- Christmas quarantine: Philippine hotels overflow with inbound overseas Filipino workers..
- OWWA officials seek less quarantine for fully-vaccinated Filipinos.
- Government pile on debt due to COVID response, set to balloon due to typhoon Rai building.
MANILA: Christmas is traditionally a time when tens of thousands of Filipino expats — known as overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) — fly home to spend time with family.
With current pandemic curbs, foreign tourists are still not allowed in the Philippines. But tens of thousands of returning Filipinos are unfazed, ready to face mandatory quarantines to see loved ones at this special time of the year. Quarantine is usually done — free of cost for OFWs — in a hotel in major cities.
Now, the government now faces a new problem: with a spike in inbound travel despite COVID, there are not enough quarantine hotel rooms left.
While this makes family reunions possible, it also means a much shorter holiday for those visiting loved ones only once a year or even two years.
Still, tens of thousands are flying into quarantine. A mandatory 7-day stay in government-designated facilities — even for the fully vaccinated — is in plane. And airports teem with “Balikbayans" and OFWs. The government spends an estimated Php30 million per day to house OFWs in quarantine facilities.
“I’ve had four vaccines — two Sinopharm shots and two doses of Pfizer boosters. I've also had a flu shot — all within this 2021,” said Crispulo H., who landed from Dubai in Manila recently.
“This mandatory 7-day quarantine plus 14-day home quarantine, is a bit too much,” added Crispulo, who is on his fifth day of hotel quarantine. “I feel this is totally unnecessary, it borders on paranoia.”
Two Filipino travellers — one OFW from South Africa, and a businessman who flew from Japan — were recently confirmed carriers of Omicron variant, the first two cases confirmed in the country. The two, as with all travellers, were taken to a government quarantine facility.
$30 billion pandemic borrowings
Meanwhile, the Philippines' borrowings to finance the prolonged fight against COVID-19 topped P1.15 trillion (about $30 billion), according to the government report.
“This prolonged quarantine is totally unnecessary. I wish the government would avoid a one-size-fit-all rule,” said Crispulo, who said he’s had 3 PCR tests in the last 7 days, which all returned negative. His fourth swab test within one week was taken on Sunday (December 19, 2021).
No power, no communications
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 cancelled domestic flights to many cities in the Visayas and northern Mindanao, even as local communities sought help following extensive damage to infrastructure, with at least 75 confirmed dead.
If do they find ways to travel, their final destination would be the typhoon-ravaged regions with no power and communications, and some inundated by floodwaters. Cebu-Mactan International had been shut due to extensive damage.
Beth A., 45, who works in Dubai, hadn’t been home for two years. Though she lives in Manila, her flight landed in Cebu, where she was quarantined in a hotel two days before the typhoon Rai hit the central Philippine island. She is currently incommunicado.
Daniel B., a Filipino who also worked in the UAE, left his family in typhoon-hit Surigao. He hasn’t talked to his wife and family for two days now as communication is cut. His onward domestic flight also remains uncertain.
The government has so far repatriated 800,000 OFWs due to the pandemic — having spent some Php18 billion ($360 million) in the process, only to be hit by a killer typhoon with yet-untold damage to life, property and infrastructure.
OWWA chief Hans Cacdac, in an interview, said the number of in-bound OFWs has spiked in the run-up to Christmas — at up to 15,000 daily. That would mean a need for 15,000 extra hotel rooms daily.
Christmas peak travel season
Given the challenge of the traditional Christmas peak travel season, the government distributes flights and quarantines for in-bound Filipino travellers to major cities to avoid overcrowding in Manila. But with Cebu-Mactan International temporarily shut, other destinations must pick up the slack. As hotel rooms run out for in-bound OFWS who land in Manila, this could mean getting quarantined outside the capital for many Christmas travellers.
“We’re close to 14,000 to 15,000 — that’s why we’re looking for quarantine facilities outside NCR (National Capital Region, referring to the wider Manila),” Cacdac said. “So we are back in Region 4A… we are covering the whole range of hotels. We must give 5-star hotel quarantine, as we don’t have enough budget hotel rooms,” Cacdac added.
The official admitted that with hotels filled, and the OFWs kept away from their families though they’re already home, frustrations arise.
The OWWA official said they are seeking less quarantine days or scrapping it altogether for fully-vaccinated inbound Filipino travellers.
As for repatriations, the government said they will continue to repatriate migrant workers who want to go home but can't do so because of difficulties due to the pandemic.