Philippines struggles with lack of medical supplies as COVID-19 rapidly spreads in Southeast Asia


Two major hospitals in the Philippine capital – Medical City and University of Santo Tomas Hospital – have quarantined a total of 674 health workers over fears they have been exposed to the virus. Across the country, two doctors are confirmed to have died.

“It is painful for us to hear about their deaths. This is the reality we face. We are risking our lives as we fulfil our duties,” Maria Theresa Depano, health staff at a hospital outside Metro Manila, said.

Nationwide, more than 50 million people remain under lockdown while the country’s medical facilities struggle with a lack of testing kits and shortages of protective equipment as 396 cases have been registered, including 33 deaths, but thousands more patients are suspected to have the virus.

Depano shared photos of health workers using bin bags to protect themselves at the Saint Jude hospital in Laguna. “We are calling the attention of DOH (department of health) or other agencies that may provide us personal protective equipment. We’ve run out of supplies and we don’t know where we can buy,” she said in her post.

As hospitals in Manila appealed for donations, health officials said the lack of equipment was due to global supply shortages, rather than a lack of funding. The country was receiving money from international donors, they said.

Across the region, countries have registered a wave of recent cases, including in Indonesia, where President Joko Widodo acknowledged last week that there was a need to immediately ramp up testing. Fearing an influx of patients, the country has turned the athlete’s village built for the 2018 Asian Games into an emergency hospital with a capacity to hold more than 4,000 people.

Indonesia, which has been criticised for being slow to respond to the outbreak, has so far recorded 48 deaths and 514 infections. As in the Philippines, the death toll has prompted speculation that the number of cases is higher than official records suggest. Earlier this month, the country of 264 million people had carried out only a few hundred tests.

In the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus were rolled out from Monday morning, after the city’s governor Anies Baswedan declared a state of emergency for the next two weeks. All entertainment venues have been shut, and businesses urged to close their offices where possible.

Anies said on Friday that he would also limit the number of passengers boarding public transport, and reduce the operational hours. Photos shared on social media, showing cramped train carriages packed with commuters, suggest such limits aren’t yet working.

Widodo has so far resisted calls for a lockdown in virus-hit areas of the country, despite the tough restrictions introduced elsewhere in the region.

Malaysia, which confirmed 1,306 cases as of Sunday, introduced a two-week lockdown last week after a sudden spike in cases. The majority of these new infections are linked to a mass rally at a mosque in Kuala Lumpur, which was attended by 16,000 people earlier this month. Ten deaths have been recorded.

The number of confirmed infections has also risen sharply in Thailand, which reported 122 new coronavirus cases on Monday, taking the total to 721. In the capital, Bangkok, almost all businesses have been ordered to shut, prompting tens of thousands of workers to board buses to leave the city this weekend.

It is feared that the vast numbers of people on the move could spread the disease to provinces elsewhere in Thailand, or to countries including Cambodia or Myanmar, where many migrant workers are returning.

On Myanmar’s borders, people queued to be scanned by health teams as the entered the country. Officials maintain that there are no cases of coronavirus in Myanmar, a claim that has prompted questions over testing and surveillance measures. In Cambodia, which until recently had recorded few cases, 31 new infections were reported on Sunday, 29 of them among French tourists, bringing the country’s total to 84.

Cases imported by travellers from abroad are a growing concern in Vietnam, which initially appeared to have contained the virus, before infections linked to international flights emerged in the country.

On Sunday, 19 new coronavirus cases were confirmed, bringing the Vietnam’s tally to 113. Last week, anticipating the return of Vietnamese people from virus-hit countries, officials announced they had expanded the quarantined facilities so there is enough space for as many as 60,000 people. The country has also said it will temporarily suspend entry to almost all foreigners who have already obtained travel visa.

Singapore, which recorded its first two coronavirus-related deaths on Saturday, also stepped up entry restrictions, stating that it would close its borders to short-term visitors and some foreign labourers.

The measures follow warnings from the World Health Organisation, which called for countries in south-east Asia to introduce “more aggressive and whole of society efforts” to stop the spread of the coronavirus. (Source: The Guardian)