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Coronavirus: in the Philippines, cargo containers packed with food pile up in ports amid lockdown

  • Some 8,200 containers – many containing much-needed supplies – are lying unclaimed in Manila’s ports due to transport restrictions and lack of personnel
  • Vaguely implemented rules and erratic policing are disrupting the distribution of medical supplies and basic necessities

Alan Robles | Published: 9:30pm, 2 Apr, 2020

People exercise along a usually busy street during a community quarantine to help curb the spread of the new coronavirus in Manila. Photo: AP
People exercise along a usually busy street during a community quarantine to help curb the spread of the new coronavirus in Manila. Photo: AP

As Metro Manila enters the 18th day of a lockdown that has throttled the supply of goods to its 12.8 million people, transport restrictions and a lack of personnel have led to a pile-up of cargo containers – many of them containing much-needed food – in the region’s ports.

Philippine Ports Authority general manager Jay Santiago said Manila’s ports “are the lungs of the country’s commerce and trade; these lungs right now are not functioning efficiently due to congestion”. He said the port might have to shut down if the containers are not claimed.

Manila-headquartered port management firm International Container Terminal Services said the city’s ports were nearly full, with 8,200 containers that had cleared customs awaiting pickup.

“Containers are simply not being removed from the terminal,” a spokesperson said, according to a Bloomberg report.

When President Rodrigo Duterte on March 16 placed the country’s main island of Luzon – home to 60 million – on “enhanced community quarantine” to curb the spread of Covid-19, officials said the transport of basic goods and services would continue.

But there have been many cases of cargo trucks being stopped at checkpoints and prevented from entering the capital, while vaguely implemented rules, erratic policing and an abundance of red tape have disrupted the distribution of food, medical supplies and basic necessities.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: AP
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: AP

Duterte on Wednesday said he would order the police and the military to shoot dead anyone who “creates trouble” during the lockdown, as complaints about the slow delivery of food packs and cash assistance triggered public outrage and protests.

Police on Wednesday dispersed 150 Manila residents who gathered on the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA), one of the city’s main thoroughfares, to clamour for food and financial aid. Twenty of the demonstrators were arrested for rallying without a permit.

The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the Philippines stood at 2,311 on Wednesday, including 96 deaths.

Government officials have assured the public that the Philippines has adequate food stocks. Agriculture secretary William Dar on March 11 said the country had enough rice to last 80 days. On March 31, the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) sought Duterte’s approval for a government-to-government rice purchase agreement, recommending that the country import 300,000 tonnes of rice.

Amid the lockdown, however, poorly manned checkpoints are preventing these supplies from being delivered. People delivering food packaging materials have been stopped and told the items were non-essential, while vehicles carrying chemicals for food preservation and refrigeration have similarly been prevented from getting through, according to posts on social media.

“IATF repeatedly reminds everyone that all cargo must flow freely unhampered, unimpeded,” said IATF spokesperson Karlo Nograles in a Thursday briefing. “We’re addressing all in the supply chain, especially when it comes to food, essential goods like medicine.”

Nograles said the IATF kept “saying this over and over”, adding that now the problem was “cargo drivers are not able to pass through checkpoints because of the many requirements being asked of them, so we issued an IATF resolution”.

Nograles on Thursday also said people on Luzon who were allowed out of their houses must wear face masks in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus, in a shift from the health department’s earlier advisory that only people who are sick and those working on the frontline needed to do so.

“If you need to go out of your house, you need to wear a mask,” he said. “[You can wear] reusable or do-it-yourself masks, face shields, handkerchiefs or such other protective equipment.”

Nograles added that local governments units may “impose such penalties as may be appropriate” for those who violate the rule.

In a Facebook post, Philippine Star business columnist Boo Chanco quoted a source as saying government officials were ignorant of supply chain issues.

“They don’t know the difference between a supply chain and a Christmas tree,” the post read. “We talked about poultry and livestock supply and it never occurred to them that feed was part of that supply chain. We had to explain that without feed stock, chickens literally die within days.”

In Manila, supermarkets remain open and well stocked, and there has been no panic buying. Many fast food chains continue to deliver, although McDonald’s has trimmed its menus to just a few items.

But a large segment of the population – some 18 million families, according to senators backing the bill granting Duterte emergency powers to address the Covid-19 pandemic – belongs to the informal sector. This vulnerable segment, which includes the elderly, has no income during the lockdown and is supposed to receive food packs from local governments.

It was the lack of these packs that led to the Wednesday incident on the EDSA in Manila. According to a statement by the Quezon City government, residents were told by “a group with vested interests” to go out on the street to receive food and cash, with the “instigators” telling them to save a protest once they found out there was nothing for them.

The city government also said food packs had been distributed in the area, while a city official told local media that there might not have been enough for everyone.

The country’s poor are also supposed to receive cash transfers from the government. Jonathan Malaya, undersecretary of the department of the interior and local government, said: “We are launching tomorrow [April 3] the biggest financial assistance package to poor families in the history of the Republic of the Philippines. This hasn’t been done before. I don’t know if it will be done again. Around 200 billion pesos will be given starting tomorrow.”

Additional reporting by DPA

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