implementation of health protocols.

A police officer facilitates the movement of pedestrians outside a Catholic church in the Philippine capital on March 17, 2021, following a surge in COVID-19 cases in the country. (Photo by Mike Taboy for LiCAS.news)

“We are always open to cooperate for the common good,” Bishop David told LiCAS.news. He said, however, that they will consider recommendations from the government if these are “science-based and backed up by facts and statistics.”

In the central Philippines, authorities said there is no plan to place the city of Cebu under lockdown before the Holy Week despite the surge in COVID-19 cases.

Melquiades Feliciano of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases said Cebu has been able to hold up despite the uptrend in cases.

He advised the people, however, to avoid activities that involve huge crowds during the Holy Week observance.

“We have to prevent transmission. We have to stop the mutation by preventing its transmission,” he told the government’s Philippine News Agency.

Warning from bishops

Catholic bishops have urged the public to “not let our guard down” following the continuous spike in COVID-19 cases.

Bishop Ruperto Santos of Balanga said “the virus is still around, it is not slowing down or stopping.”

“It actually mutated. So, let us not let our guard down. Don’t be complacent. We should be more careful and take necessary preventative and precautionary measures,” said the prelate.

Bishop Jose Colin Bagaforo of Kidapawan said the spike of new COVID-19 cases “is very alarming and we must do everything to keep us safe while we wait for the vaccine.”

The prelate, who heads Caritas Philippines, said the government must extensively educate the public that the lifting of lockdowns “does not mean that we already won the battle.”

The prelate said authorities must come up with a concrete plan on how to “acquire the right amount” of vaccine for everyone, adding that “poor communities must be prioritized.”

Devotees wear masks and face shields during Mass to celebrate the Feast of the Black nazarene at Quiapo Church in Manila on Jan. 9, 2021. (CBCP News photo)
Devotees wear masks and face shields during Mass to celebrate the Feast of the Black Nazarene at Quiapo Church in Manila on Jan. 9, 2021. (CBCP News photo)

Bishop Arturo Bastes, retired prelate of Sorsogon, blamed the “inefficient health care program” of the present administration for the “resurgence of coronavirus cases.”

“While all the countries in Asia and Europe have effectively curbed the number of cases, the Philippines seems to be failing in controlling the disease,” said the prelate.

Bishop Broderick Pabillo, apostolic administrator of Manila, said Filipinos must be extra careful in following the health protocols while waiting for the government to impose a better plan to quell the disease.

The prelate criticized the way the government is handling the resurgence of the COVID-19 cases.

“They have no plan how to really help the people. There is no aid, no effective contact tracing, and no mass testing. The government always recourse to imposing lockdown as if it is the best solution to this health crisis,” he said.

A woman walks past a sign that reads “Full Capacity For COVID-19 Cases” outside a hospital in the Philippine on March 15, 2021. Despite having one of the longest COVID-19 lockdowns, the country continues to suffer from rising COVID-19 cases. (Photo by Basilio Sepe for LiCAS.news)

Manila churches to remain open

The Archdiocese of Manila said there is no plan to lessen the number of people who can attend the celebrations inside the church.

Father Reginald Malicdem, rector of the cathedral, said they will continue the strict implementation of health protocols.

Bishop Honesto Ongtioco of Cubao said he is supportive of strict health protocols but sees no reason to reduce the number of people allowed inside the church.

“Study shows that the transmission in churches is very low as the viral contagion happens usually inside the households,” said the prelate.

“Of course, we will cooperate (with authorities) as we always want the safest option for the people,” he told LiCAS.news.

“Sometimes, even when the government doesn’t order it, we already move on our own,” said the bishop.

Father Jerome Secillano of Manila said bishops and priests can “prudently” decide on the capacity of their churches.

“If there are other surges outside Metro Manila, the respective priests and bishops may decide on what to do,” said the priest.

“The thing is, the church is not oblivious to our situation and it will do the necessary things to help combat this virus,” he added.

The Philippines has recorded 4,387 news COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, March 17, with 18 new deaths.

Several Manila hospitals have already sounded the alarm as critical care facilities near capacity, although health authorities say they can cope. – with reports from Marielle Lucenio, Mark Saludes and Reuters

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