Fear and exhaustion as second Covid wave surges through Southeast Asia

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Nicola Smith
·5 min read
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Workers in a crematorium in the Philippines  - Ezra Acayan/Getty Images
Workers in a crematorium in the Philippines - Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

The Philippines’ health system is buckling under its worst Covid-19 surge of the pandemic, leaving patients gasping for air as they wait outside overcrowded hospitals and forcing doctors to make harrowing choices about who lives or dies.

“More and more test positive by the day. Most of them are just waiting in tents, sitting on wheelchairs while they are awaiting to be admitted or for an available bed, which may take days,” said Cindy Bautista, an emergency room nurse at the National Kidney and Transplant Institute in Manila.

“One patient died on a wheelchair while waiting for a hemodialysis slot, due to the long queue and while still awaiting the swab test results,” she said.

“My sister, who is also a chronic kidney disease patient tested positive for Covid. She is supposed to receive dialysis treatment three times a week, but it has been lessened to just twice a week, due to the increasing number of positive patients,” said Ms Bautista.

“Her current condition is not that good, but I can’t have her admitted anymore, because there are no rooms available.”

The Philippines already emerged last year as one of the worst-hit nations in Southeast Asia. It has seen 953,000 cases and more than 16,000 deaths, but the second wave of infections is stretching medical workers to breaking point.

Suspected Covid-19 patients in hospital beds outside an emergency room - Nasong Sangnak/Reuters
Suspected Covid-19 patients in hospital beds outside an emergency room - Nasong Sangnak/Reuters

A two-week lockdown if the densely populated capital region has done little to ease the strain on the medical system or curb the rise in cases, which have doubled since March to averaging more than 10,400 a day.

The spiral in cases has been fuelled by the British, South African and Brazilian variants that have pushed infections up across Southeast Asia, and a homegrown Philippine variant that has the same lineage as the one from Brazil.

The country, like its Asian neighbours, has also struggled to obtain vaccines. In March, Rodrigo Duterte, the president, appealed for “patience” and admitted that the challenges in procuring vaccines were “almost making me cry.”

Meanwhile, intensive care units in the Manila area are at 84 per cent capacity, while 70 per cent of Covid-19 ward beds and 63 per cent of isolation beds were full as of Apr 19, government data showed.

The desperation of health workers has been laced with fear about their own health. Close to 17,000 have died during the pandemic.

“We are short on space. In all honesty, proper distancing cannot be religiously practiced. A lot of the healthcare workers are getting infected. Most of us live away from our own families due to the fear of possible transmission,” said Ms Bautista.

Thai people wait to undergo a nasal swab to test for Covid-19 - Narong Sangnak/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Thai people wait to undergo a nasal swab to test for Covid-19 - Narong Sangnak/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“The mental impact from all that is happening is very taxing and way more tiring than any other physical labour,” she said.

“I hope they [government] would at least see our efforts and give credit when it’s due. We feel like we’re being poisoned on a daily basis, and yet they’re turning a blind eye.”

The Philippines has been the worst hit by a fresh Covid-19 wave spreading across Southeast Asia that has raised alarm in Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand, where infections have risen far beyond last year’s numbers.

After controlling the virus successfully in 2020, and making plans to reopen to tourists, Thailand has now imposed fresh lockdowns, closed schools, bars and restaurants, and is setting up field hospitals as it battles its worst outbreak to date.

A cluster of coronavirus cases emerged from entertainment venues just before the Songran new year holiday and has now spread through 71 of the country’s provinces.

The current wave involves the more transmissible strain first recorded in the UK, and experts warn the numbers – clocking over 1,000 new cases a day – are on an upward trajectory.

On Thursday, tiny Laos locked down its capital and closed its international borders to most traffic after identifying a Covid-19 cluster connected to neighbouring Thailand.

Cambodia, another neighbour, is also experiencing its most severe lockdown of the pandemic after Hun Sen, the prime minister, warned the country was “on the brink of death” amid spiralling cases from an outbreak in its Chinese expatriate community.

Although the case numbers are tiny compared to much of the world, the strain on the poorly equipped health system means the capital is already running out of beds, and wedding halls are being turned into medical centres.

The authoritarian government has been accused of exploiting the health crisis to crack down on any opposition.

Rights groups condemned the police on Wednesday for caning and arresting people for allegedly breaching the lockdown. Activists have warned a new law imposing lengthy prison sentences for lockdown breaches is moving the country towards totalitarian dictatorship.

“For the Cambodian people, the Covid-19 pandemic has been not only a public health and economic tragedy, but also a human rights disaster,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch.

Back in the Philippines, medics are struggling physically and emotionally to get through each day.

“Each day, I see people die. I see people suffer from this grave disease. We, as medical professionals are doing our best to be resilient in this situation,” said Jose Ceriaco Karganilla, a nurse at Santa Ana hospital in Manila.

“We need to fight this battle each day knowing our life is at stake. This is our calling, help us to help you. Each day you stay at home give us more chance of winning this battle,” he said.

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