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Duterte: Send 24,000 OFWs home already

/ 04:55 AM May 26, 2020

TENSE RETURN About 200 overseas workers wait for their free bus ride back home to their provinces after undergoing the mandatory 14-day quarantine in Parañaque. —MARIANNE BERMUDEZ

MANILA, Philippines — Saying “enough is enough,” President Rodrigo Duterte has given labor officials one week to send home to provinces some 24,000 repatriated overseas Filipino workers stuck for weeks on cruise ships or in coronavirus quarantines in Metro Manila while awaiting results of tests for the new coronavirus.

“Otherwise, heads will roll,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said in a radio interview on Monday.

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Roque said President Rodrigo Duterte had received complaints about the plight of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) still waiting for their coronavirus test results in quarantine and isolation centers.

“The President agrees that all OFWs must undergo testing, but it’s unacceptable that the process is taking too long and is preventing them from going home,” Roque said.

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OFWs are breadwinners and a key support base of Duterte. Their more than $30 billion in annual remittances is a key driver of the Philippine economy, sustaining millions of family members.

The President has directed the Department of Labor and Employment, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) and the Department of Health to release in one week the test results and to send the workers home.

“The President believes it’s unacceptable that OFWs have to suffer while waiting for their test results, especially since they spent time away from their families in other lands,” Roque said in a briefing.

Only OFWs who will test negative for the virus will be sent home.

Roque reassured the public that the OFWs already sent home had corresponding health certificates since they had been cleared by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.

The government has required returning OFWs and other Filipinos to undergo PCR testing for the virus and 14 days in quarantine to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pathogen.

Thousands are aboard cruise vessels on Manila Bay or stuck in hotels and crowded health centers, some growing frustrated after having tested negative for the coronavirus and completed the mandated 14-day quarantine.

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29 cruise ships

On Monday, there were 29 cruise ships clustered on Manila Bay. None have passengers aboard but thousands of Filipino crew still awaiting coronavirus tests. Many of them were no longer receiving salaries and venting frustrations, having already met conditions for release.

The crew reached by Reuters said information was scarce and prolonged isolation was taking a toll on their mental and emotional health.

Jex Bañega, a receptionist on Carnival Corp.’s Pacific Explorer, said he was being well cared for, but after 35 days of quarantine, his cabin felt more like a prison cell.

More are coming

“We’re only thinking of going home to our families. The comfort of our homes is different,” Bañega said.

The country might face a bigger problem if the government could not send home the 24,000 OFWs as more Filipinos from abroad continue to arrive in Metro Manila, according to Roque.

More than 30,000 overseas Filipinos have returned home, and 515 of 27,000 tested for coronavirus were positive as of May 20, authorities said.

The Philippines has more than 14,000 cases, of which 868 were deaths.

The government expects 42,000 more overseas workers to return next month due to job losses, as the coronavirus devastates economies worldwide.

Planes, buses

Roque said more than 30 flights with a combined capacity of 3,459 seats were available to ferry home OFWs to the Visayas and Mindanao, while the government would use buses to transport OFWs based in Luzon.

From May 25 to 27, 8,000 repatriated workers who completed their mandatory quarantine and tested negative for the coronavirus will be sent home, according to Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III.

OFWs from Bicol, Ilocos, Cagayan Valley, Cordillera Administrative Region and Central Luzon will board buses from the Parañaque Integrated Terminal Exchange.

Flights from Ninoy Aquino International Airport will be arranged for those from the cities of Cagayan de Oro, Tacloban, Bacolod, Davao, Cebu, Iloilo and Zamboanga.

Police escort

“The three-day OFW Return Program is provided by President Duterte to ensure the safe return of those repatriated OFWs under mandatory quarantine to their families and loved ones,” Bello said in a statement.

All police chiefs nationwide have been alerted to the homecoming of the OFWs and were advised to assist them to their destinations, said Police Lt. Gen. Guillermo Eleazar, commander of the Joint Task Force coronavirus disease (JTF COVID) Shield.

“If it requires that we escort the vehicles of our returning OFWs, so be it,’’ Eleazar said in a statement.

Negative list website

For OFWs who have yet to receive passes from the Bureau of Quarantine, the Philippine Coast Guard said that the workers were still qualified for the return program if their names were on the negative list.

Sen. Joel Villanueva urged the government to ramp up its testing capacity as more Filipino workers abroad are expected to be repatriated in the coming weeks.

The lag in testing capacity has led to many workers being stuck in quarantines, said Villanueva, who chairs the labor committee.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon said he planned to look into the actions of the OWWA, which was “not doing its best” to assist the repatriated workers.

With reports from Jovic Yee, Jeannette I. Andrade, Leila B. Salaverria and the wires

For more news about the novel coronavirus click here.
What you need to know about Coronavirus.
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