By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

THE PRESIDENTIAL palace on Wednesday ordered agencies in the Philippine capital and nearby cities to reduce their on-site workers to 20% during the two-week enhanced lockdown meant to contain a more contagious Delta coronavirus variant.

Only agencies that provide health and emergency, laboratory and testing, border control and other critical services can fully operate, according to a copy of an Aug. 3 memo signed by Executive Secretary Salvador S. Medialdea.

“To ensure continuity of government service, the skeleton workforce shall not be less than 20% of on-site capacity at any given time, with the remainder being under work-from-home arrangements,” he said.

Department heads may change on-site capacity and related arrangements “as health considerations and the exigencies of the service may require.”

The palace urged offices under Congress, the Judiciary, independent constitutional commissions and bodies, and local governments in the capital region to adopt the executive memo.

Metro Manila will be under a hard lockdown from Aug. 6 to 20 to contain a fresh surge in coronavirus infections believed to have been triggered by the Delta coronavirus variant from India.

The Department of Health (DoH) reported 7,342 coronavirus infections on Wednesday, bringing the total to 1.61 million.

The death toll rose to 28,231 after 90 more patients died, while recoveries increased by 7,285 to 1.52 million, it said in a bulletin.

There were 63,171 active cases, 94.1% of which were mild, 1.3% did not show symptoms, 2% were severe, 1.42% were moderate and 1.2% were critical.

The agency said 59 duplicates had been removed from the tally, 52 of which were recoveries. Twenty-three recoveries were reclassified as active cases and 51 as deaths.

Meanwhile, civic leaders said poor people were likely to suffer more amid a state ban on humanitarian works during the two-week enhanced lockdown.

Community-based initiatives that fill state void are vital to ease poverty, they said.

“Humanitarian work is essential especially during this pandemic,” former Social Welfare Secretary Judy M. Taguiwalo said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “To prohibit it at a time when millions are jobless and hungry is inhumane.”

“Our experience during this pandemic has exposed the inadequacy and inefficiency of the pandemic response of the National Government, which has the mandate and the resources,” she added.

Philippine authorities said unauthorized humanitarian activities, including donation drives and distribution of goods would be barred during the two-week lockdown in Metro Manila that starts on Aug. 6.

“Guidelines like this may hamper the delivery of humanitarian assistance in areas under an enhanced community quarantine,” said Sherlene Cruz, executive director of the Citizens’ Disaster Response Center. 

The order might also be used to discriminate against humanitarian organizations “that they deem unauthorized,” she said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “It may also put humanitarian workers at risk of harassment.”

Metro Manila Development Authority Chairman Benjamin Abalos, Jr. on Tuesday said community pantries would probably be prohibited during the lockdown to avoid so-called super spreader events.

Thousands of carts carrying donated food have sprouted across the Philippines in the past months, which critics said exposed government failure to help the poor amid one of the world’s strictest and longest coronavirus lockdowns.

Some government officials labeled Ana Patricia Non, a millennial entrepreneur who started the movement, and other pantry organizers as communists.

“Humanitarian work should be encouraged, while following health and safety protocols,” said Terry L. Ridon, former chairman of the Presidential Commission on the Urban Poor.

“The police have no power issuing these orders, as no authority is needed to conduct humanitarian work and good deeds for our marginalized communities,” he added.

Banning humanitarian work is illegal since the Constitution mandates the state to encourage “nongovernmental, community-based or sectoral organizations that promote the welfare of the nation,” said Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a senior research fellow at the Ateneo de Manila University Policy Center.

“Issuing a blanket prohibition that covers groups helping Filipinos cope with the effects of the lockdown does not help and is both unreasonable and inhumane,” he said in Facebook Messenger chat.

Feeding the poor is a state obligation and civic work is a critique of government failure, said Katrina S. Santiago, founder of the People for Accountable Governance and Sustainable Action.

“We like to romanticize serving the people in need, but I think what we should actually do is to stand in solidarity with them,” she said by telephone.

The Philippine economy could lose more than P200 billion during the two-week enhanced community quarantine, the National Economic and Development Authority has said.

The lockdown would also increase the number of poor people by as many as 177,000 and 444,000 Filipinos could become jobless, it added.

Families needing relief will increase “exponentially with these renewed lockdowns especially because so many have already been driven into deeper distress since March last year,” said Sonny A. Africa, executive director at think tank Ibon Foundation.

In the National Capital Region, seven out of 10 families or 2.3 million households don’t have savings and are trying to survive on a day-to-day basis, he added.

“This includes the millions of informal and irregular workers whose livelihood will be disrupted by the renewed enhanced community quarantine,” he said.

Economists earlier said the government should enact a bigger stimulus measure to address supply and demand shocks from lockdowns.

“A substantial National Government effort to give aid to at least the poorest 70% of NCR families is absolutely essential to ensure that no one falls through the cracks,” Mr. Africa said.

The House of Representatives in June approved a third stimulus measure that seeks to provide P401 billion to pandemic-hit sectors. President Rodrigo R. Duterte did not push the bill, which is pending in a Senate committee, in his last address to Congress this month.

Marikina Rep. Stella Luz A. Quimbo, one of the authors of the stimulus bill, said meager and delayed cash to poor families could force them to leave their homes, defeating the purpose of a strict lockdown.

“Aid is not enough,” she said at a House hearing in Filipino, noting that the promised cash aid would likely reach households after the lockdown.

“Unless aid is provided in a timely manner, these workers might leave their homes anyway if only to find ways to feed their families,” Ms. Quimbo said separately in a Viber message.

The lawmaker urged authorities to tweak the Aug. 6-20 lockdown by allowing businesses in nonessential sectors whose workers have been fully vaccinated and willing to do routine testing to continue operating.

“This is one way to mitigate the substantial economic losses worth P15 billion per day,” she said. “I also continue to push for Bayanihan III, which will provide aid that is urgently needed during an enhanced community quarantine.”