It took the combined fury of Filipino overseas workers and the anger of the Taiwan government to make the Duterte administration blink on its sloppy, ill-advised move to include Taipei in its travel restrictions over the COVID-19 epidemic.
After days of foot-dragging that was widely perceived as Malacañang treading on eggshells to avoid offending Beijing, the Duterte administration imposed travel restrictions on Feb. 2 covering China and its special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau.
Taiwan was nowhere mentioned in the original directive. But on Feb. 10, seemingly as an afterthought, the Department of Health suddenly announced that Taiwan was included in the ban.
Forthwith, the Bureau of Immigration implemented the order, forcing airlines to stop their flights servicing Manila and Taiwan.
Things unraveled quickly at the airports, with hundreds of passengers offloaded from flights to Taipei. Many OFWs seeking to return to their work or reporting to new jobs were stranded at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, baffled, inconvenienced, and angry.
Likewise, scores were left scrambling for flights out of Taiwan’s airports. Some 200 passengers reportedly offloaded at Naia also learned they could not avail themselves of a P10,000 cash assistance for those affected by the travel ban to China, Hong Kong and Macau, because the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration resolution granting the incentive did not include OFWs from Taiwan.
While an Inter-agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases was supposed to be on top of managing the country’s response to COVID-19, the “interagency” apparently did not work when it came to coordinating the coherent enforcement of the Taiwan ban.
The IATF included eight departments and five Cabinet secretaries at that — Francisco Duque III of health, Menardo Guevarra of justice, Silvestre Bello III of labor, Arthur Tugade of transportation, and Bernadette Puyat of tourism — but it took the task force one week to communicate the expanded travel ban down the line.
What accounted for the change, anyway? Why was Taiwan included in the flight ban? The country, an independently governed democratic entity despite authoritarian Beijing’s insistence that it is part of China, had as of Feb. 10 only 18 cases of COVID-19 compared to China (more than 68,000 so far). Outside China, Singapore has the highest number of cases in Asia at 72, but has been spared a travel ban by Malacañang.
The Department of Health’s Eric Domingo said they were just following the World Health Organization (WHO), which lumps Taiwan with China in its COVID-19 reporting (a tack that’s been heavily criticized internationally as myopic politicking in the face of a global health crisis). Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo also said the ban was recommended by the WHO — a claim swiftly denied by its representative Rabindra Abeyasinghe.
Malacañang seemingly could do no less in pleasing Beijing, and so imposed the haphazard Taiwan ban. But Taipei pushed back firmly.
“The Republic of China (Taiwan) is a sovereign and independent state,” it declared. “Taiwan issues its own passport and visas and has exclusive jurisdiction over its people and territory. In fact, Taiwan is not, nor has it ever been, part of the PRC (People’s Republic of China).”
It decried the “one-sided and wrong decision by the Philippines’ health ministry, which has already affected the relationship between the two countries of Taiwan and the Philippines.”
A lot, it turns out, was riding on that relationship. There are 160,000 to 180,000 Filipino workers in Taiwan, most of them with better-paying jobs than what they can find back home.
Two-way trade between Manila and Taipei amounted to $11.9 billion in 2017, while tourist arrivals from the Philippines reached more than 419,000, and from Taiwan some 240,000, in 2018.
Filipino travelers to Taiwan also currently enjoy visa-free status — a privilege that Taipei suggested was on the line, among other retaliatory measures it was considering following Manila’s action against it.
The irrationality of the ban, undergirded only the administration’s slavishness toward Beijing, stoked such widespread outrage and confusion that by late Friday, Duque convened the IATF and announced afterward that the Taiwan ban was lifted “effective immediately.”
The task force, he said, was able to verify that Taiwan had “imposed strict measures” to contain the virus in its territory — which was a laugh, because that fact has been heavily reported since the early days of the outbreak.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. tweeted: “There was never any sane reason to ban it.”
Yes, as there is never any sane reason for this administration’s officials to sow chaos by not talking to each other.
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