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Spreading coronavirus a ‘serious crime’ in Philippines, Duterte says as cases spike

A man wearing a protective mask walks past an image of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila, Philippines on Friday March 20, 2020.
A man wearing a protective mask walks past an image of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Manila, Philippines on Friday March 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

The Philippines said on Tuesday it would ramp up testing for the novel coronavirus amid a sharp rise in infections and deaths since a lockdown was eased in June, while President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to arrest anyone not wearing a mask.

The government aimed to test 32,000 to 40,000 people a day compared with the current 20,000 to 23,000, Health Secretary Francisco Duque said in a televised meeting with Duterte.

Read more: Coronavirus: Global deaths top 600,000 as Hong Kong warns of COVID-19 resurgence

The Philippines has tested nearly 1.1 million people so far, but Duque said the aim was for 10 million people — or nearly a tenth of the population — to be tested by the second quarter of next year.

“We cannot test every citizen as no country has done it even the richest, the United States,” Duque said.

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In Southeast Asia, the Philippines ranks second to Indonesia in terms of the number of infections and deaths, with cases jumping nearly four-fold to 68,898 and deaths nearly doubling to 1,835 since the government relaxed lockdown measures in June.

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Lockdowns have been reimposed in some of the hardest-hit areas.

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Of 30 countries most impacted by the pandemic, the Philippines ranked 24th in terms of testing rate, data from statistics aggregator Statista showed.

Duterte threatened to arrest anyone who spread the virus, refused to wear masks or keep a safe distance from others. The tough-talking president warned in April that violators of lockdown rules could be shot for causing trouble.

Read more: Global coronavirus cases see record daily increase for 2nd day in a row: WHO

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“We do not have any qualms in arresting people,” Duterte said in a recorded address aired on Tuesday. It was a “serious crime” to spread the COVID-19 respiratory disease, he added.

“If you are brought to the police station and detained there, that would give you a lesson for all time,” he said of anyone caught not wearing a mask.

Last week, officials said health workers and police would take patients with mild or no symptoms from their homes and place them in isolation centers, raising concerns about possible human rights violations.

(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales and Karen Lema; Editing by Ed Davies and Stephen Coates)