‘Imported’ COVID-19 transmissions
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - July 3, 2020 - 12:00am

If there is one saving grace in the ongoing public health crisis in the Philippines, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. would come out as the most visible – if not most quotable – official in the government addressing directly problems related to the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. This is because the DFA Secretary is the most active Cabinet official responding real time to appeals or requests from the public whom he directly receives – and entertains – from his personal Twitter account @teddyboylocsin.

Locsin’s witty and sharp remarks – at times catty and spiced up by his favorite English and Tagalog cuss words in his Twitter posts –  makes him quotable, especially for us in media. Apparently, however, Locsin’s frank and brutal words even encourage people to directly seek the assistance of the DFA chief even. He quickly responds to people who are not even “followers” of his personal Twitter account and acts speedily on problems, especially those addressed to him by overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). Locsin takes pride for the Philippines being known as one of the world’s major source of much sought after migrant workers.

Thus, Locsin reiterated the DFA commitment not to do anything less for our OFWs, especially those in need of government’s help to be brought back home to our country amid C-19 pandemic.

“We are a nation of migrants…We will continue to repatriate as many of our OFWs as we could,” the DFA chief vowed.

This is not to diminish Locsin’s fellow Cabinet official – Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Secretary Silvestre “Bebot” Bello III – whose office is the main government arm in charge of assisting our OFWs. As Cabinet officials, both are alter egos of President Rodrigo Duterte. They also sit together as members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging and Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID) involved in the government’s implementation of measures to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Quoting President Duterte’s repeated policy declaration that OFWs are the top priority of the Philippine government, the DFA Secretary himself has been in the forefront of repatriation of our OFWs, whether they maybe infected or not by C-19 infection. Aside from echoing the sentiments of President Duterte, the DFA chief pushes repatriation of our stranded OFWs despite depleting resources of the government.

Speaking in our weekly Kapihan sa Manila Bay virtual news forum last Wednesday, Locsin admitted his fears that he could not do as much to repatriate OFWs given the limit set forth by the IATF to enable the Philippine government fill the “shortfalls” in quarantine facilities for those newly arrived from countries also grappling with the C-19 pandemic. As of June 29, according to him, a total of 63,633 OFWs have been so far repatriated back here in our country.

Directly in charge assisting the OFWs in the repatriation is one of Locsin’s DFA deputies, Atty. Brigido “Dodo” Dulay who is the undersecretary for civilian security and consular concerns. Dulay joined his boss during our virtual news forum at the Kapihan sa Manila Bay Webinar.

Of course, these repatriation and other humanitarian activities for stranded OFWs entail additional costs and expenditures that were not anticipated. According to Locsin, he ordered the realignment of the P1.2 billion Assistance to Nationals (ATN) fund in its annual budget for retrofitting scheduled this year of the DFA building main office in Roxas Boulevard. A portion of it will be used to augment the repatriation costs of Filipinos abroad as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Of that P1.2 billion, Dulay informed Locsin that around 45% has already been removed from their budget and given as DFA contribution to the Bayanihan Heal As One Act. Although the DFA still has available ATN fund, Dulay fears it would be used up may be around August or September at the rate of repatriations being done.

Aside from OFWs, the DFA also has to attend to overseas Filipinos (OFs), or the ones we call “balikbayan” whenever they return to visit their families here in the Philippines. The DFA reported yesterday there are now 8,614 COVID-19 cases among OFs in the Americas, Asia, and the Pacific Region, Europe and Middle East (ME) and Africa. Of this total, 561 Filipinos have died of COVID-19 infection.

Under Locsin’s watch, Dulay cited, the DFA has been mindful to fully assist “24/7” these thousands of OFWs who were caught in the lockdowns in various parts of the world due to the deadly flu-like COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our biggest challenge is the absorptive capacity of our quarantine facilities,” Dulay cited. Both land-based and sea-based OFWs are first taken to stay in quarantine facilities for at least 14 days to undergo COVID testing and wait for its results. “This is to avoid imported COVID. That’s what we’re worried about,” Dulay admitted.

This was virtually confirmed in her daily briefing yesterday by Department of Health (DOH) undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire who reported there were 2,379 repatriates found to have contracted the virus when tested upon their return to the Philippines. Of this total, 1,690 of them have already recovered while one died.

The immediate concern now of both the DFA and the DOLE is the repatriation of 301 corpses of our OFWs in Saudi Arabia where authorities there set tomorrow the last day for the Philippines to get them. Of these remains, 152 of them were COVID-19 cases. “The only issue now remaining is really the COVID-infected cadavers because Secretary Locsin has been consistent that we should bring our people home, COVID or not,” Dulay stressed.

Amid the risks of “importing” C-19 cases in our own country, the DFA must do these humanitarian actions in conformity with the policy guidelines of the IATF to slow down – if not completely stop – the spread of the rising cases of C-19 infection in the Philippines.

But for fear of “imported” COVID-19 transmissions, flight restrictions due to the existing pandemic are also preventing the repatriation of our dear departed OFWs.

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