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FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - May 21, 2020 - 12:00am

This pandemic has opened up many problems we did not dare think about just a couple of months ago. One of these is the return of a large number of our migrant workers during a time when health protocols require them to undergo a two-week quarantine.

Right now, we have about 42,000 OFWs awaiting repatriation. But we do not have the capacity to accept them because of sheer physical limitations on our quarantine capacity.

We cannot relax our quarantine protocols. Doing so will open the risk of importing the second wave of infections we all fear.

Enforcing quarantine protocols leaves tens of thousands of returning Filipino workers in limbo. The very real limits imposed by our existing quarantine facilities create an effective bottleneck. Unless the need for health protocols diminishes, we cannot allow free travels home for our migrant workers – even if they might have the right to return.

All countries maintain various restrictions on travel. Any person arriving in Hong Kong, for instance, is required to wear a GPS device that allows the authorities to monitor his movement during the quarantine period.

Already, we have put thousands of returning Filipinos, mainly sailors from the cruise ships, through the quarantine process. Even after the obligatory quarantine, many of them had problems returning to their home provinces because of local restrictions. The past few weeks have been hell for thousands of Filipinos trying to get home from their posts abroad.

The queue could only get longer.

The drop in oil prices and the general deterioration of the global economy will create powerful “push” factors that will force our migrant workers to return. The numbers affected here could be very large, especially from countries dependent on exporting oil.

Saudi Arabia, for instance, is now facing an acute fiscal crisis requiring painful austerity measures. The kingdom is host to the largest cluster of Filipino migrant workers.

About 10 million Filipinos work abroad. That is about a tenth of our population. If a significant portion is forced to return, our economy could not absorb them. They will be forced to the ranks of the unemployed.

Substantial repatriation of our migrant workers will have an adverse domino effect on our domestic economy. The country benefits from about $30 billion in remittances from our migrant labor force. That represents only the funds that flow through formal channels. Some estimates put remittances at well over $40 billion.

Remittances form a vital pillar supporting domestic demand. They help families buy food and send children to school. They make mall operations profitable enterprises. They provide capital for tens of thousands of microenterprises.

Should the volume of remittances be diminished, domestic demand will suffer. Small enterprises could lose viability. That, in turn, starts another vicious cycle whose final result is a spike in poverty levels.

Prolonged

Each day, we get estimates about the depth and length of the global economic recession we confront.

The US Fed candidly estimates that any recovery in the world’s largest economy could only begin toward the end of 2021. The damage incurred by the US economy in just the past two months is simply too deep to allow quick recovery.

It is expected a fourth of American workers will be unemployed this year. That is about as much as were unemployed during the Great Depression. Unemployment is always the hardest thing to cure – especially as the largest employers are lining up for bankruptcy.

Fed chairman Jerome Powell says a stronger fiscal response is necessary to avert greater damage. Given the state of politics in Washington, that might not happen.

France and Germany are spearheading an initiative to put together a $500 billion fund to support European countries badly hit by the pandemic. That might not be nearly enough to generate recovery. At any rate, European leaders will likely be consumed with rebuilding their shared economy to even attempt to lead the rest of the world.

In our part of the world, everyone is looking to China, the world’s second largest economy, to lead in the recovery process. Already, Beijing has committed $2 billion over the next two years for the WHO to support healthcare especially in Africa. The country has led in delivering vital assistance to many countries around the world during this time of uncertainty.

Should China be able to avert a severe second wave of infections, her economy appears better poised for recovery than everyone else. At this time of global economic chaos, that capacity for regeneration gives China an edge to play a leadership role in a post-pandemic world. Beijing is not about to squander that advantage.

The most vital ingredient to economic recovery is public confidence in the institutions that govern our lives. Yet it is precisely those institutions that leaders like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the US are trying to undermine.

Even as two of his health ministers have resigned in a space of a few weeks over his antics, Bolsonaro personally leads protests against lockdown measures prescribed by epidemiologists. As a result, Brazil has seen a spike in infections and deaths. The country is well on its way to becoming the second most infected country after the US.

Trump, for his part, threatens to withhold funding for the WHO at this critical time. As he repeats those threats, the US has lost its place on the table and its voice in the international dialogue on shaping a post-pandemic global future. We saw that starkly in this week’s top-level virtual meeting organized by the WHO.

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