In the sweltering heat and humidity, 31-year-old Caitlyn Tojanes grumbles about having to wear a face shield over her mask as she waits in line for her bus in the Philippine capital Manila.
“It’s uncomfortable. Combined with the long queues it means we get to work already tired and bathed in sweat,” said Tojanes, whose commute involves three buses and takes several hours.
But she is resigned to the new normal in the Philippines, where it is now compulsory to wear both masks and plastic shields in indoor public spaces and on public transport to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
“With COVID, it’s up to the people to maintain discipline,” said Tojanes, who works as a store manager in the sprawling capital of 12 million where most of the country’s infections have been recorded.
“People should not put the entire burden on the government. We must practise self-discipline.”
The latest measure comes as the country struggles to contain the virus outbreak, recording the highest number of confirmed cases in Southeast Asia with more than 283,000 infections and over 4,900 deaths.
Six months after tough restrictions were introduced to curb the contagion — including stay-at-home orders, travel bans and no talking on buses and trains — infections are still rising by several thousand every day.
Some measures have been eased to help kickstart the devastated economy.
“It’s a big adjustment having to wear a mask and a face shield and having to wash your hands with alcohol each time you touch something,” said Jeff Langurayan, 31, his voice slightly muffled by the layers of material and plastic over his face.
But he accepts the need for precautions.
“A lot of people have died and you do not know what will hit you and what effect it would have on your body.”
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte signed a contentious anti-terrorism bill into law Friday that critics fear will be used to silence dissent and give the government a new weapon to target opponents.
The legislation, which was approved by Congress last month and has been criticised by rights groups, enables Duterte to appoint a council that could order warrantless arrests of people it deems are terrorists.
It also allows for weeks of detention without charge, which the government argues is necessary to combat long-running communist and Islamist insurgencies.
“The signing of the… law demonstrates our serious commitment to stamp out terrorism, which has long plagued the country and has caused unimaginable grief and horror to many of our people,” Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque said.
But activists say the definition of terrorism in the legislation is vague and could strengthen Duterte’s campaign against critics. Some are already serving prison sentences or facing jail time after attacking his policies including his drug war that has killed thousands.
“Under Duterte’s presidency, even the mildest government critics can be labelled terrorists,” Amnesty International’s Asia director Nicholas Bequelin said.
“This administration has effectively crafted a new weapon to brand and hound any perceived enemies of the state,” he added.
“In the prevailing climate of impunity, a law so vague on the definition of ‘terrorism’ can only worsen attacks against human rights defenders.”
The law defines terrorism as intending to cause death or injury, damage government or private property or use weapons of mass destruction to “spread a message of fear” or intimidate the government.
Suspects could be held up to 24 days without charge, which opponents allege violates a three-day limit set by the Philippine constitution.
Critics allege the legislation also strips away old safeguards, such as penalties against law enforcers for wrongful detention of suspects.
“By signing the anti-terrorism bill into law, President Duterte has pushed Philippines democracy into an abyss,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“The law threatens to significantly worsen the human rights situation in the Philippines, which has nosedived since the catastrophic ‘war on drugs’ began four years ago,” Robertson added.
In a report last month, the UN human rights office said at least 8,663 people have been killed in the drug war with “near impunity” for offenders.
Government officials say alarm about the law is overblown, citing provisions that exempt “advocacy, protest, dissent, stoppage of work… not intended to cause death or serious physical harm”.
Roque told AFP Duterte signed the bill without making any changes.
Since its passage through Congress, prominent Philippine business leaders, Muslims in the Catholic-majority country, and UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet have lobbied Duterte to veto the bill.
Tens of millions of children in the Philippines will not be allowed back to school until a coronavirus vaccine is available, officials announced Monday, saying they may have to broadcast lessons on TV.
Nations like France and South Korea began resuming face-to-face classes as they got their outbreaks under control, but Philippine authorities see the risk as too great.
President Rodrigo Duterte said last month that even if students could not graduate, they needed to stay out of school to fight the spread of the disease.
“We will comply with the president’s directive to postpone face-to-face classes until a vaccine is available,” education secretary Leonor Briones said in a statement on Monday.
Classes are to resume at the end of August and teachers will use distance learning methods via the internet or TV broadcasts where needed, Briones added.
Millions live in deep poverty in the Philippines and do not have access to computers at home, which is key to the viability of online classes.
“The teacher and the school will have to adjust… depending on the availability of communication,” Briones said in a press briefing.
There has been little public opposition to the postponement of face-to-face classes in the Philippines, where hundreds of new infections are being detected daily despite early and strict lockdown measures.
Children are generally not allowed outside their homes unless they are out getting essentials or headed to work.
Online enrolment for over 25 million primary and secondary students started earlier this month for a delayed start to the school year, which normally runs from June to April in the Philippines.
Scientists around the world are racing to develop a coronavirus vaccine, but it is not clear when a viable candidate will be proven and distributed on a large scale.
One of the contenders is from British pharma giant AstraZeneca, which said last week that it is “on track” to begin rolling out a vaccine in September if ongoing trials prove successful.
Manila emerged on Monday from one of the world’s longest coronavirus lockdowns as the Philippines seeks to repair its badly damaged economy even as the number of new infections surges.
Streets in the capital were choked with traffic and limited public transport resumed as commuters flooded back to work in the city of 12 million after nearly three months of strict home quarantine.
Most businesses have been allowed to reopen in the city, but schools, bars, dine-in restaurants all remain shuttered.
“The virus is frightening but it’s either you die from the virus or you die from hunger,” salesman Himmler Gaston, 59, told AFP as he entered the train station where commuters had their temperatures checked.
The Philippines has so far reported 18,638 cases and 960 deaths, but experts fear limited testing means the true figures are likely much higher.
There has been a roughly 30 percent jump in new cases in the past week, which health officials said was mainly due to efforts to clear backlogs from laboratories as they boost testing.
Lava and broad columns of ash illuminated by lightning spewed from a volcano south of the Philippine capital on Monday, grounding hundreds of flights as authorities warned of a possible “explosive eruption”.
Fine grit coated homes and streets across the region surrounding the Taal volcano, which burst to life on Sunday accompanied by a series of earthquakes, forcing at least 10,000 people to seek refuge in evacuation centres.
“You could not sleep anymore, because every time you closed your eyes the house would shake,” restaurant owner Lia Monteverde told AFP, saying the quakes came minutes apart.
“All of us didn’t sleep at all. We just prepared to leave.”
Taal sits in a picturesque lake and is one of the most active volcanoes in a nation where earthquakes and eruptions are a frightening and destructive part of life.
The Philippines sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, where tectonic plates collide deep below the Earth’s surface.
Schools in the region around Taal, some government offices in Manila and the Philippine Stock Exchange were closed as a precaution on Monday.
Dust masks sold out in stores as authorities warned locals that the ash could cause respiratory problems especially in the very young and those with pre-existing lung conditions.
Limited flight operations resumed mid-Monday at Manila’s main international airport, nearly a day after authorities halted them due to the safety risk volcanic ash poses to planes.
However, travellers booked on over 240 cancelled flights still faced delays at Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
“I’m disappointed because this (delay) means additional expense for me and it’s tiring to wait,” said stranded traveller Joan Diocaras, a 28-year-old Filipino who works in Taiwan.
“But there’s nothing we can do.”
Alert level raised
The eruption began with an explosion of superheated steam and rock, but by early Monday “fountains” of lava had been spotted on Taal, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) said.
Stunning lightning shows have periodically played out above the volcano in a little-understood phenomenon that is attributed to static electricity.
Authorities raised the volcano alert level to its second-highest on Sunday, saying an “explosive eruption” could happen in “hours to days”.
Phivolcs chief Renato Solidum told AFP the lava was evidence of fresh movement in the volcano, but said it was unclear if Taal would “sustain its activity”.
Government seismologists recorded magma moving towards the crater of Taal, which is located 65 kilometres (40 miles) south of Manila.
Apart from the ash, some particles up to 6.4 centimetres (2.5 inches) in diameter, larger than a golf ball, had reportedly fallen in areas around the lake, Phivolcs said.
Taal’s last eruption was in 1977, Solidum said.
Two years ago, Mount Mayon displaced tens of thousands of people after spewing millions of tonnes of ash, rocks and lava in the central Bicol region.
The most powerful explosion in recent years was the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, about 100 kilometres northwest of Manila, which killed more than 800 people.
The number of deaths from a powerful storm that hit the Philippines on Christmas has climbed to 41, authorities said Sunday, with tens of thousands still in evacuation centres.
Typhoon Phanfone left the Philippines on Saturday after devastating several islands in the central Visayas, including popular tourist destinations, but the extent of the damage continued to grow as assessments came in.
The death toll of 41 — up from 28 on Friday — included three boat crew who died after their vessel capsized due to strong winds, a policeman electrocuted by a toppled post, and a man struck by a felled tree.
“We’re hoping that there will be no more fatalities,” national disaster agency spokesman Mark Timbal told AFP, with authorities still searching for 12 people missing.
The Philippines banned two US senators and threatened to introduce visa restrictions for Americans entering the country, the president’s spokesman said Friday, if Washington pushes ahead with sanctions against Filipino officials involved in jailing a leading opposition leader.
Senators Richard Durbin and Patrick Leahy were banned from entering the country after introducing a provision in the 2020 US budget that would prevent officials involved in the incarceration of Senator Leila de Lima from entering the US, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said.
De Lima, one of the highest-profile critics of Duterte’s controversial war on drugs, has been imprisoned since February 2017 over a drug charge — but has claimed innocence, and accused him of persecuting political opponents.
“If they will enforce this provision in the US budget, then we will be compelled to require all Americans entering into this country to secure a visa before they can be allowed entry,” Panelo said on Friday.
American tourists — who can enter visa-free for up to 30 days — account for more than a tenth of arrivals, according to the Philippines tourism department.
The senators’ provision allows the US to deny entry to Philippine officials if the state department finds “credible information” on those involved in the “wrongful imprisonment” of De Lima.
“We will not sit idly if they continue to interfere with our processes as a sovereign nation,” Panelo said.
De Lima, in a written statement from jail, thanked the senators for the provision, saying “impunity cannot last”.
A former human rights commissioner, she has said her imprisonment was an act of revenge for her decade-long effort to expose the president’s alleged death squads during his time as mayor of the southern city of Davao.
The US is a long-time Philippine ally as well as its largest defence partner and — following nearly half a century of rule — many Filipinos have relatives who migrated to the US who are American citizens.
Duerte’s deadly war on drugs — backed by many Filipinos but condemned by critics who say it is a war crime — has claimed at least 5,500 lives, however, watchdogs say the actual toll is at least four times higher.
International Criminal Court prosecutors have launched a preliminary probe of the killing, and the UN’s top rights body voted in favour of an in-depth review.
The US embassy did not immediately respond to AFP’s request for comment.
Typhoon Phanfone pummelled the central Philippines on Christmas Day, bringing a wet, miserable and terrifying holiday season to millions in the mainly Catholic nation.
Tens of thousands were stranded at shuttered ports or evacuation centres at the height of the festive season on Wednesday, and residents cowered in rain-soaked homes as Phanfone leapt from one small island to another for the second day.
The typhoon crumpled houses like accordions, toppled trees and blacked out cities in the Philippines’ most storm-prone region.
No deaths have been confirmed, but rescuers said they have yet to reach the more isolated areas, some in neck-deep floods.
Though weaker, Phanfone was tracking a similar path as Super Typhoon Haiyan — the country’s deadliest cyclone on record which left more than 7,300 people dead or missing in 2013.
More than 16,000 people spent the night in improvised shelters in schools, gyms and government buildings as the typhoon made landfall Tuesday, civil defence officials said.
“It was frightening. The glass windows shattered and we took cover by the stairs,” Ailyn Metran told AFP after she and her four-year-old child spent the night at the local state weather service office where her husband worked.
The typhoon ripped a metal window frame off the building and dropped it onto a car parked outside, she said.
With just two hours’ sleep, the family returned to their home in Tacloban city Wednesday to find their two dogs safe, but the floor was covered in mud and a felled tree rested atop a nearby house.
The weather office said the typhoon strengthened slightly overnight Tuesday and was gusting at 195 kilometres (121 miles) an hour, which can knock down small trees and destroy flimsy houses.
Survivors took to social media with pictures and videos of crushed homes, buses half-submerged in brown-coloured floods, roads strewn with tree trunks, and coconut and banana plants being shredded by ferocious winds.
The typhoon hit land as millions of Filipinos trooped to once-yearly clan reunions centred on the “Noche Buena”, a sumptuous midnight meal that is the highlight of the Catholic nation’s holidays.
More than 25,000 people remained stranded at ports on Christmas Day with ferry services still shut down, the coast guard said.
Scores of flights to the region also remained cancelled, though the populous capital Manila, on the northern section has so far been spared.
Phanfone ravaged the north of the island of Cebu overnight Tuesday, and residents decamped from evacuation centres only to find their homes damaged, civil defence official Allen Froilan Cabaron told AFP.
“They were safer at the evacuation centres. At least they were able to eat the Christmas Eve meal there, even if only tinned fish and instant noodles were available,” Cabaron said.
“But even with food on the table, the atmosphere would have been different because they were not at home,” Cabaron added.
“Obviously, they were unable to celebrate Christmas properly because some spent the night at evacuation centres,” rescue official Cecille Bedonia told AFP by phone from Iloilo city.
At the western island resort of Coron, the beaches emptied and boat tours were suspended as Western tourists stayed in their rooms to await the typhoon onslaught later Thursday.
“Many of the tourist establishments here are closed, and some of our guests failed to arrive because their flights were cancelled,” hotel receptionist Nina Edano told AFP by phone.
“We’re not scared, but the ambience here is generally gloomy,” she added.
The Philippines is the first major landmass facing the Pacific cyclone belt.
As such, the archipelago gets hit by an average of 20 storms and typhoons each year, killing scores of people and wiping out harvests, homes and other infrastructure and keeping millions perennially poor.
A July 2019 study by the Manila-based Asian Development Bank said the most frequent storms lop one per cent off the Philippine economic output, with the stronger ones cutting output by nearly three per cent.
Eight people died and hundreds were taken to hospitals in the Philippines after drinking coconut wine believed to contain high levels of methanol, authorities said Monday.
The victims all attended gatherings over the weekend in the town of Rizal, southeast of Manila, and complained of stomach pains after drinking the wine, known locally as “lambanog”.
Nine victims are in a critical condition, Jose Jonas Del Rosario, spokesman for the capital’s Philippine General Hospital, told AFP.
“We asked many of our doctors on holiday leave to report to work just to attend to the patients,” he said, adding that the need to treat large numbers who arrived with symptoms of alcohol poisoning meant other people were turned away.
In total, 300 victims were taken to hospitals. All drank the same brand of wine that had been bought in the area, police said.
The local government has imposed an immediate ban on the sale of the beverage, which is in high demand over the Christmas holidays.
Much of the coconut wine on the market is manufactured by locals in backyard operations. The government had previously warned against selling unregistered alcoholic beverages.
Del Rosario, a doctor, said one of the byproducts of coconut wine fermentation is methanol, which can cause blindness and death. Some manufacturers keep the methanol in because it means greater volume and more profit, he added.
Last year, more than 10 people died from drinking coconut wine, samples of which were found by the government regulator to have high methanol content.
The masterminds of the Philippines’ worst political massacre were found guilty on Thursday of murdering 57 people, a rare conviction of powerful personalities in a country notorious for its culture of impunity.
Officials said the gunmen slaughtered 58 people a decade ago and dumped their bodies in pits as part of a mass killing, though only 57 bodies were recovered.
Leaders of the Ampatuan family, a powerful political dynasty, had been accused of orchestrating the killings in a bid to quash an election challenge from a rival clan.
Some 32 journalists were among those murdered on November 23, 2009, making the massacre also one of the worst ever of media workers.
A Manila court on Thursday found 43 people guilty as principals or accessories to 57 murders led by Andal Ampatuan Jnr, who had been planning to run for provincial governor against the rival.
As principal suspects, Ampatuan and 27 others — including seven of his relatives — were each sentenced to 30 years in jail without parole, the court ruling read.
Fourteen members of the local police and a member of the Ampatuan family’s armed militia force were sentenced to between eight and 10 years in prison as accessories.
Two clan leaders and more than 50 others — mostly police officers and alleged members of the Ampatuan militia — were acquitted either on “reasonable doubt” or the prosecution’s failure to prove their guilt.
‘Sad and Happy’
The judge also dismissed the charges over the 58th victim whose body was not found save for his dentures.
“This makes us sad and happy at the same time, because some of the major suspects were convicted,” Esmael Mangudadatu, the Ampatuans’ rival, told reporters outside the courtroom.
The massacre unfolded when Esmael Mangudadatu — now a member of the House of Representatives — sent his wife and two sisters to file his candidacy for governor of Maguindanao province in an open challenge to the Ampatuans.
Gunmen blocked the convoy, which included the journalists, and herded them to a nearby hill where they were killed in a hail of gunfire and buried in mass graves, along with their vehicles, prosecutors said.
Six of the victims were unrelated motorists who had the misfortune of driving into the checkpoint at the time.
The murders cast a spotlight on the Philippines’ notorious culture of impunity, in which powerful and wealthy politicians and businessmen often operate above the law.
The Ampatuans ruled the impoverished southern province and were allowed to build a heavily armed militia by then-president Gloria Arroyo to serve as a buffer against a long-running Muslim insurgency in the region.
‘Still at risk’
With scores of witnesses and mountains of legal paperwork, the case had creaked through a Philippine justice system that is infamous for being overburdened, underfunded and vulnerable to pressure from the powerful.
During the case’s years of delays, patriarch Andal Ampatuan Snr and seven other defendants died.
Ampatuan Snr had then been governor and wanted to hand over the reins of power to his son and namesake.
International human rights monitors hailed the verdict, but warned victim relatives as well and prosecution witnesses remained at risk with 80 murder suspects still at large.
“The conviction of the principal accused and several others is a critical step towards justice for victims of one of the worst killings of journalists in history,” Amnesty International regional director Nicholas Bequelin said in a statement.
“The government must take steps to find and prosecute all those suspected to have taken part in the massacre,” he added.
The Ampatuans remain a political force in the south, however.
Ampatuan family members won 25 local seats in May’s elections including Sajid Ampatuan, who was among those acquitted Thursday. He did not attend the reading of the verdict.
“Advocates should use this verdict to spur further political and judicial reforms to ultimately end the impunity that has plagued the country for far too long,” Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said.