Harrowing images of thousands of stranded Filipinos in appalling conditions at the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex, with little to no regard for basic anti-COVID-19 health protocols such as social distancing and the wearing of face masks, flooded social media feeds over the weekend, leaving many to conclude that the chaotic scene was a harsh reflection of the “real” state of the nation.
An estimated 8,400 locally stranded individuals (LSIs), many of whom lost their jobs in Metro Manila because of the pandemic that shuttered thousands of businesses and caused massive layoffs, descended on RMC last week to take advantage of the government’s Hatid Tulong Program — the rebranded Hatid Probinsya fiasco — under which they were promised free transport to their home provinces.
The LSIs who filled the RMC to the rafters, among them pregnant women and children, were mostly those who were not able to avail themselves of the service during the first run of the Hatid Tulong program last July 4-5. The majority of the second batch were headed for the Caraga Region, Western Visayas, and Eastern Visayas.
But, shockingly, there was apparently no system put in place by the government to ensure their orderly stay and repatriation, thus transforming the coliseum into a giant petri dish for the COVID-19 spread, and the LSIs becoming possible carriers of the virus into their hometowns, endangering the weaker health systems outside the urban centers.
Underscoring the utter lack of rational, able leadership was the startling idea for the Philippine National Police band to perform amid the crowd, with masks off and the musicians breathing heavily into their wind instruments, thereby putting themselves and others in danger of contracting the virus that is largely spread through droplet infection.
The scandalous RMC situation rankled Ormoc City Mayor Richard Gomez, prompting him to ask President Duterte, in an open letter, to fire the head of the Hatid Tulong Program “for insensitivity and no regard for public health.”
“Who is your person in charge of this program? I am sorry but in my opinion, that person doesn’t know what he is doing in organizing something as big as this,” said Gomez, who had earlier also scored the mismanaged Hatid Probinsiya program, which erased Ormoc City’s record as a COVID 19-free city. Now, Gomez fears a repeat of the debacle. “How many of them will be infected with COVID-19 as they head home to their provinces this week because of this arrangement!?”
Vice President Leni Robredo was similarly horrified by the disheartening scenes at the RMC. “Are these pictures for real? If they are, shame on us,” said Robredo in a Facebook post. “There has to be a better, more organized way of doing this without compromising the health and safety of our people.”
Robredo suggested, for example, that there should be a schedule of departure per province or region. And if there was indeed preregistration, the returnees should have been assigned a specific day when they should go to the RMC for their COVID-19 tests and trips, to ensure that not all of them would be there at the same time. She also pushed for the use of swab tests instead of rapid tests that she said were “unreliable.” “I am all for helping locally stranded passengers get home to their destinations. But let us do it right, please,” Robredo pleaded.
At least 25 of the stranded individuals eventually tested positive in rapid tests. How many of the close to 5,000 individuals packed in the arena were exposed to likely infection from them? It’s an impossibility to know at this point, the government essentially having given up on detailed contact-tracing.
Fierce public criticism has forced the Duterte administration to admit there were indeed shortcomings in the execution of the repatriation project placed under Presidential Management Staff Assistant Secretary Joseph Encabo. “I would be blind if I will say there were no errors there. There were lapses,” said presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, “There should have been a system, that even though there were many people at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum, social distancing should have been ensured.”
“Errors” and “lapses” — Roque is understating the scale of the problem. That the Duterte administration is still working out basic kinks months after the lockdowns were imposed, and given the mistakes of the Balik Probinsya program that had precisely been suspended because of the rise of COVID-19 cases in the provinces, there is little reason to believe the administration is learning anything from the painful consequences of its blundering, neglectful ways. Meanwhile, without batting an eyelash, it imperiously prohibits dissenters from gathering in the streets, on the notion — already debunked by research—that protest rallies help spread the contagion.
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