The plight of our LSIs

AS A MATTER OF FACT - Sara Soliven De Guzman (The Philippine Star) - September 28, 2020 - 12:00am

LSIs or locally stranded individuals is the term used for “foreign nationals or Filipino citizens in a specific locality within the Philippines who have expressed intention to return to their place of residence/ home origin.” They include Filipino local domestic, factory, service workers, students, local or foreign tourists, individuals stranded in various localities while in transit and other stranded individuals.

Since the lockdown, I have been hearing about the LSIs in the news. The group that interests me most are the domestic, factory and service workers – those who are fully dependent on government assistance. There are some who can afford but they would rather become an LSI because at this point, it is the most practical way of reaching their farflung destination, considering all the COVID-19 response protocols of their destination.

Last week, when I visited my father’s grave in the Libingan ng Mga Bayani, I saw so many tents just outside the gate. There were even more tents inside. At first, I thought they were squatters until I asked the guard. He said they are LSIs waiting for their schedule to be transported to their province. I found out that there are different regional LSIs groups – Cebu, Iloilo, Gensan, Zamboanga, Cagayan, etc. They are scattered in different areas of Metro Manila.

While I was observing them, I saw how crowded they were. Clearly, there was no social distancing happening. What worries me is their sanitation and hygiene. It is truly a haven for disease and viruses to thrive. How I wish they can just all go home right away.  They will get sicker in such conditions.

As of Sept. 25, 2020, the National Task Force Against COVID-19 has reported the following: A total of 360,265 OFWs and OFs have arrived in the country via airplane (323,874) and vessel (36,391). Of these, 300,025 returning overseas Filipinos (ROFs) arrived in Manila, 32,605 arrived in Clark, 26,049 arrived in Cebu and 1,586 arrived in Tawi-Tawi/ Zamboanga. For the period May 3 to Sept. 23, a total of 8,186 ROFs were confirmed to have contracted the virus and sub-task group reported a total of 294,658 registered LSIs. The regions with the greatest number of LSIs are Regions I (46,058), V (42,018), VII (37,157) and MIMAROPA (28,242).

These LSIs are being assisted by the 721 PNP Help Desks established for LSIs and ROFs. OWWA assisted 160,096 OFWs through the Balik Probinsiya Program. A total of 208,152 OFWs were sent back to their respective residences as of Sept. 18, 2020. There are other groups assisting the LSIs aside from the local government units (LGUs) and every day, statistics-data are updated.

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When the entire Luzon was placed on lockdown in mid-March, it banned non-essential travel. On May 13, the government released guidelines on how stranded Filipinos can return home. These guidelines are under Memorandum No. 2020-02 of the National Task Force Against COVID-19 and signed by its chief, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.

The memorandum is also for ROFs as defined by a corresponding memorandum by the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) issued on May 21. This group includes overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), whether documented or non-documented, non-OFWs who are returning students, J1 visa holders or exchange visitor’s program beneficiaries, returning Filipino diplomats, returning Filipino tourists, participants of Philippine government-sponsored programs and dependents and their accompanying foreign spouses.

A requirement for this group is that they must have undergone 14-day quarantine before heading home, and that they are not contact, suspect, probable or confirmed COVID-19 cases. If the LSI has just recovered from COVID-19, he must get two negative results through RT-PCR tests.

The sub-task group on Management of Returning Overseas Filipinos and Locally Stranded Individuals was created to take charge of these two groups. The task group is divided further into two: Task Unit on Returning Overseas Filipinos and Task Unit on Locally Stranded Individuals.

To facilitate the process, regional task forces have been ordered to organize their own sub-clusters to handle returning overseas Filipinos and stranded individuals to coordinate with the national task units. The LGUs will then coordinate with their regional task forces.

What is the role of the national departments in the process? The Department of Tourism should provide chartered and sweeper flights for tourists considered as LSIs; the Department of Transportation should ensure the availability of transportation services to facilitate ferrying of LSIs to their homes with the assistance of the LGUs; the DILG should ensure that LGUs are following the guidelines; the DSWD should provide food assistance to LSIs; and the Joint Task Force for Covid Shield manned by cops and soldiers have been mandated to facilitate “unhampered passage” of ROFs and LSIs in quarantine checkpoints as they go home.

These agencies work in three phases. First, the pre-departure phase. Locally stranded individual notifies the barangay where he/she is stranded; the LGU consolidates the information and sends it to the regional task force who will coordinate with the JTF Covid Shield; the LGU’s health office issues a medical clearance certification to the stranded individual; the LGU informs the JTF Covid Shield that the stranded individual can travel by sending a notice of availability to travel; and the JTF Covid Shield issues the travel authority for the LSI.

Second, the departure phase. The LGU submits a list of LSIs to the DILG-OFW Desk and regional task force three days before departure; the regional task force endorses the LSI to the National Task Force; the LGU gives the medical clearance and travel authority to the stranded individuals; and the JTF Covid Shield and the DOTr facilitate their travel to their homes. It is also mandated that physical distancing rules be followed for the entirety of the LSIs’ journey.

Lastly, the arrival phase. The LSIs are isolated for check up by their home LGU; the local health office of the home LGU assesses the stranded individual. If COVID-19 symptoms are detected, they will be placed under quarantine, following the guidelines from DOH; if the stranded individuals have no COVID-19 symptoms, they are still required to undergo a 14-day quarantine; and the LGU monitors their status for the 14 days of isolation.

The processing of the LSIs and ROFs is a tedious, meticulous but necessary process. There is a lot going on behind the scenes. Let us hope corruption is not part of it.

I hope that all stakeholders continue to streamline the procedures and protocols. Our countrymen are safer and better off in their homes. We need to speed up the processing.

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