VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Post claiming protests caused spike in COVID-19 cases BASELESS

Facebook (FB) page Protectprrd (Protect Rodrigo Roa Duterte) uploaded a graphic on Aug. 3 claiming protest rallies held in June and July contributed to the upsurge of COVID-19 cases in the Philippines. This claim has no basis.

The post called out three recent protests — the Anti-Terrorism Bill rallies in Cebu and Manila in June; the mass gatherings protesting the non-renewal of the ABS-CBN franchise in mid-July and the State of the Nation Address (SONA) protests on July 27.

The comments accompanying the graphic read in part: “PAPANO HINDI DADAMI ANG COVID? Mag rally kayo sumisigaw nakababa ang facemask wala rin social distancing. Tapos sisihin nyo pangulo (How will COVID-19 [cases] not increase? You protest and shout while the face mask is worn below the mouth and there is no social distancing. Then you’ll blame the president).”

It featured select photos from the said events, where people can be seen properly wearing their face masks, contrary to what the caption says, though they were not practicing physical distancing. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Photo of June 12 protest MANIPULATED to show fewer people)

Protectprrd’s claim has no basis. The Department of Health (DOH) currently doesn’t have any evidence that recent physical protests contributed to the uptick in COVID-19 transmissions in the country. There have also been no studies conducted on this subject.

On Aug. 5, two days after Protectprrd’s baseless claim was uploaded, Sec. Carlito Galvez, chief of the National Task Force against COVID-19 said that areas with many single-room houses and the workplace, particularly industries and those located in the country’s economic hubs, are now the critical places for the novel coronavirus’ transmission.

In an Aug. 10 email to VERA Files Fact Check, Health Undersecretary Rosario Vergeire said that while the agency cannot “fully eliminate the possible risk of exposure” of the protesters, the DOH has “no data regarding COVID-19 cases who participate in physical protests because this is not included in the Case Investigation Form (CIF).”

The agency’s CIF is a document filled out by health personnel as part of the government’s contact tracing efforts to identify close contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19.

There are five items labelled as the generic “place” where a patient may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus in the updated CIF: the workplace, social gathering, health facility, religious gathering and others.

The DOH has cautioned against mass gatherings as these pose a risk for transmission of infectious diseases, especially when health protocols are not properly observed.

An upsurge of COVID-19 transmissions was observed after restrictions in various parts of the country were eased in June. The DOH also attributed the increase in recorded cases in their database to a delay in the reporting of data; “enhanced strategies in active case finding” and expanded testing capacity; and an on-going community transmission where in the last week of July alone, 148 new areas with clusters of infection were identified.

In the United States, a group of nurses, doctors and public health practitioners in California came out with recommendations for “demonstrators, law enforcement and public health agencies” on how to lower the risk of spreading COVID-19 in protest rallies. This came amid the massive Black Lives Matter protests in June which public health experts in the country feared would increase the transmission of the novel coronavirus.

Several studies, some not yet evaluated, have since been conducted to find out if the countrywide demonstrations contributed to a surge in cases in the U.S. The results are conflicting. The United States currently has the most number of COVID-19 cases and fatalities in the world.

Peter Julian Cayton, associate professor of statistics and member of the University of the Philippines COVID-19 Pandemic Response Team believes that unlike the methods used in the U.S. studies, it is “best to know more about how many of the protesters have been exposed through rallies than to rely on transmission rates from the population” because transmission rates can be influenced by different factors.

According to the DOH’s case bulletin on Aug. 19, COVID-19 cases in the country have reached 173,774 and 33% of these are active cases.

The baseless post has over 8000 shares on FB alone. Protectprrd was created in 2016.

(Editor’s Note: VERA Files has partnered with Facebook to fight the spread of disinformation. Find out more about this partnership and our methodology.)