Duterte pledged a COVID-free Christmas. Instead, cases soar

Shouting at the top of their lungs, more than a thousand residents of Polanco, a small town in the southern Philippines, stood shoulder-to-shoulder at a local park earlier this month to join a Christmas tree-lighting countdown, defying the national government’s social-distancing guidelines.

Some people were not wearing masks while children who are banned from mass gatherings due to the risk of infection, ran around.

The police stood helpless in the middle of the crowd as politicians allied with President Rodrigo Duterte led the ceremony.

Days later, many of the same residents, gathered anew at a church nearby to join the nationwide “Simbang Gabi” – a series of nine nightly rituals commemorating Christ’s birth. Inside, social-distancing protocols were difficult to observe.

Such scenes have been repeated all over the predominantly Catholic nation in the run up to Christmas, which falls on Friday. Amid the threat of the pandemic many of the Philippines’ 86-million faithful are insistent on maintaining a 350-year-old religious tradition that dates back to the Spanish era, and is celebrated in a carnival of festivities that start in September.

Not far from Polanco’s town centre the cockfighting arena is back in business.

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