MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Thousands of people jammed coronavirus vaccination centers in the Philippine capital, defying social distancing restrictions, after false news spread that unvaccinated residents would be deprived of cash aid or barred from leaving home during a two-week lockdown that started Friday.
Officials placed Metropolitan Manila back under lockdown until Aug. 20, as a new spike in COVID-19 infections that health officials say could be due to the highly contagious delta variant threatens to overwhelm hospitals. Three other regions, including nearby Laguna province, were also placed under lockdown until Aug. 15.
Only authorized workers for essential businesses and residents on medical emergencies or food-buying errands can venture out. An eight-hour curfew was imposed in the capital region starting at 8 p.m. and police checkpoints were set up in city boundaries.
A day before the lockdown, false news spread on social media that unvaccinated residents would either be prohibited from leaving their homes to go to work or deprived of 1,000 pesos ($20) aid. It sent large crowds heading for vaccination centers in the cities of Manila, Las Pinas and Antipolo even without prior registrations.
Thousands lined up for several blocks in designated government centers and shopping malls to get the jabs, at times sparking arguments and complaints and snarling traffic.
In Manila alone, up to 22,000 people showed up outside vaccination centers before dawn. People descended in groups and arrived in vans from nearby provinces, some “rowdily removing barricades,” city officials said, citing police reports. Many were not registered under Manila’s immunization program.
Police were forced to stop vaccinations in at least one of the shopping malls and asked the crowds to return home.
Critics partly blamed President Rodrigo Duterte for the confusion. The brash-speaking leader warned Filipinos last week that those who refuse to get vaccinated will not be allowed to leave their homes as a safeguard against the spread of the delta variant. He acknowledged that there was no specific law for such a restriction.
For people who refuse to receive COVID-19 vaccine, Duterte said, “well, for all I care, you can die anytime.”
“We cannot allow our national immunization program to become superspreader events, especially given the threat posed by the delta variant,” the Department of Health said in a statement following the chaotic scenes.
Officials later stressed that even unvaccinated residents could venture out in case of medical emergency. They can also obtain village permission to buy food, medicine or other essential items. They cautioned the public not to fall for fake news on social media and urged them to follow official government announcements.
The government’s vaccination campaign, which started in March after repeated delays, has faced vaccine shortages, delivery delays and hesitancy, including from those who prefer Western brands.
More than 10.2 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated and 12.2 million others have received their first coronavirus shots. About 70 million people are targeted to be immunized this year, said Carlito Galvez Jr., who oversees the program.
The Philippines reported more than 10,600 confirmed COVID-19 infections Friday, the highest since April, with 247 deaths, bringing the total number of cases nationwide to more than 1.6 million with 28,673 deaths in one of Southeast Asia's worst outbreaks.