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Opinion

Bring them home

FROM THE STANDS - Domini M. Torrevillas - The Philippine Star

The Ebola hemorrhagic fever in the 1970s resulted in thousands of deaths in countries in West Africa, and the uncontrollable fear of its  spreading to other parts of the world. The disease caused by the Ebola virus was (and likely continues to be) considered one of the most lethal infections.

In March 2014, the World Health Organization reported a major Ebola outbreak in Guinea, a western African country. The disease rapidly spread to the neighboring countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone. It was the largest Ebola outbreak ever documented in the region. In September that year, WHO said the Ebola epidemic ravaging parts of West Africa was “the most severe acute public health emergency seen in modern times.” By October 31, WHO statistics showed 13,540 Ebola cases and 4,941 deaths overall. Today there  are over 10,000 survivors of the Ebola virus.

Earlier in August 2014, President Benigno Aquino III expressed  his concern regarding the epidemic in West Africa. He said, “Let’s bring home our soldiers and our overseas workers there too.”

Immediately, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. del Rosario and Undersecretary for migrant workers affairs Jesus Yabes, put in action EO 34 of 2012, the Overseas Preparedness and Response Team (OPRT), a measure and a system that would ensure the safety and welfare of Filipinos caught in crisis situations abroad brought about by natural disaster, civil unrest, armed conflicts and cases like the Ebola outbreak.

Consequently, in  early November 2014, a Rapid Response  Team was sent to West Africa to observe, assess and provide recommendations on the process involved in bringing home Filipinos working there.

The 14 members of the team (two of them women)  were volunteers from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of Labor, Department of Health, and the Philippine National Police. They carried with them a list of OFWs in the three countries, their birthdays, original employers and addresses along with 347 documented Filipinos.

The RRT-West Africa team’s story is written in the coffee table  book sentimentally titled Bring Them Home. On the book’s cover is the picture of a sad-looking girl, presumably an African. I thought a dramatic picture of the team carrying an infected person, would have been better.

Sharp, colorful pictures show the team’s  journey to accomplish their mission. They broke up into three different groups to cover the three countries. They held meetings with foreign service officers for visa requirements, communications, and consultations with the Manila home office and Philippine diplomatic posts in Africa and  Middle East embassies.

Sad are the pictures of team members carrying dead patients in hammocks, of stiff-bodied children lying lifeless in the streets, of a cemetery for Ebola virus fatalities. Many of the pictures are on dilapidated shacks, empty streets, a solemnness about the local residents’ faces as they watch victims being carried off to their resting places.

Communicating with their kababayans was difficult for the teams  as phone, cellular and internet connections were very poor, and messages were made through text messages.

On another time, the volunteers  could have enjoyed going around the towns, taking the sights as in Casablanca in Morocco (a stopover) at  Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman’s café and the public markets. But they were restricted in their movements, not allowed to roam around; had to wash their hands all the time;  they could not even visit each other, spent  Christmas in their rooms. (Upon their return they had to stay in quarantined quarters for weeks in Manila lest they transmit the Ebola virus at home.)  They had to have passes to move from one place to another. Doctors checked the team members for symptoms of contamination. They had to have different sets of clothes placed in plastic bags; they had to be careful not to get  contaminated, upon the advice that if anyone got infected  and became a fatality, his or her remains cannot be brought back to the Philippines. Thankfully, no team member  got infected.

They found their target Filipinos, many in mining areas, but many of them  did not want to return to the Philippines because they might not be able to return to their places of work. They found  the only Filipino priest from Samar, Fr. Anthony Patrick Santianez, of the Xaverian Missionaries in Sierra Leone, Makeni region, which reportedly was the hardest hit by the epidemic in 2014.  While he feared for his own health, he did not want to leave Makeni the diocese his serves , where he said he is most needed.

By the first week of January 2015, the teams received work from Usec Yabes that they could proceed home.

The RRT-West  Africa members  are to be commended for their courage in helping repatriate Filipinos from  Guinea, Sierra Leone and  Liberia to spare them from the Ebola scourge, and risk contamination. Other countries transported their nationals. But of the Philippine effort, H.E. Edwin F. Sele, Liberian ambassador to Morocco said, “Those that come to us now in time of grave crisis are our true friends.”

The mobilization of the team is a legacy of President Aquino.

* * *

Two much-awaited legislative measures signed by President Aquino punishes smuggling, extortion at the airport, and cyber crimes.

These are RA No. 10863 or the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act (CMTA) and RA No. 10844 which creates the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT).

These two laws will help the incoming administration get rid of smugglers, balikbayan box extortionists and cyber criminals, Sen. Ralph Recto said. “The  CMTA and the DICT will not only boost the country’s economy, they also seek to curb criminality through the imposition of stiffer penalties on certain criminal acts.

Senator Recto is the principal sponsor of the Senate bill which President Aquino signed into law on May 23 as RA No. 10844.  (He is also the author of the Balikbayan Box Law which was later incorporated into the CMTA by Sen. Sonny Angara, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The CMTA penalizes  government employees found guilty of extorting money from OFWs and Balikbayans with pasalubong cargo six to 12 years imprisonment and a fine of P500,000 to P1 million. The criminals will not enjoy  government benefits, run for public office, exercise the right to vote, and participate in any public election.

The law also penalizes persons tampering with balikbayan boxes, demand greater sums of levies on pasalubong cargo, receive any fee for the performance of any duty, and neglect to issue receipts for any sum collected in the performance of duty. The provision on the balikbayan boxes is one of many crimes cited in the 311-page CMTA. “It is one of the most awaited by Overseas Filipino Workers,” Recto said.

The CMTA allows OFWs to bring in three P150,000 worth of tax and duty- free balikbayan boxes.  Those returning to the Philippines for at least 10 years will be granted tax exemption for personal and household effects not exceeding P350,000.

On the other hand, the DICT law mandates the creation of a “Cybercrime Investigation and Coordination Center.”

The DICT, said Recto, will also be tasked to formulate the National Cybersecurity Plan and form the National Computer Emergency  Response  Team which will serve as “our IT Special Action Forces or cyber-commandos.”

The formulation of a National Cybersecurity Plan should be our priority, the senator said. “Hacking is now a serious security threat not only in the Philippines but also in the global arena.”

My email:domintorrevillas@gmail.com

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