Pandemic hampers Philippines mass evacuation as typhoon hits

By Karen Lema

MANILA (Reuters) – The coronavirus pandemic is complicating Philippine efforts to move hundreds of thousands of people into evacuation centers where social distancing is hard to enforce as a strong typhoon pummeled through its eastern provinces.

Typhoon Vongfong, the first to hit the country this year, intensified after slamming into the eastern Philippines on Thursday afternoon, packing winds of 155 kilometers per hour (kph) and gusts of up to 255 kph (158 miles per hour), the state weather bureau said in a bulletin.

Provincial and city governments, many of which are already strapped for resources due to the outbreak, are grappling with logistical and space issues, with an estimated 200,000 people needed to be moved from their homes in coastal and mountainous areas because of fears of flooding and landslides.

“This is really a nightmare for us here,” Ben Evardone, governor of the Eastern Samar province, told CNN Philippines. “Our problem right now is where to squeeze our people, while making sure they practice social distancing”.

With an average of 20 typhoons every year hitting the Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, the challenges faced by stretched-thin local governments offer a grim preview of disaster response in the time of COVID-19.

The typhoon was forecast to move northwestward and hit Luzon, the country’s largest island that includes the capital Manila, which remains on lockdown.

Images shared on social media showed the powerful typhoon bringing intense rain and violent winds in areas along its path, toppling trees, knocking out power and destroying homes.

In the town of Buhi in the province of Camarines Sur, hundreds of evacuees were given face masks before they were allowed in the evacuation centers.

Mark Anthony Nazarrea, a public information officer at Buhi, said the local government turned two more schools into temporary shelters to enable better social distancing.

There were no reported cases of the new coronavirus in Buhi, Nazarrea said, but “we want to minimize the risk”.

Classrooms that used to accommodate eight families during disasters are now housing only one to two families, he said.

The novel coronavirus has killed 790 people in the Philippines since the first local transmission was recorded in March, and infected close to 12,000.

(Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Mark Potter)

In global war on coronavirus, some fear civil rights are collateral damage

By Luke Baker, Matthew Tostevin and Devjyot Ghoshal

LONDON/BANGKOK/DELHI (Reuters) – In Armenia, journalists must by law include information from the government in their stories about COVID-19. In the Philippines, the president has told security forces that if anyone violates the lockdown they should “shoot them dead”. In Hungary, the premier can rule by decree indefinitely.

Across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas, governments have introduced states of emergency to combat the spread of the new coronavirus, imposing some of the most stringent restrictions on civil liberties since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, lawyers and human rights campaigners said.

While such experts agree extraordinary measures are needed to tackle the deadliest pandemic in a century, some are worried about an erosion of core rights, and the risk that sweeping measures will not be rolled back afterwards.

“In many ways, the virus risks replicating the reaction to Sept. 11,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, referring to the welter of security and surveillance legislation imposed around the world after the al Qaeda attacks on the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people.

“People were fearful and asked governments to protect them. Many governments took advantage of that to undermine rights in ways that far outlasted the terrorist threat,” he told Reuters.

Roth was speaking about legislation in countries including the United States, Britain and EU states which increased collection of visa and immigrant data and counter-terrorism powers.

Some measures imposed in response to a crisis can become normalised, such as longer security queues at airports as a trade-off for feeling safer flying. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, similar trade-offs may become widely acceptable around issues such as surveillance, according to some political and social commentators.

South Korea’s use of mobile phone and other data to track potential carriers of the virus and impose quarantines has been a successful strategy and is a model that could be replicated around the world to guard against pandemics, they say.

Political consultant Bruno Macaes, a former Portuguese minister, said people’s obsession with privacy had made it harder to combat threats like pandemics, when technology to trace the virus could help.

“I am more and more convinced the greatest battle of our time is against the ‘religion of privacy’. It literally could get us all killed,” he added.

EXTRAORDINARY CRISIS

As the virus has spread from China across the world, with more than 1.4 million people infected and 82,000 dead, governments have passed laws and issued executive orders.

The first priority of the measures is to protect public health and limit the spread of the disease.

“It’s quite an extraordinary crisis, and I don’t really have trouble with a government doing sensible if extraordinary things to protect people,” said Clive Stafford-Smith, a leading civil rights lawyer.

The U.S.-headquartered International Center for Not-For-Profit Law has set up a database to track legislation and how it impinges on civic freedoms and human rights.

By its count, 68 countries have so far made emergency declarations, while nine have introduced measures that affect expression, 11 have ratcheted up surveillance and a total of 72 have imposed restrictions on assembly.

EXTRAORDINARY POWERS

In Hungary for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose party dominates parliament, has been granted the right to rule by decree in order to fight the epidemic, with no time-limit on those powers and the ability to jail people for up to five years if they spread false information or hinder efforts to quell the virus.

The Hungarian government said the law empowered it to adopt only measures for “preventing, controlling and eliminating” the coronavirus. Spokesman Zolan Kovacs said nobody knew how long the pandemic would persist, but that parliament could revoke the extra powers.

In Cambodia, meanwhile, an emergency law has been drafted to give additional powers to Hun Sen, who has been in office for 35 years and has been condemned by Western countries for a crackdown on opponents, civil rights groups and the media. The law is for three months and can be extended if needed.

The Cambodian government did not respond to a request for comment. Hun Sen defended the law at a news conference this week, saying it was only required so that he could declare a state of emergency, if needed, to stop the virus and saving the economy.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former coup leader who kept power after a disputed election last year, has invoked emergency powers that allow him to return to governing by decree. The powers run to the end of the month, but also can be extended.

“The government is only using emergency power where it is necessary to contain the spread of the coronavirus,” said Thai government spokeswoman Narumon Pinyosinwat.

In the Philippines, the head of police said President Rodrigo Duterte’s order to shoot lockdown violators was a sign of his seriousness rather than indicating people would be shot.

Neither the presidential spokesman nor the cabinet secretary responded to a request for comment.

PUBLIC HEALTH

For Roth and other human rights advocates, the dangers are not only to fundamental freedoms but to public health. They say restrictions on the media could limit the dissemination of information helpful in curbing the virus’s spread, for instance.

Indian premier Narendra Modi, criticised in the media for a lack of preparedness including inadequate protective gear for health workers, has been accused by opponents of trying to muzzle the press by demanding that it get government clearance before publishing coronavirus news, a request rejected by India’s supreme court.

The Indian government did not respond to a request for comment, while the Armenian government said it had no immediate comment. Both have said they want to prevent the spread of misinformation, which could hamper efforts to control the outbreak.

Carl Dolan, head of advocacy at the Open Society European Policy Institute, warned about the tendency for some governments to keep extraordinary powers on their books long after the threat they were introduced to tackle has passed.

Dolan proposed a mandatory review of such measures at least every six months, warning otherwise of a risk of “a gradual slide into authoritarianism”.

(Additional reporting by Josh Smith in Seoul, Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh, Krisztina Than in Budapest, Nvard Hovhannisyan in Yerevan, Neil Jerome Morales in Manila, Panu Wongcha-Um in Bangkok, Linda Sieg in Tokyo, John Mair in Sydney, Ben Blanchard in Taipei, Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade and Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia; Editing by Pravin Char)

Philippine residents retrieve animals, belongings amid threat of volcano eruption

By Eloisa Lopez and Karen Lema

AGONCILLO, Philippines (Reuters) – Thousands of residents under orders to evacuate from a town near the Philippine volcano Taal were allowed to briefly visit homes on Friday to rescue their animals and recover some possessions, taking advantage of what appeared to be waning activity.

Daniel Reyes, mayor of the Agoncillo town inside the danger zone of the 311 meter (1,020 feet) volcano, said he allowed around 3,000 residents to check their properties and retrieve animals, clothes and other possessions.

“If I would not let them rescue their animals, their animals would die and together with them their sources of livelihood,” Reyes told Reuters.

A long line of cars, trucks, motorcycle taxis carrying pigs, dogs, television sets, gas stoves and electric fans, were seen leaving Agoncillo, among the towns blanketed in thick layers of volcanic ash.

“Our bodies are fine, but our minds and hearts are in pain”, said resident Peding Dawis, 63, while resting after taking his cows to safer areas.

Dawis said there were 200 more pigs that needed rescuing in his neighborhood.

“It’s hard to leave our homes and livelihood behind.”

More than 40,000 residents of Agoncillo have abandoned their homes since Taal, one of the Philippines’ most active and deadliest volcanoes, began spewing massive clouds of ash, steam and gas on Sunday, Reyes said.

The majority of residents are now staying with families elsewhere, but the rest are among a total of 66,000 people sheltering in evacuation centers.

SIGNS OF CALM

Taal has shown signs of calm since Thursday and Reyes said he took advantage of this window to allow residents to collect their belongings.

“Based on what I saw outside, I thought I would be doing them more good if I let them return to their homes,” Reyes said. “The help they are getting now is only momentarily”.

The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) said it observed “steady steam emission and infrequent weak explosions” from the volcano’s main crater, but it continued to record dozens of earthquakes in nearby towns.

The institute said on Friday the danger level posed by the volcano remained at 4 out of a possible 5, meaning “hazardous explosive eruption is possible within hours to days”.

“We do not base the alert level simply on what we see on the surface. We have to try to interpret what is happening below,” Renato Solidum, Phivolcs’ chief, told CNN Philippines.

“There are sometimes waning activity but the activity below is still continuing.”

The impact of the volcano on the $330 billion national economy has been a blip, despite canceled flights and a day of work lost on Sunday because of a heavy ashfall in the capital Manila, 70 km (45 miles) away.

But for some of the farmers growing pineapples, bananas and coffee nearby it has been a disaster.

Volcanic ash has caused an estimated 3.06 billion pesos ($60.17 million) worth of damage to crops, livestock and fish farms, based on the latest data from the agriculture department.

Although Taal is one of the world’s smallest active volcanoes, it can be deadly. An eruption killed more than 1,300 people in 1911.

(Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Michael Perry)

Rumbling volcano shuts down Philippine capital

By Karen Lema and Enrico Dela Cruz

MANILA (Reuters) – Schools and businesses shut across the Philippine capital on Monday as a volcano belched clouds of ash across the city and seismologists warned an eruption could happen at any time, potentially triggering a tsunami.

Thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes around Taal, one of the world’s smallest active volcanoes, which spewed ash for a second day from its crater in the middle of a lake about 70 km (45 miles) south of central Manila.

Residents living near the errupting Taal Volcano evacuate in Lemery, Batangas City, Philippines, January 13, 2020. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

“The speed of escalation of Taal’s volcanic activity caught us by surprise,” Maria Antonia Bornas, chief science research specialist at the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, told reporters.

“We have detected magma. It’s still deep, it hasn’t reached the surface. We still can expect a hazardous eruption any time.”

Authorities warned that an eruption could send a tsunami surging across the lake.

More than 24,000 people have been evacuated from the volcanic island and the area immediately around it – normally a popular tourist spot.

“We got scared of what could happen to us, we thought the volcano was going to erupt already,” said Marilou Baldonado, 53, who left the town of Laurel with only two sets of clothes after she saw the huge ash cloud build.

Some tourists ignored the dangers and traveled to towns close to the volcano to get a better look.

Residents living near the errupting Taal Volcano evacuate in Agoncillo, Batangas City, Philippines, January 13, 2020. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

“It’s a once in a lifetime experience for us,” Israeli tourist Benny Borenstein told Reuters as he snapped photos of Taal from a vantage point in Tagaytay City, about 32 km away.

To the southwest of the volcano, the towns of Agoncillo and Lemery were coated by a thick layer of ash, making roads impassable.

Agoncillo’s mayor, Daniel Reyes, told DZMM radio some homes and part of a building had collapsed under the weight of the fallen ash.

In nearby Talisay Batangas, Vice Governor Mark Leviste said rain had turned ash to mud and trucks were needed to evacuate more people from remote communities.

“There is no power. Even water was cut, so we are in need of potable water,” he said. “We are in need of face masks.”

SHUT DOWN

In Manila, masks sold out quickly after residents were advised to wear them if they had to go out. Some wore handkerchiefs across their faces as they breathed air tainted by the smell of sulfur.

Streets that would normally be snarled with some of the world’s worst traffic were largely empty in the city of 13 million people.

Schools and government offices were closed on official orders. The stock exchange suspended trading and many private businesses shut for the day too.

Classes in some cities in the capital will remain suspended on Tuesday, officials said.

Lightning strike in the midst of Taal volcano explosion is seen in Lipa City, Philippines January 12, 2020 in this picture obtained from social media. Cheslie Andal/via REUTERS

Flight operations at Manila’s international airport partially resumed, authorities said, after more than 500 flights were delayed or canceled on Sunday.

One flight that did land carried President Rodrigo Duterte, who was coming back from his home city of Davao in the southern Philippines. He had been unable to fly on Sunday because visibility was so low.

One of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines, Taal has erupted more than 30 times in the past five centuries, most recently in 1977. An eruption in 1911 killed 1,500 people and one in 1754 lasted for a few months.

The island has been showing signs of restiveness since early last year.

The Philippines lies on the “Ring of Fire,” a belt of volcanoes circling the Pacific Ocean that is also prone to earthquakes.

(Additional reporting by Peter Blaza; Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Stephen Coates and Andrew Heavens)

Philippines bans two U.S. senators, mulls new visa rules for Americans

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines has banned two U.S. lawmakers from visiting and will introduce tighter entry restrictions for U.S. citizens should Washington enforce sanctions over the detention of a top government critic, the president’s spokesman said on Friday.

President Rodrigo Duterte will impose a requirement on U.S. nationals to get visas should any Philippine officials involved in the incarceration of Senator Leila de Lima be denied entry to the United States, as sought by U.S. senators Richard Durbin and Patrick Leahy.

Duterte’s move comes after the U.S. Congress approved a 2020 budget that contains a provision introduced by the senators against anyone involved in holding de Lima, who was charged with drug offences in early 2017 after she led an investigation into mass killings during Duterte’s notorious anti-drugs crackdown.

“We will not sit idly if they continue to interfere with our processes as a sovereign state,” Philippine presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo told a regular news conference.

The Philippines grants visa-free entry for up to 30 days to Americans, 792,000 of whom visited in the first nine months of 2019, nearly 13% of foreign arrivals, government data showed.

The U.S. embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Panelo said travel restrictions over de Lima’s detention were nonsense because she was not wrongfully imprisoned but detained pending trial for crimes.

“The case of Senator de Lima is not one of persecution but of prosecution,” he said.

Duterte makes no secret of his disdain for the United States and what he considers its hypocrisy and interference, though he admits that most Filipinos and his military have high regard for their country’s former colonial ruler.

The United States is the Philippines biggest defense ally and its main source of Western influence. Millions of Filipinos have relatives who are U.S. citizens.

De Lima, a justice minister in a former administration, on Wednesday expressed what she described as overwhelming gratitude to the U.S. Congress for its help.

She has won numerous awards from human rights groups, who consider her a prisoner of conscience.

She has constantly spoken out against Duterte and been calling for an international investigation into his war on drugs, in which thousands of people have been killed.

Police say those killed were drug dealers who resisted arrest, but activists believe many of the killings were murders.

(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty, Robert Birsel)

Christmas typhoon kills at least 13 in Philippines

MANILA (Reuters) – A typhoon that struck the central Philippines over Christmas has killed at least 13 people, disaster agency officials said on Thursday.

Typhoon Phanfone hit the Philippines late on Tuesday with winds of up to 120 kph (75 mph) and gusts of 150 kph, heavy rain and flooding.

More than 58,000 people were evacuated from their homes before the storm, which caused widespread property damage, and more than 15,000 were stranded at ports when ferries were suspended. Scores of flights were canceled.

The fatalities were in the central provinces of Capiz, Iloilo and Leyte, including a 13-year-old boy who was electrocuted, a man killed by a tree branch and another killed in a car accident, the disaster agency said.

The typhoon left the Philippines on Wednesday night and was out over the South China Sea, moving west.

An average of 20 typhoons hit the Philippines each year, with storms becoming fiercer in recent years.

(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty)

Eleven dead, 300 treated after drinking coconut wine in Philippines

MANILA (Reuters) – At least 11 people have been killed and more than 300 treated in hospital after drinking coconut wine in the Philippines, including some who were celebrating at a Christmas party, health and local authorities said on Monday.

The poisoning occurred in Laguna and Quezon, two provinces south of Manila, and all had consumed lambanog, a drink popular in provinces and consumed widely during holidays and celebrations.

Many were admitted to hospitals on the urging of mayor Vener Munoz in Rizal, Laguna, where the deaths occurred between Thursday and Sunday.

Two people who had been in critical condition were improving, he told local radio. The coconut wine that was consumed had been made in his town, he added.

Blood tests and samples of leftover lambanog would be collected and analyzed on Monday, the Department of Health said.

“All had a sad history of lambanog ingestion,” the department said, referring to those poisoned.

“Some bought for leisure drinking and birthday party, while others were donated by local officials during their Christmas party.”

Unregulated production and sales of lambanog are common in the Philippines, and it is often made illegally with dangerous additives.

The country’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has previously warned about the dangerous and prohibited use of methanol as an additive in home brews.

A year ago, the FDA and police were deployed to locate and confiscate unregistered lambanog that was being openly sold to the public, and threatened to prosecute sellers.

Twenty-one people died after consuming lambanog last year, media reported.

(Reporting by Martin Petty and Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Stephen Coates)

Philippines’ 6.5 earthquake kills at least five

Rescue workers assist residents evacuating from a condominium building that sustained heavy damage after a 6.5 magnitude earthquake in Davao City, Mindanao, Philippines, October 31, 2019. REUTERS/Lean Daval Jr

Philippines’ 6.5 earthquake kills at least five
MANILA (Reuters) – A magnitude 6.5 earthquake rocked southern Philippines still reeling from two strong tremors this month, killing at least five people and causing previously damaged buildings and homes to collapse.

The integrity of several buildings and homes on Mindanao have already been weakened by a 6.3 earthquake that struck on Oct. 16 and another 6.6 quake on Oct. 29.

A social welfare officer said five people in North Cotabato province died due to the quake, including a village chief when the office wall collapsed on him. This brought the number of killed to 20 in the series of tremors since Oct. 16.

The latest quake occurred 33 km (20 miles) northeast of Tulunan town in Cotabato province, which lies west of Davao City, where President Rodrigo Duterte was when it happened. His spokesman, Salvador Panelo said the Philippine leader is safe.

Police rescued 9 people who were injured after the bottom floor of a mid-rise condominium in Davao collapsed, DZMM radio reported.

In nearby Kidapawan city, a six-storey hotel collapsed, but there was no one inside, Mayor Joseph Evangelista told DZMM radio.

The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) advised the people to remain outside their homes and offices given the possibility of more and stronger aftershocks.

“Buildings could be totally knocked out”, said Erlinton Olavere, a science research specialist at Phivolcs.

Earthquakes are common in the Philippines, which is on the geologically active Pacific Ring of Fire.

Duterte’s office has directed all agencies and local government units to provide the necessary assistance and immediate relief to those affected.

(Reporting by Karen Lema and Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Tom Hogue & Shri Navaratnam)

Death toll in southern Philippines earthquake rises to seven

A damaged local town hall is seen in Mabini, Davao Del Sur, Philippines after a magnitude 6.6 earthquake struck Octiber 29, 2019 in this picture obtained from social media. Jaypee Catalan via REUTERS

Death toll in southern Philippines earthquake rises to seven
By Karen Lema

(Reuters) – The death toll from a strong earthquake in the southern Philippines has risen to seven, disaster and police officials said on Tuesday, as aftershocks continued to jolt many parts of Mindanao.

The 6.6 magnitude quake hit early on Tuesday, damaging buildings, toppling power lines and triggering landslides in the central area of the Philippines’ southern island.

A seven-year-old child and his 44-year old father were among those who were killed in the North Cotabato province after they were struck by a boulder, disaster officials said.

Authorities said the death toll could rise further because many injured were not immediately brought to hospitals.

“It was depressing to see the damage left by the earthquake,” Abril Espadera, a disaster official in North Cotabato, told Reuters, as he recalled seeing collapsed homes and demolished buildings in the province, including schools.

Smaller tremors rattled nervous residents throughout the day and those who were afraid to return to their homes set up tents to shelter near school yards, Espadera said.

In Magsaysay town in Davao del Sur province, rescuers were trying to recover three bodies after landslides in two separate towns swallowed parts of agricultural areas, police said.

The quake, whose magnitude was initially put at 6.7 by the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre, was the second powerful quake to strike Mindanao in two weeks.

Authorities had flagged the risk of landslides after the 6.3 quake on Oct. 16 in central Mindanao that killed seven and injured more than 200.

Earthquakes are common in the Philippines, which is on the geologically active Pacific Ring of Fire.

Power cables swayed in Davao city, the home town of President Rodrigo Duterte, where people rushed to open spaces, and some fainted out of fear. The quake also triggered power cuts in nearby General Santos city, media said.

Some schools in the area have suspended classes.

Duterte’s office has called for calm as it mobilized all government agencies to undertake damage assessment and to coordinate rescue and relief operations.

(Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Bernadette Baum)

Strong quake in Philippines kills one, injures dozens

Rubble is seen on a floor of a hotel in the aftermath of an earthquake in Kidapawan City, Philippines October 16, 2019 in this picture obtained from social media. NARU GUARDA CABADDU/via REU

By Neil Jerome Morales and Peter Blaza

MANILA (Reuters) – A magnitude 6.4 earthquake struck the southern Philippines on Wednesday, killing at least one child and injuring more than two dozen other people.

Government authorities were starting to receive reports from field officials on the island of Mindanao where the earthquake struck, opening cracks in buildings and homes, sending residents running from shops and offices and knocking power out.

“Our hospital chief reported that a child died because of the earthquake,” Reuel Limbungan, mayor of Tulunan town in North Cotabato province, told the DZMM radio station. Two more people were injured, he added.

The earthquake also shook Davao City, the hometown of President Rodrigo Duterte and among the most populous cities in the country.

In Magsaysay town, in the nearby province of Davao del Sur, 20 people were injured by falling debris and home furniture, Anthony Allada, the municipality’s information officer, told DZMM.

“Many houses were totally damaged… Another person is in a critical condition,” Allada said.

The municipality of M’lang, in Cotabato province, reported three injuries, Vice Mayor Joselito Pinol told DZMM radio.

The United States Geological Survey said the quake struck 69 km (43 miles) north-northwest of the city of General Santos, Mindanao at 7:39 p.m. (1137 GMT). The epicentre was about 80 km southwest of central Davao.

“We felt a very strong jolt and there was a blackout. I saw people rushing down. We were panicking, heading to the exit,” said Naru Guarda Cabaddu, a hotel consultant visiting Kidapawan City, between the epicentre of the quake and Davao.

The Philippines is on the geologically active Pacific Ring of Fire and experiences frequent earthquakes.

“I was driving back home when I felt a very powerful shake. I stopped and saw people and patients running out of the hospital,” Raprap Rafael, a resident of Kidapawan City, told Reuters. “I’m not sleeping at my home tonight.”

Renato Solidum, head of the Philippines seismic agency, told the ANC news channel there was a chance of aftershocks, which could be strong and capable of causing severe damage.

“Aftershocks can happen. Some can be felt most likely in low intensities. But we cannot remove the possibility of similar intensities that can be felt in the epicentral area,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Peter Blaza; Editing by Matthew Tostevin, Alison Williams and Alex Richardson)