The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Filipinos feel helpless against latest coronavirus surge

Many in the Philippines blame a lackluster effort by the government for the shortage of vaccines and hospital beds. (Video: Regine Cabato, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

An earlier version of this article misidentified the relative who helped Jayson Maulit call the hospitals. It was his sister Hazel, not his other sister Janine. The article has been corrected.

MANILA — They called more than a dozen hospitals, from morning to midnight, but were denied.

It was just before Easter. Jayson Maulit and his sister Hazel were scrambling to find a hospital that would admit their 95-year-old great-grandmother, Ina Dalling, who was battling covid-19. One finally came through the next day in Batangas, 60 miles from where Maulit’s family lived east of Manila, that could take her as an emergency case — but there was no assurance of a bed if she survived.

It was good enough. They took an ambulance.

With the rest of Maulit’s family in isolation, he watched as Dalling was intubated, nurses called out code blue and she looked up one last time. She died about an hour after they arrived.

“I refuse to let her be a number and be remembered as a statistic, as collateral damage,” Maulit said.

There was barely time to grieve: The family had to find another hospital for Maulit’s grandmother Trining Gappi Maulit, who also had covid-19.

Similar tales are emerging in families across the Philippines, where Southeast Asia’s worst current outbreak has pushed total coronavirus cases beyond 1 million. Many who need treatment must be driven out of the capital, to hospitals as far as five hours away, as the health system buckles under the strain. The Philippines has recorded 16,000 deaths, with patients dying in their homes, on the road and sometimes right outside emergency room doors.

Some private hospitals have turned to home care, remote consulting and recruiting health-care workers from the provinces. The Health Department is developing a home care package for patients with mild cases of covid-19.

“We did not fall short,” President Rodrigo Duterte, who was absent from the public eye at the beginning of the latest virus wave, said in a televised address in mid-April.

Community pantries offer reprieve from covid-19 hardships in the Philippines

Health workers who say the outbreak could have been prevented disagree. Despite lower daily cases in the past week, hospitals were still full; some treated patients in wheelchairs in emergency rooms or in the driveway well into the third week of April.

At a private hospital in Makati City, there are still one or two deaths a day, long after doctors noticed the uptick in cases in March. “We realized at that point with the number of cases in the ER … we can’t save everyone,” said Ivan Zapanta, an internal medicine resident.

Those dying were getting younger, too — another challenge for health-care workers who must break the news to their families.

“This is alarming because these people are active and in good health, with no comorbid diseases,” Zapanta said. “This is proof that the virus is definitely evolving.”

Ambulance driver Oscar, who declined to reveal his full name because he works with government agencies, has seen the surge firsthand. He and his colleagues handle a total of 15 vehicles, which each could receive up to 10 calls a day. They usually can accommodate only three or four. The farthest he has driven to transport a patient is more than 120 miles out of metro Manila.

In late March, he watched as about 50 people hoping to enter an emergency room were turned away. Another time, a patient receiving oxygen had to wait eight hours. In one case, his colleagues drove to five hospitals before taking the patient home. He died shortly after arriving.

“As much as you would want to give them care, transport them, bring them to the hospital so they can get well, it’s not happening,” Oscar said. “People are dying. That’s the reality.”

There are still people on his waitlist, and a hospital can take four to five days to call back. He’s glad the government is now expanding covid-19 wards, but he can’t help but find the effort a little too late.

“How about those people who could have made it but they were not given a chance?” he said. “It’s good they’re reacting now, but isn’t it too late for the other patients?”

Recently, Maulit tested negative. He swore he wouldn’t die in the pandemic, saying he would want to see the government held accountable. The rest of his family is recovering from the coronavirus.

But shortly before midnight on April 21, about a month after the surge began, his grandmother Trining passed away.

“Across the spectrum, everyone is experiencing the inaccessibility of the health-care system,” Maulit said. “The stories of living family members will speak for the dead who weren’t able to get a chance to have adequate health care.”

Read more:

More than 3 million have died of the coronavirus worldwide

Coronavirus has crushed India’s health system. Patients are on their own.

Brazil rejects Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, citing safety concerns