Online ‘sabong’ triggers COVID-19 surge in Sta. Maria, Davao Occidental

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 23 August) – Online sabong (cockfighting) is a major factor behind the surge in COVID-19 cases in Sta. Maria, a coastal town in Davao Occidental that was placed under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) since August 15.

Dr. Doreen Arciaga, the town’s Incident Commander for COVID-19 Response, told an online press briefing on Monday that Santa Maria, classified as among 21 high-risk areas in the Davao region,  has a cumulative total of 703 confirmed cases, 325 of these classified as active as of August 23. Minimum health protocols, she said, have been violated by constituents, among them in “unreported gatherings such as online sabong” or what is locally referred to as  “Talpakan,” rampant gambling and social gatherings like weddings.

Most of the 114 active cases in the población (town center) is due to online sabong, she said.

Santa Maria, Davao Occidental. Map courtesy of Google Maps

Arciaga explained that in an online sabong, “people flock together” around one or two devices so they could watch the cockfight online, and they crowd in areas where there is internet connectivity.

Internet connectivity in Sta. Maria town is limited so they go to areas where there is connectivity such as PisoNet shops. But in the población where internet is accessible, online sabong is more popular and has become a super spreader.

To recall, the first super spreader in Mindanao of the SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was the cockfighting derby at the New Matina Gallera in Davao City on March 7 to 14, 2020 but was ordered suspended by Mayor Sara Duterte evening of March 12.

Cockpits have remained closed since the community quarantines started in March last year, prompting a shift to online sabong where a cockfighting match is streamed live from a venue chosen by the organizers and bets are taken through various means.

“If we trace saan banda dito sa municipality yugn cases due to social gathering na Talpakan, nasa población na area kung saan accessible ang internet” (If we trace the area where most of these social gatherings due to Talpakan is, it’s in the poblacion where internet is accessible), Arciaga said.

Arciaga could not give an exact number of cases traced to the Talpakan clusters but noted that most of the 114 cases in the poblacion were infected during these gatherings.

She said those who watch the cockfight watch in groups and they do these discreetly because gatherings are not supposed to be allowed.

MindaNews sent Arciaga some questions after the presser, including how many cases outside the poblacion are due to online sabong, but she has not replied as of 6 p.m.

“Cat and mouse operations”

According to Arciaga,  online sabong enthusiasts do not usually disclose who they were with until somebody turns positive. “Kung may symptoms, saka lang magsabi na galing ako sa talpakan” (If they have symptoms, that’s when they will say they came from a Talpakan,” Arciaga sad.

She said organizers of the Talpakan are locals and in response to the spreader event, the local government, she said, “delegated to the men in uniform” how to address the situation. She said if there are reports of gatherings, the police force undertakes increased visibility.

But Arciaga acknowledged the difficulties because “it is usually a cat and mouse operation.” Before the police could get to their area, the group would have dispersed.

Some local government units have passed ordinances allowing online sabong or e-sabong. On July 6 this year, the Davao City Council approved on final reading Ordinance 0632-21 otherwise known as the New Cockfighting Code of Davao City, to include E-Sabong as a mode of betting and amusement for local cockfight aficionados.

7 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew

Santa Maria town has a population of 57,526 as of the May 2020 census of the Philippine Statistics Authority.  It has 22 barangays, the most populated of which is Poblacion which has a population of 10,120 residents.

Santa Maria was placed under ECQ on August 15 and all gatherings have been prohibited, there is a total liquor ban and a 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.

Only essential travel is allowed, to buy food and medicine. In barangays under strict hard lockdown where clustering of cases has been noted, emergency and food passes are being imposed.

Santa Maria Mayor Josephine Mariscal issued EO 12 on August 23,  declaring barangays Poblacion, Kinilidan, San Antonio, Datu Daligasao, Buca and San Agustin “under hard lockdown” from August 24 to 31 due to clustering of COVID-19 cases.

The report of the Municipal Health Office of Santa Maria in Davao Occidental shows a total of 703 COVID-19 cases as of August 22, 2021. Of this number, 654 are cases recorded in 2021 while 49 were recorded in 2020. Note that in March and April, the town’s 22 barangays recorded no COVID case.

Arciaga told reporters that even with the surge in cases, they have not stopped their vaccination drive.

As of August 20, she said, they have recorded 2,340 “completed doses for all vaccines” and 1,060 for Johnson and Johnson’s single dose J&J vaccine.

She said they also have schedules to vaccinate with J&J senior citizens with comorbidities and indigenous people and 4Ps members, particularly in the GIDAs or geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas.  (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)