- Christmas Quarantine: Filipino hotels are overflowing with incoming Filipino foreign workers.
- OWWA officials are calling for less quarantine for fully vaccinated Filipinos.
- The government is in debt due to the COVID response, which is expected to skyrocket due to Typhoon Rai.
MANILA: Christmas is traditionally a time when tens of thousands of Filipino expatriates – known as Filipino Overseas Workers (OFWs) – return home to spend time with their families.
With the current pandemic restrictions, foreign tourists are still not allowed into the Philippines. But tens of thousands of returning Filipinos are unfazed, ready to face mandatory quarantines to see loved ones this special time of year. Quarantine is usually carried out – free of charge for OFWs – in a hotel in large cities.
Now the government faces a new problem: With an increase in inbound travel despite COVID, there are not enough hotel rooms left in quarantine.
While this makes family reunions possible, it also means a much shorter vacation for those who only visit loved ones once a year, or even two years.
Yet tens of thousands of people are flying in quarantine. A mandatory 7-day stay in government-designated facilities – even for fully vaccinated people – is on the plane. And the airports are teeming with “Balikbayans” and OFWs. The government spends around 30 million pesos per day to house OFWs in quarantine facilities.
“I had four vaccines – two injections of Sinopharm and two Pfizer booster doses. I also got a flu shot – all in 2021, ”said Crispulo H., who recently landed from Dubai to Manila.
“This mandatory 7-day quarantine plus 14 days of home quarantine is a bit too much,” added Crispulo, who is on his fifth day of quarantine at the hotel. “I think it’s totally unnecessary, it borders on paranoia.”
Two Filipino travelers – an OFW from South Africa and a businessman who flew from Japan – were recently confirmed to carry the Omicron variant, the first two confirmed cases in the country. The two, like all travelers, were taken to a government quarantine facility.
$ 30 billion in loans linked to the pandemic
Meanwhile, borrowing from the Philippines to finance the protracted fight against COVID-19 has exceeded 1.15 trillion pesos (about $ 30 billion), according to the government report.
“This prolonged quarantine is completely unnecessary. I wish the government would avoid a one-size-fits-all rule, ”said Crispulo, who said he had undergone 3 PCR tests in the past 7 days, all of which came back negative. His fourth swab test in a week was performed on Sunday (December 19, 2021).
No electricity, no communication
There are around 200 hotels designed by the government as quarantine facilities in Manila alone, with dozens more in Cebu and Davao. Many OFWs found themselves stranded. Typhoon Rai and its immediate aftermath canceled domestic flights to many towns in the Visayas and northern Mindanao, even as local communities sought help following extensive infrastructure damage, with at least 75 confirmed dead .
If they find ways to travel, their final destination would be areas ravaged by typhoons, without electricity or communications, and some inundated by floodwaters. Cebu-Mactan International had been closed due to extensive damage.
Beth A., 45, who works in Dubai, had not returned home for two years. Although she lives in Manila, her flight landed in Cebu, where she was quarantined in a hotel two days before Typhoon Rai hit the central Philippine island. She is currently in solitary confinement.
Daniel B., a Filipino who also worked in the United Arab Emirates, left his family in typhoon-stricken Surigao. He has not spoken to his wife and family for two days now because the connection is cut off. His return home flight also remains uncertain.
The government has so far repatriated 800,000 OFW due to the pandemic – after spending some 18 billion pesos ($ 360 million) in the process, only to be struck by a deadly typhoon with untold damage to life , goods and infrastructure.
OWWA chief Hans Cacdac said in an interview that the number of incoming OFWs increased as Christmas approached – up to 15,000 a day. This would mean a need for 15,000 additional hotel rooms per day.
High season for Christmas travel
Given the challenge of the traditional Christmas travel season, the government is distributing flights and quarantines for inbound Filipino travelers to major cities to avoid overcrowding in Manila. But with the temporary closure of Cebu-Mactan International, other destinations must take over. As hotel rooms run out for inbound OFWS landing in Manila, it could mean quarantine outside the capital for many Christmas travelers.
“There are almost 14,000 to 15,000 of us – that’s why we are looking for quarantine facilities outside the NCR (National Capital Region, referring to all of Manila),” Cacdac said. “So we’re back in Region 4A… we cover the full range of hotels. We need to quarantine 5-star hotels, because we don’t have enough budget hotel rooms, ”Cacdac added.
The manager admitted that with hotels full and OFWs kept away from their families even though they are already at home, frustrations arise.
The OWWA official said he is looking for fewer days of quarantine or removing it altogether for inbound Filipino travelers who are fully vaccinated.
On repatriations, the government has said it will continue to repatriate migrant workers who wish to return home but cannot do so due to difficulties due to the pandemic.