Imates sleep and gesture in cramped conditions in the crowded courtyard of the Quezon City jail in Manila. File / AFP
Manolo B. Jara, Correspondent / AFP
Eighteen guards and inmates at a jam-packed Philippine prison have tested positive for the coronavirus, officials said on Friday, heightening fears of a rapid spread of the illness inside the country's jails.
Another 30 prisoners were showing symptoms inside the Quezon City Jail in Manila – a facility so crowded that inmates take turns sleeping on staircases and open-air basketball courts.
The outbreak has fuelled calls from rights groups for the early release of prisoners charged with non-violent offences as well as the sick and elderly in an effort to ease congestion and lower the risk of transmission.
Meanwhile, President Rodrigo "Rody" Duterte admitted that he himself was also "affected" by the tough rules being imposed for people to stay at home and observe social distancing to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the country.
In a televised nationwide message aired on Thursday night, Duterte revealed that mainly due to such rules, he himself was ordered by his daughter Sara, the mayor of their hometown of Davao City in Mindanao, to stay put and observe Holy Week at Malacanang Palace in Manila.
The Philippines has a steadily rising number of confirmed coronavirus cases, with 5,878 infections and 387 deaths as of Friday.
Social distancing is all but impossible in the prison system, where cells sometimes operate at five times' capacity.
Overcrowding has become an even greater problem since President Rodrigo Duterte launched a drug crackdown in 2016 that has seen thousands sent to jails.
Nine inmates and nine prison staff tested positive for the virus, Bureau of Jail Management and Penology spokesman Xavier Solda told reporters.
The prisoners were isolated and staff told to self-quarantine at home, Solda said.
"We are still in the process of intensive contact tracing," he added.
The Philippine High Court on Friday deferred a decision on whether to release the most vulnerable prisoners, instead ordering the government to submit a report on measures it had taken to contain the virus inside jails.
"The release of prisoners and other measures to address the severe congestion in our jails is literally a matter of life and death," Free Legal Assistance Group chairman and Duterte critic Jose Manuel Diokno said Friday.
Otherwise the virus "will run amok", Diokno said.
Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said Manila must "act urgently to mitigate what could be a catastrophe inside the country's overcrowded prisons."
It wasn't clear whether the escapade succeeded in winning back the heart of the young woman, also 18, who had broken up with him by phone. The man is being investigated for trespassing and unauthorised contact with prisoners.
Nations like France and South Korea began resuming face-to-face classes as they got their outbreaks under control, but Philippine authorities see the risk as too great. President Rodrigo Duterte said last month that even if students could not graduate, they needed to stay out of school to fight the spread of the disease.
By early afternoon on Saturday, 15 had been recaptured, and another four had handed themselves back in, leaving 44 on the run. "A manhunt is...underway to arrest the remaining fugitive prisoners," police said in a statement.
"Our goal is to achieve zero COVID infection for two months in our villages. And I believe you can do it," Mayor Moreno said in handing the $2,000 to each of the village chairmen. "That's why we want to honour you for your achievement."
The UAE leaders also dispatched similar congratulatory messages to Prince Mohammed bin Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, Crown Prince, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence of Saudi Arabia.
Pakistan's government is proposing that the international community develop a road map that leads to diplomatic recognition of the Taliban - with incentives if they fulfill its requirements — and then sit down face to face and talk it out with the militia's leaders.
China and Russia have described last month's Taliban victory as a defeat for the United States and moved to work with the insurgents, but no country has moved to recognise a government that includes international pariahs.