With some local government units (LGUs) demanding a review of the government’s “Hatid Probinsya” scheme for returning residents that has been blamed for the spike in COVID-19 cases in the regions, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque on Monday defended the program with a succession of astonishing statements: 1) On the shortage of test kits, leading to incidents of positive individuals unknowingly bringing the virus to their hometowns: “Naubos po… Pero sa tingin ko hindi lapse yun.” 2) “Siguro nagpa-panic lang ang ilang LGUs natin kasi dati wala silang COVID case. Pero wala naman pong problema maski magkaroon kayo ng COVID case e. I-quarantine niyo lang, isolate, at gamutin, ‘di naman problema yan.” 3) “Napakarami po talagang OFWs na umuwi, hindi po natin inaasahan na napakaraming mawawalan ng trabaho.”
Another day, another dispiriting display of jibber-jabber by the presidential spokesperson to deflect responsibility and accountability for the glaring shortcomings in the government’s COVID-19 response. That last statement, in particular, takes the cake: “Hindi po natin inaasahan na napakaraming mawawalan ng trabaho (We didn’t expect that so many would be out of work).”
By late February, three countries other than China had become coronavirus hotspots: Iran, Italy, and South Korea. Iran’s neighbor, Saudi Arabia, is host to nearly a million OFWs (938,490), the largest Filipino population in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia went on lockdown in early March, first in its eastern region then eventually the rest of the country; world oil prices also began tanking as other countries shut down and international demand petered out, dealing a double blow to the Saudi economy.
As all these disruptions were happening, no one in the labor department or the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration sat up to say, “Hey, this is looking bad, perhaps we should begin preparing contingency measures?” There might well have been—but there’s Roque now saying, plain as day, that the exodus of displaced OFWs that soon ensued was “unexpected.”
Italy, the worst-hit country in Europe, hunkered down on March 9; OFW population—over 100,000. Qatar, which closed schools and universities and imposed a travel ban on 14 countries, including the Philippines, also on March 9—260,000 OFWs. The United Arab Emirates, malls and markets closed by March 23—over 670,000 OFWs, the second largest after Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. Etcetera.
Then there are the nearly 230,000 Filipino seamen and workers on cargo ships and luxury liners across the globe, many of whom would find themselves stranded on their ships or in foreign countries as international travel, and the world economy, shuddered to a halt.
As many as 400,000 OFWs are now feared to be displaced by the pandemic, with some 50,000 already sent back to the Philippines, jobless and facing extended unemployment while their own country is in the throes of its worst economy since the waning Marcos years. What is the government’s master plan to address the unfolding OFW catastrophe? Sen. Joel Villanueva, for one, seems unaware of any at this point.
The Senate labor committee chair asked last Wednesday for a labor audit that would provide a clear overview of the situation. “We want to know the situation of the OFWs… Almost every day, we hear an average of 100 complaints [from OFWs],” Villanueva said. “[While] we’re calling them ‘modern-day heroes,’ do we really treat them as ‘heroes’? From what we have been seeing and hearing, their situation is not good.”
The situation for many OFWs, in fact, has been wrenching. Those who have managed to return have had to endure official neglect and ineptness: confined to quarantine houses for months because of delayed certifications, then forced to camp out in the open air due to incoherent travel regulations. Others stuck abroad also go through harrowing ordeals: According to a GMA-7 report, jobless workers in Saudi Arabia “have resorted to selling their blood to be able to buy food.”
An earlier report said a number of them have been reduced to digging through trash for sustenance. The Saudi government, meanwhile, has demanded that the Philippine government bring home the remains of 282 OFWs within 72 hours—an ultimatum the Department of Labor and Employment said it would try to renegotiate with Riyadh.
In a Philippine Embassy shelter in Lebanon last May, a Filipino domestic helper took her life. The following month, on a vessel docked in Barbados, a 28-year-old Filipino worker was found dead inside her cabin; she was reportedly frustrated at the repeated cancellation of her repatriation flight. As of last month, thousands of Filipino seafarers remained detained on ships. The projected loss in OFW remittances this year? $6 billion.
“Unexpected”? Only for a government that failed to look ahead and act quickly, preferring to take its own sweet time as the old order crumbled away.
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