MANILA: Authorities in the Philippines fear the imminent return of 42,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) could “overwhelm” the country’s coronavirus disease (COVID-19) quarantine facilities.
Almost 29,000 Filipinos have already been repatriated in the wake of the virus pandemic and tens of thousands more are expected to head home over the coming weeks.
Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., chief implementer of the National Task Force COVID-19, briefed Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte on the situation in a meeting at the presidential palace, which was broadcast on Tuesday.
“Right now, more than 27,000 (OFWs) are here in Manila. And another 42,000 are arriving by May and June. This could overwhelm our hotels,” Galvez said.
All returning OFWs are required to spend 14 days in quarantine on arrival in the country. They can choose to stay either at government-owned facilities, on passenger ships, or in hotels accredited by the Bureau of Quarantine in Metro Manila, the national capital region.
In a bid to prevent quarantine centers being swamped, Defense Secretary Deflin Lorenzana has coordinated with the maritime industry and other agencies to allow the quick release and return to home provinces of OFWs testing negative for COVID-19, to free-up room for those set to return.
Galvez reported that out of 22,432 repatriated OFWs tested with the help of the Philippine Red Cross, 465 were found to have been infected with the virus. “Had they not been tested, these 465 could have become the second wave of infections,” he said.
In a televised interview on Wednesday, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said some 13,000 repatriated OFWs who had tested negative for COVID-19 would soon be reunited with their families.
“That’s a major development because that’s almost half of the total number of OFWs waiting,” he said.
On Thursday, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) welcomed 278 OFWs from Qatar who arrived at Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) on a Philippine Airlines flight, the first to be organized in coordination with the Philippine Embassy in Doha.
Upon arrival at NAIA, the workers underwent thermal scanning and RT-PCR testing before being transported to designated hotels for quarantine.
The DFA Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs has been active in the repatriation efforts since the COVID-19 outbreak. “We are working around the clock because the distressed Filipinos depend on our services,” said Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Sarah Lou Arriola.
To date the DFA has repatriated 28,589 Filipinos because of the global health crisis.
On Thursday, based on the latest DFA report, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among Filipinos abroad was 2,461. At least 285 had died as a result of contracting the virus.
Among the virus-positive OFWs abroad, 752 were in Europe, 713 in the Middle East and Africa, 544 in the Americas, and 452 in the Asia-Pacific region.
Meanwhile, as community quarantine restrictions were gradually being eased throughout the country, the government announced its determination to further scale up its capacity to conduct targeted COVID-19 testing.
The move would be crucial in preventing a second wave of COVID-19 infections from happening, Galvez said during a hearing called by the Senate Committee of the Whole.
“Testing and tracing would serve as our primary offensive tactics in order to isolate and treat the spreaders. These are potent weapons to unmask our unseen enemy. We also have to prepare our people to be disciplined in adapting to the new normal,” he added.