Manila, Philippines – To a teenage girl who had already spent five-straight months indoors before, what is another two weeks of being cooped up?
Besides quick walks to the neighbourhood store to buy food, Britney Maturan, 16, stayed at home from mid-March to August last year, when the Philippines enforced one of the world’s longest lockdowns in its capital region, Metro Manila, to stave off the COVID-19 pandemic.
So when the government on Wednesday issued another order for everyone 18 years old or younger and 65 years old or older to stay indoors for at least two weeks, Maturan was resigned.
“It’s OK,” she told Al Jazeera. “You get used to it anyway.”
Metro Manila is battling a new wave of COVID-19 .
On Friday, the health department reported 5,290 new cases in the Philippines, most of them in the capital. The figure was only slightly lower than Monday’s tally of 5,404 new infections, which was the highest single-day figure since August 2020, and double the daily average in recent months.
But with the economy still reeling from last year’s lockdown, the government is refraining from imposing such draconian measures again. It mandated a nighttime curfew on Monday; the order to restrict minors and the elderly to their homes was seen as part of a bargain to allow working-age people to continue with their jobs.
More mobility restrictions
Local scientists are however concerned that new coronavirus variants, including one recently discovered in the Philippines, are driving the increase in infections.
The University of the Philippines’s OCTA Research group, which analyses Philippine health statistics, says unless more mobility restrictions are enforced, infections would continue to rise indefinitely.
“Our medical field experts suggested restricting minors and the elderly because they are more vulnerable [to infection],” Jojo Garcia, the general manager of the agency overseeing Metro Manila, told Al Jazeera.
“We just follow the protocol. We’re just avoiding them getting sick,” Garcia said.
But paediatrician Dr Bernadette Madrid, the executive director of the NGO Child Protection Network (CPN) says children and teenagers are not any more susceptible to the disease than adults.
“They are just as easily infected as anybody else, except that it’s difficult for them to observe the public health protocols. How do you tell a child not to come near you, right? They won’t understand that,” Madrid told Al Jazeera.
Even Maturan sees the point in keeping youngsters like herself indoors.
“It’s just fair because, at our age, we’re more curious about everything and we love to explore, so we end up doing what we’re not supposed to,” she said.
Sweltering, cramped houses
But as Manila enjoys the last breezes of the cool northeast monsoon, another tropical summer is inching nearer. Poor Filipinos typically escape the heat from their tin roofs and windowless parlours by stepping outdoors and promenading in the streets.
Maturan lives with her mother and two little sisters in a meagre two-storey apartment in Pasig, one of the 16 cities that comprise the Manila metropolis. Her neighbourhood of Maybunga is one of the city’s more congested areas – houses have no yards, front doors open straight into narrow alleys and homes are so close to each other that it is even possible to listen to loud conversations next door.
Enforcing stay-at-home orders in communities like Maybunga presents a challenge to local governments. Police or village officers roam the alleys ordering loiterers to move indoors and people obey them. But the moment the authorities are out of sight, they emerge from their homes and resume their activities outdoors.
“To be frank, it’s very difficult to police areas wherein the floor area of households are very small and it is cramped. People will step outside,” Mayor Vico Sotto of Pasig told Al Jazeera.
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In the poorest, most congested communities, entire families share single rooms as small as five square feet (1.54 square metres), where they cannot all fit inside at the same time, much less practice social distancing.
Besides the physical challenge, forcing people to stay inside such quarters does them more harm than good.
“Staying inside a cramped house 24-7 is unhealthy. This is why we allow outdoor exercise. Outdoor exercise is encouraged, provided social distancing can be maintained,” said Sotto.
The Pasig local government designated a lush, 8-hectare (19.7 acre) park as a “safe zone” for walking and jogging, but because of the central government’s directive, under-18s will not be allowed.
Forced to stay indoors, Maturan says she copes by staying on social media, which she says is almost as good as hanging out with her friends again. She just misses going to the mall with them or visiting their houses.
Maturan is more worried about her sisters, one aged 10 and the other, six.
“They are getting so bored here in the house. When you’re a child, you want to play outside. Now they just cling to their gadgets, playing mobile games,” Maturan said.
“We agree that we have to limit face-to-face interactions now, but I think the children will need some physical activity, especially if their homes are small and there are many people inside the homes,” said Dr Madrid.
Local governments just need to get creative, the paediatrician added. Some streets can be turned into playgrounds and schedules worked out so children and teenagers could still get some sun and breathe fresh air.
‘Why is this taking so long?’
Maturan does not question being ordered to stay home.
“Somehow, it will be helpful because there will be fewer people outdoors. Somehow it will slow down the virus because when there’s lots of people around, the virus just seems to circulate, and people catch it,” she said.
She has weightier things to worry about. Maturan’s father, a caregiver in the United States, lost his job just as the pandemic began taking hold there in February 2020.
Since then, the family has had to scrimp on everything, including their food. Money is tight and her mother needs to stay home to watch her and her sisters, and there are few jobs to be found.
“Because of the lockdown, life has become so difficult. Things aren’t the way they used to be,” Maturan said.
The plan had been for the family to emigrate to the US but now it is uncertain whether they can manage such a move.
With the COVID-19 surge happening exactly a year since the long lockdown, the order to stay at home has increased Maturan’s fears about the future.
“My worries about more people getting sick, more people losing jobs, more shops closing down like in the first lockdown – they’re all coming back.”
The government should temper stay-at-home orders with “mitigation,” said Dr Madrid, or else the consequences could be dire.
“At our outpatient department, we’re getting more consultations among teens with anxiety, depression – it’s really going up,” Dr Madrid said.
Child protection units have also been dealing with more suicide attempts, along with an increase in reports of sexual abuse. The group has yet to consolidate its figures into a report, but Dr Madrid says the trend is evident.
“Almost everyday, we take in a patient who’s suicidal. We never had that before.”
In May last year, the justice department said reports of online sexual abuse of minors tripled during the lockdown. The agency said it received nearly 280,000 tips between March and May 2020.
In cases of sexual abuse, the offender was most often the victim’s neighbour. Otherwise, it was a member of the family, Dr Madrid said.
Schools across the Philippines have shifted to online learning and children are already spending significantly more time at home. With the government confining minors to their houses, Dr Madrid said parents and guardians should be on the lookout for domestic dangers.
The government, meanwhile, should loosen the order a little to allow children and teenagers to spend time in safe outdoor spaces.
Maturan says the pandemic and all its consequences have broadened her perspective, but she still wonders when it will be over.
“Why is this taking so long? Why does the world seem so unfair? Why should this happen to us, and why now? Why do people have to suffer? So many are dying,” Maturan said.
While it makes her sad to think about the situation, she says there is little else she can do but muddle through the long days scrolling on her smartphone screen.
“Just keep on going on. The world just keeps on turning anyway.”