Mindanao, Philippines – They gathered shoulder to shoulder, many without masks, shouting unanimously to welcome the 2020 Christmas season. But doctors warned that the coronavirus wave did not occur.
Then, as the restrictions eased a bit in January, tired residents of the southern Philippines were blocked from walking along nearby seafront promenades and high mountain parks.
Again, there was no rise in cases and some began to wonder if it was a real pandemic or a “money-making project”.
When the summer in the Philippines arrived in March, many were confident enough to raise government grants to gather public halls in small towns and cities, ignoring social restrictions on distances and enjoying a free lunch distributed by elected officials.
Some mayors allowed roosters to reopen areas for fighting, a magnet for games and crowded gatherings. Some Catholic priests encouraged priests to attend Sunday Masses, although the church was limited to a maximum of half the usual capacity.
In farming communities and fishing villages, residents revived their usual habits – being with friends, walking around the neighborhood, or playing basketball and billiards – mostly without masks.
By the time the holiday season arrived in April and May, many were organizing dinners despite a ban on visiting relatives and friends and a threat of arrest and other penalties. As each town and village celebrated its patron saint, this joy was repeated throughout the narrow communities of the region.
Health officials and police, usually from the same neighborhood, looked the other way as drinks passed through the street corners and people listened to their favorite karaoke tunes, the second coronavirus wave was a universe in Manila and other cities.
Inevitably cases began to rise – slowly first, then in a cascade that doesn’t slow down – a sign that experts say the pandemic has become widespread in rural communities, with rural facilities already suffering from overcapacity.
“That’s not isolated in the Visayas and Mindanao provinces,” said Peter Cayton, an associate professor at the School of Statistics at the University of the Philippines.
“Prolongation also affects many provinces in Luzon,” he told Al Jazeera about the country’s three major island groups.
Only about 1.5 percent of the 110 million people in the Philippines are fully vaccinated against the virus, according to the latest data from the Philippine Vaccine Tracker, and government contact tracers are unable to reach the explosive number of new cases. Hospitals are already ready and medical resources are scarce.
Statewide, more than 7,400 new cases were reported on Thursday, bringing the number of infections to 1.29 million.
Rising cases predict more deaths and southern regions have suffered more and more blows.
Edson Guido, an expert in data analysis at the University of the Philippines, noted that as of June 7, a quarter of new cases occurred in Mindanao, higher than the Metro Manila, and shows that the pandemic has shifted to regions outside metropolitan areas. .
A disastrous sign
In Dipolog, a city on the southern island of Mindanao, residents expressed how serious the situation had become in late May when two senior members of the Catholic clergy and a nun were killed next to each other. They were buried in a hurry without practicing the usual rites. Another high priest is in quarantine, trying to cure himself of the disease.
A former mayor of a nearby town and his brother were also admitted to a government hospital in the same city, where dozens of people were sitting outside in temporary tents treating coronaviruses or in vehicles attached to oxygen tanks due to lack of hospital beds. A 37-year-old patient died on the same day that his family learned he had COVID-19.
Meanwhile, hundreds of other patients with mild infections or no symptoms have been advised to have a quarantine at home.
“COVID is real and works around our province,” wrote Philip Limsi, a single-hospital doctor who is fully equipped against COVID in the city, on social media.
“Please help us lower the cases. There is no more room and the supply of oxygen tanks is running low, ”he said.
Dozens of local government workers were infected in the nearby town of Polanco, forcing the closure of town hall operations.
The village management had a number of questions after hundreds of farmers and motorcyclists were allowed to receive government subsidies and food parcels, despite being blocked.
The town’s chief health officer, Dr Patrisha Quema, agreed to answer al Jazeera’s questions about the pandemic, but later ignored follow-up requests to resubmit his response.
In the third week of May, the city and the large province of Zamboanga del Norte had already reported that intensive care beds were full and they were out of breath, according to data from the Department of Health.
Younger people in the province were also seen hospitalized (some as young as 16), and officials demanded a drastic 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 on the side of the road.
Zamboanga del Norte’s chief health officer, Dr. Esmeralda Nadela, said she could only answer Al Jazeera’s questions “next time”.
‘Rest well, mother’
Among those who came under COVID was Rosalina Ocupe, a former primary school teacher who returned to her hometown of Polanco after spending years in Chicago in the United States.
As the person was vulnerable, he was careful not to go outside as the pandemic spread. But shortly after his 79th birthday in early May, he fell ill after a domestic helper fell ill. He spent three weeks in a ventilator at Dipolog Hospital.
Her daughter, Patty, hoped her mother would be healed and that she would be home in a few days. Instead, the family received the death on Wednesday.
“Calm down, mother,” Patty wrote in her tribute to her mother, whose remains were buried in the evening on Wednesday, leaving aside the usual Philippine rites that woke up nine days before she was buried.
Patty’s older sister, Marichu, who lives in Chicago, was unable to return home due to travel restrictions. With her mother’s death, she is left wondering if she could have done more for her mother.
“Did I do enough? [her] who prayed night and day for success? This question will always be there [left] no answer “.
Randy, their brother, is not there.
“[It is] sad, painful and very unfair because COVID took his life, ”he told Al Jazeera.
Dipolog is not even the most serious success in the provincial areas.
Near Dumaguete in Visaya, infections increased by 206% from May 31 to June 6, placing it at the top of the list of cities that were suffering from the rise of coronavirus nationwide.
Among the dead among the dead are a retired judge, whose wife is also battling the disease, and Alan Cordova, the city’s deputy mayor, who suffered a cardiac arrest and died while riding a bicycle just days after recovering from coronavirus.
In an interview with reporters on Monday, Dr. Kenneth Coo, a doctor in Dumaguet and national president of crisis management at the Medical University of the Philippines, said that although the city has closed its doors to outsiders to respond to floods, there is already “community transmission.”
“The most important thing is that we need to isolate the risk,” he said, warning that all hospitals in Dumaguet have the capacity to overflow, noting that the city’s latest infections were at dinners with family and friends.
“No party, please. No crowdfunding has taken place, please, that’s my request to the community. “
Several cities in Mindanao are also experiencing a boom, such as South Cotabato, General Santos and Davao City, where Duterte was mayor for more than 20 years. Among the last dead was Governor Douglas Cagas Davao del Sur, who died on Thursday.
In a news release on Wednesday, the OCTA Research Group, which monitors 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 major storms continue, hospitals could be overwhelmed.
“Our call to the national government is to allow people, equipment and support to spread in these areas,” Rye said, adding that the flood could last for a month.
As for the Limsi provincial doctor and respiratory specialist, he called on people to stay at home, adding: “Your birthday party would not be worth the suffering that your visitors can endure. [if they are infected with COVID]”.