As world in the dark on China’s COVID nightmare, PH weighs options on arrival
MANILA, Philippines—While countries across the globe impose strict restrictions on travelers from China as it grapples with a new COVID nightmare, the Philippines is among nations being weighed down by differing positions about whether to tighten controls to protect its citizens from the highly infectious disease.
The flurry of global travel restrictions on travelers coming from China was recently imposed amid a surge in COVID cases after Beijing reversed its zero COVID policy and lifted quarantine mandates for inbound travelers last January 8.
In December, Beijing abruptly began dismantling its tough zero-COVID controls, dropping testing requirements and easing quarantine rules to stem a growing tide of protests by millions locked up in their homes.
The sudden policy reversal, however, was followed quickly by reports of hospitals and crematoria being filled to the brim in China just as Chinese officials dismissed the cases as simply respiratory infections and insisted that the situation was under control.
The lack of transparency on the actual COVID situation, however, has raised concern from World Health Organization (WHO) which called on China to be truthful about COVID cases and fatality numbers.
Many nations can’t wait for an official WHO advisory and took steps to protect their citizens through tighter arrival controls that included COVID screenings and barring entry of disease carriers. The Philippines is not among those countries.
READ: ‘Too many positives!’: As China rows back COVID-19 curbs, virus fears spread
PH sees no need to close, tighten borders
In the Philippines, although the Department of Health (DOH) had previously noted that there was no need to close its borders for travelers from China, it recently ordered intensified monitoring and implementation of border control measures for these travelers entering the country.
“Following the recent increase in COVID-19 cases in China, there is a need for the country to intensify the monitoring and implementation of border control protocols for incoming individuals, especially from China, at all ports of entry,” said an extremely urgent department memorandum signed by Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, officer-in-charge of the Department of Health (DOH).
The DOH ordered “heightened surveillance on all respiratory symptoms in all travelers and conveyances coming from China.”
READ: DOH: Implement border control measures for travelers from China
READ: Travelers from China to face tighter PH quarantine rules
Currently, the government requires only unvaccinated or foreign travelers who are not fully vaccinated to present negative pre-departure antigen or RT-PCR test results before travel or upon arrival.
However, last Wednesday (January 4), DOH reported that eight unvaccinated Filipinos traveling from China tested positive for COVID-19. The health department said the cases were discovered after the individuals were required to undergo testing for failing to present a negative pre-departure COVID-19 test result upon arrival at the airport.
“Based on the latest reports from the Bureau of Quarantine (BOQ), there were eight (8) unvaccinated Filipinos who arrived in the Philippines from China from December 27, 2022, to January 2, 2023, who tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival at Ninoy Aquino International Airport via antigen test,” the DOH said.
“The individuals are currently under isolation and have undergone confirmatory RT-PCR testing on December 31, 2022 with positive results. The department will continue to monitor developments on the matter,” it added.
READ: 8 unvaccinated Filipinos from China get infected with COVID-19
Transportation Secretary Jaime Bautista had mentioned the idea of requiring COVID testing for travelers from China as a safety measure.
“I think we should [impose travel restrictions against travelers coming from China]. The IATF will work on this, but personally, I think we should be very cautious,” Bautista said on the sidelines of an event in Pasay City last December 29.
READ: COVID-19 tests eyed for travelers from China
The DOTr chief’s recommendation, however, lacked scientific basis, according to House Deputy Majority Leader Janette Garin, who also urged the government not to make “drastic decisions” like making travelers coming from China undergo COVID testing.
“Before coming up with a decision on the issue of mandatory testing on travelers from China, our government can first seek some clarification with the World Health Organization and the Chinese Embassy on the real situation,” Garin, a medical doctor, said in a statement released last Wednesday (January 4).
She said decisions on imposing travel restrictions should be “based on science and not because we heed the clamor of other nations,” adding that closing doors on China could backfire through a drop in tourism and potential investments.
READ: Garin: No science to back COVID testing for travelers from China
In a previous statement, Garin also said that the motive for requiring mandatory testing for travelers from China was “clearly political.”
In a Twitter post, Dr. Tony Leachon, health reform advocate and former special adviser to the National Task Force on COVID-19, questioned Garin’s latest statement, noting that China is the epicenter of the original Wuhan strain of SARS Cov2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
“What’s the rationale behind this statement? Other countries have mandated pre-departure testing 48 hours before arrival from travelers from mainland China. Prevention is better than cure. Test. Trace,” Leachon said.
Border controls, mandatory tests
Following rising COVID infections in China and as concerns emerge over the truthfulness of the country’s testing and case reporting, several countries have already imposed strict restrictions on travelers coming from China.
Most countries have begun to reintroduce compulsory pre-flight COVID tests, while in other countries, travelers from China are required to undergo testing upon arrival. Among these were:
- United States
- United Kingdom
- South Korea
According to Australia’s health minister Mark Butler, the decision to impose such travel requirements was due to Beijing’s “lack of comprehensive information” about COVID cases. Butler added that the requirement will “safeguard Australia from the risk of potential new emerging variants.”
On January 8, the European Union (EU) “strongly encouraged” its member nations to require travelers from China to present negative COVID-19 tests—taken not more than 48 hours prior to departure from China.
Morroco took a harsher step, banning all travelers coming from China from entering the country to “avoid a new wave of contaminations.”
READ: China slams ‘unacceptable’ COVID-19 curbs on travelers from its territory
‘Rescind’ mask mandate?
Amid concerns over infections and deaths sweeping China and the threat of a new COVID-19 Omicron sub-variant, Leachon asked whether the DOH or the Philippine government should rescind Executive Order (EO) No. 7, which allows optional face mask use in indoor and outdoor settings.
READ: It’s official: Wearing masks indoors, outdoors now voluntary
“How about the exec order that face mask is optional? Should we rescind it in the midst of a looming surge triggered by China? ‘Personal responsibility’ on mask-wearing is meaningless if people aren’t informed about risks from COVID-19 to themselves,” Leachon said.
At a press briefing last December 29, Vergeire said the Philippines is “in a much better position than one or two years ago,” adding that the country is better equipped with a high immunization rate and most people still follow minimum public health rules.
READ: China’s COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t require border closures, DOH says
Data from the DOH showed that as of January 5, the country’s COVID-19 caseload had reached 4,065,910—with 11,779 tagged as active cases, while 3,998,680 recovered, and 65,451 died.
RELATED STORY: Foot-dragging on China, again
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