Weathering 2020’s strongest typhoon, COVID-19 poses risk for Philippine evacuation centers

By Razel Suansing

As the Philippines braces for the strongest storm in the world in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic poses an unprecedented public health challenge to local government units.

Typhoon Rolly, internationally known as Goni, made landfall on Sunday at 4:50 am in the eastern province of Catanduanes. With wind speeds up to 225 kilometers per hour, the Philippine National Police estimates that “Super Typhoon” will threaten the lives of 19.8 million Filipinos nationwide. 1.3 million of this population are economically challenged according to Ricardo Jalad, director of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. As of Sunday afternoon, more than 200,000 people have been evacuated, mostly from the eastern Bicol region where the typhoon first made landfall. 

Amid the threat of the Rolly, the Philippines continues to weather the pandemic with 380,729 reported cases on Oct. 31. The Department of Health is wary of the conditions in evacuation centers and their implications on the feasibility of  public health restrictions in these centers. In a press briefing, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III reminded local government units to follow public health guidelines including 1-meter physical distancing and proper handwashing. Health Undersecretary Maria Vergeire also proposed the designation of safety officers, who would be tasked with monitoring the symptoms of all evacuees and redirecting symptomatic patients to isolation facilities. 

Bicol Governor Al Francis Bichara, in a Dobol B sa News TV interview, expressed doubts about the guidelines’ feasibility, especially after some evacuation centers’ roofs were detached by the storm. 

“Sa ganitong emergency, mahirap na lalo na kung natanggalan ng bubong, saan sila pupunta?” (In this emergency, it is difficult especially after roofs were detached. Where will [the evacuees] go?) Bichara said. “Pasensya na yung social distancing. Sabagay wala namang gaano dito pagdating sa COVID. Lahat ng mga positive, naka-quarantine naman lahat.” (Social distancing will have to wait. Well, COVID has not affected the province as much. Everyone who tested positive is in quarantine at the moment.)

Gerardo Noveras, the governor of Aurora, another province affected, also recognized the “big challenge” of enforcing these guidelines mainly because of factors out of the people’s control.

“May mga factors po na hindi natin kayang saklawan o kayang remedyuhan kagaya po kung maliit lang ang space ng evacuation centers, at marami ang kailangan i-house dun, hindi natin mapapanatili ang physical distancing,” (there are factors that we cannot control or cannot be remedied such as if there is limited space in evacuation centers and many people will need to be housed there. We cannot retain physical distancing.) Noveras said.

Still, Noveras stressed that his LGU will maintain other public health guidelines by giving out masks.

Social distancing measures also decrease evacuation center capacity. Armed Forces of the Philippines regional civil defense spokesman Alexis Naz said that a schoolroom, which can house 16 people in normal years, can now only house five.

According to Vergeire, the Department of Health also faces the challenge of transferring those under quarantine from tents to “more secured places” in areas affected by the typhoon. The equipment within those tents will also be sent to hospitals with stronger infrastructure.

The Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, the country’s main reference lab and a key testing facility, will also be temporarily shut down in anticipation of possible damages inflicted by the typhoon.

“We shall proceed with these risk mitigation measures fully understanding of our part in the ongoing outbreak response, while also ensuring the safety of our personnel, stakeholders and everyone who transports specimens to our facility,” Carlos said in a statement.

The shutdown may hamper the country’s testing capacity. Since February, the RITM has processed more than 322,000 COVID-19 samples.

The typhoon is predicted to exit the Philippines on Sunday night or Monday early morning.

Razel Suansing is a first year in Davenport College. You can contact her at .