When electricity bills are delivered this month, some 2.4 million consumers in Metro Manila and adjacent provinces will be shocked to discover that they will have to pay three or four times more than their usual consumption.

The country’s largest power distributor, Manila Electric Company (Meralco), said the sudden jump in the June billing was due to three or four months of consumption, after the company failed to read electricity meters and collect payments during the prolonged lockdown imposed by the government to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Meralco also explained that the June billing would reflect consumption based on actual meter reading, instead of the estimated consumption in March and April, which was reflected in May bills.

Meralco said the 2.4 million power consumers who will experience a spike in their billings represented about 35 percent of its customer base.

A large number of customers, accounting for 65 percent, had received a meter reading for May. For these consumers, the June billing will not be as large.

To help consumers pay their bills, Meralco has devised a staggered payment plan, and assured power users there would be no disconnection.

Meralco spokesman Joe Zaldarriaga said the company would be considerate enough “to keep the lights on.”

Meralco was not spared of the economic meltdown caused by the pandemic as it affected everyone — from the poorest residential customers to the largest business conglomerates.

In mid-March, the Philippine government imposed a total lockdown, suspended all forms of transportation, shut down economic activity and asked people to stay home.

As with other public utilities such as water and telecommunications, Meralco was expected to continue its services even when its meter reading and payment collection stopped.

Meralco said commercial and residential electricity users unable to pay their monthly bills, which had piled up for three or four months, would be allowed to settle their accounts in four- to six-month installments.

Power users who consumed more than 201 kilowatt-hours (kWh) in February can pay their latest bill in four equal installments. Those who consumed 200 kWh or less will be given six months to settle their bills. Installment payments are due every 15th of the month starting in June.

Apart from disruption of its business operations, Meralco also had to contend with lower energy sales and reduced demand, as commerce and industry came to a full stop during the lockdown.

The Meralco franchise area covers Metro Manila and the adjacent provinces of Bulacan, Rizal, Cavite and Laguna, as well as parts of Batangas. This area accounts for 70 percent of Luzon’s energy demand.

The power demand prior to the pandemic exceeded 11,000 megawatts (MW) in Luzon, and fell below 8,000 MW during the lockdown.

It rose to 10,400 MW in early June, along with the partial reopening of industries and commercial establishments, but this was still below pre-enhanced community quarantine levels.

Economists estimate the Philippines lost about P1.3 trillion in gross domestic product over the last two quarters due to the prolonged lockdown, one of the longest and strictest in the world.

Worldwide, more than 7.3 million people have been infected by nCoV, with almost 415,000 fatalities and recoveries among nearly 45 percent of those who had contracted the highly contagious respiratory disease.

In the Philippines, more than 24,000 people have been infected and over a thousand have died. This is the second highest death toll in Southeast Asia, after Indonesia.