After enduring difficult weeks in quarantine to shield their communities from COVID-19, an increasing number of towns and cities are unfortunately recording their first infection cases—thanks to the costly mishandling by government agencies of stranded individuals and overseas Filipino workers yearning to go back home.
Last week, Baybay City and Tanauan town in Leyte recorded their first confirmed COVID-19 cases, with both patients among the initial batch of 112 beneficiaries of the Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pag-Asa Program (BP2) who were sent off amid great fanfare on May 20 by the BP2 Council headed by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea.
They were swabbed upon their arrival at the Palo, Leyte bus terminal on May 21, and the test results later confirmed the nagging fear of LGUs — that a number of those returning to the provinces carry with them not only their belongings, but COVID-19 as well.
This fear has been amplified by the deluge of arrivals in the provinces following the easing of quarantine measures, from locally stranded individuals such as students, tourists, and residents who had been trapped by the lockdowns and were now being brought home under the government’s Hatid Probinsya program; to returning OFWs languishing in quarantine facilities whom President Duterte directed to be brought home in just three days under a mass repatriation program.
The towns of Jaro and Tolosa in Leyte likewise recorded their first COVID-19 cases last week. Abuyog was the latest to be added to the list of affected towns on June 2, courtesy of a 35-year-old female OFW who arrived on May 27.
Ormoc City Mayor Richard Gomez was among the LGU heads left fuming at the chaos and utter lack of coordination that attended such repatriations.
“What happened to all the protocols that you guys are trying to formulate for returning residents?” he vented, addressing the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), National Housing Authority, and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration.
Gomez detailed how he was informed on the same day, merely via text message, that there were already three planes of repatriates arriving in Tacloban and that they were supposed to just “receive them without following COVID-19 protocols, undocumented and untested,” contrary to the agreed-upon protocol that LGUs should be informed at least three days in advance so they could make the necessary arrangements to accommodate returning residents in a safe and orderly manner.
Gomez emphasized in a later post that he had “no problem” accepting repatriates, stranded individuals, and OFWs, but that he also had to protect the over 250,000 residents of Ormoc City. “To be clear: Returnees have a constitutional right to come home, but health protocols are in place because public health must be upheld and safeguarded even and especially as we do that. Meaning, there are ways to satisfy both if everyone is in sync and protocols are set in place and observed.”
He wasn’t alone in his dismay. Negros Occidental and Bacolod City officials were also caught off-guard by the mass arrival of OFWs last week.
“There is no coordination and everybody was surprised,” lamented Negros Occidental Governor Eugenio Jose Lacson.
Officials of the Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office in Northern Samar, in an open letter to President Duterte and the national Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, also expressed their “collective disappointment in the recent turn of events in Eastern Visayas that apparently undermine our previous and ongoing efforts to keep our respective municipalities COVID-19 free…”
DILG Secretary Eduardo Año attempted to play down the confusion in Leyte as an “isolated incident” and explained that the OFW returnees were not under the Balik Probinsya program but rather the Hatid Probinsya program.
Does it matter which fancy-sounding program they fell under, when the end result was the same: serious operational breakdowns that left many returnees apparently untested and their repatriations unorganized, thus—through no fault of their own—bringing the threat of COVID-19 to their communities’ doorstep?
The LGUs’ fears are no small matter: The health infrastructure in the provinces is wanting even during the best of times. An outbreak such as COVID-19 may quickly overwhelm the patchwork system and lead to a public-health calamity.
Still, despite these limitations, many LGUs have so far managed to keep the spread of COVID-19 at bay, or at least to a minimum, by strictly adhering to protocols and common-sense solutions that they hope would hold even as more returnees go home en masse. It would be a tragedy if their efforts and sacrifices were to end up undone, because the national government that should know better was, amid this monumental crisis, careless and incompetent.
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