WATCH: OFWs in prolonged quarantine because of delayed COVID-19 test results

JC Gotinga
WATCH: OFWs in prolonged quarantine because of delayed COVID-19 test results
‘Emotionally tortured na po kami dito sa kaiisip kung kailan kami makakauwi sa aming pamilya,’ says a seafarer who’s been in quarantine since April 25

MANILA, Philippines – Donato Marlo Albayalde couldn’t complain about his hotel room. It’s nice; it’s got wifi, a TV, a bath tub, a little dining table, and its own balcony. He’s got a kingsize bed all to himself.

But the joy and relief Marlo felt when he arrived on a sweeper flight from London to Manila on April 25 have been clouded over by anxiety as he and a dozen of his colleagues count the days in their fancy isolation rooms.

Marlo is one of more than 600 Filipino seafarers from the British ocean liner Queen Mary 2 who were repatriated by the Philippine government after much of the world went on lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.

They all went through rapid antibody tests right at the airport, and were then divided into batches and ferried to different hotels around Metro Manila for their mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Marlo, the cruise ship’s executive pastry chef, was one of around 150 who were billeted at the Queensland Hotel in Pasay City.

Because rapid tests for the coronavirus are deemed inconclusive, the Queen Mary 2 seafarers at Queensland Hotel were all subjected to another test – the more reliable reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction test. Workers from the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Department of Health (DOH) took their swab samples only on May 4 – or 9 days since their arrival.

They were told to expect their swab test results in 3 to 5 days.

The waiting game

The first batch of results arrived 6 days later, on May 10, but they were not complete. The lucky seafarers who got their results then were able to go home.

In the days that followed, more swab tests results arrived, and more of Marlo’s shipmates were cleared to go home.

But on Thursday, May 21 – 17 days since their samples were taken and 26 days into their quarantine – Marlo and 12 of his colleagues were still waiting for their results.

Through online chat groups with shipmates quarantined in other hotels, Marlo learned that 14 of their colleagues at the Queensland Hotel in Sta Mesa, Manila, are in a similar situation.

Antsy, worried for their families, and uncertain about their future, the stranded seafarers at the hotel’s Pasay branch decided to take a video, hoping their appeal would reach the proper authorities. Marlo took the lead, and a friend of his sent a copy of the video to Rappler.

‘Paasa’

“Pinaaasa ’nyo kami araw-araw sa mga pautay-utay na listahan na ’nilalabas ’nyo. Para kaming mga batang pinangakuan ng candy, basta huwag lang kami lumabas ng kuwarto, umaasa kada minuto na matatanggap namin ’yung inyong pangako,” Marlo said in the video, reading from a statement he and his friends prepared.

(You keep us dangling every day with the piecemeal lists that you put out. We’re like children promised candy to keep us in our rooms, hoping every minute to receive your promise.)

“Maawa po naman kayo sa amin. Ito na lang po ang huling alas namin na kami’y mapansin ’nyo, maaksiyunan ang aming hiling. Parang awa ’nyo na po. Ilabas ’nyo na po ang certificate at swab test result namin,” Marlo added.

(Have pity on us, please. This is our last ace to get your attention and have our plea heard. We beg you, release our certificates and swab test results.)

No explanation

Nerio Dequito, a dining supervisor on the ship, said none of the authorities in charge of them could seem to explain how their results remain unavailable, when they were tested at the same time as everyone.

Through their group chats, they learned that some shipmates who were tested more recently have already gotten their results and gone home to their provinces.

“Kaya kung sino mang ahensiya ho sana, nananawagan kami na bigyang-pansin ho kami dito dahil ho matagal na kami dito at hindi na po maganda sa kalusugan namin ’yung mga nangyayari. Nakakulong lang ho kami dito eh. Pati mga pamilya namin, apektado na rin,” Nerio said in the video.

(So to any agency out there, we appeal to you to listen to us because we’ve been here so long and what’s happening is no longer good for our health. We’re just cooped up here. Even our families are already affected.)

Tests done but encoders needed

The seafarers at Queensland Hotel are in touch with an officer from their agency, Singa Ship Management, which acts as a liaison with the PCG and other government agencies for their swab results. Marlo said they keep calling that officer, but each day has so far brought disappointing news.

Two nurses from the DOH stay with the seafarers at the hotel and give them daily health check-ups, but these nurses, too, could not tell them why their results are taking so long.

Marlo said they were told the Philippine Red Cross (PRC) was going to process their swab samples, so they called out to the group, too, in their video message.

On Wednesday, May 20, DOH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire told GMA News the delay in releasing results of the swab tests of overseas Filipino workers (OFW) was due to a shortage in encoders.

The PRC is done processing the results, Vergeire added, and to fix delays in turning out clearances for OFWs, the government is planning to hire more encoders.

The government’s chief implementer of policies on COVID-19, Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr, said the PRC had tested a total of 22,432 OFWs for the coronavirus as of Tuesday, May 19. Some 465 of them tested positive. (READ: Gov’t facing ‘problem’ with thousands of returning OFWs – Galvez)

Anxious for the future

On Monday, May 18, PCG spokesperson Commodore Armand Balilo told Rappler that 8 repatriated OFWs escaped from quarantine. One of them tested positive for the virus.

The truant OFWs may be charged with violating quarantine rules, Balilo added.

Marlo and his colleagues said they would stay put and follow all the government’s rules. But it gets harder as they wait longer, watching their shipmates pack and prepare to go home.

At Queensland Pasay, they’re down to just 38 seafarers. Besides Marlo and the other 12 still waiting for their results, the rest have been cleared and are just waiting for sweeper flights to their provinces.

Alone in their rooms, Marlo and his colleagues are beset by thoughts about their future. There’s no telling when the pandemic will end. Until then, the cruise industry is down.

Marlo was supposed to begin a new contract on the Queen Mary 2 on June 21. That is now out of the picture.

“Emotionally tortured na po kami dito sa kaiisip kung kailan kami makakauwi sa aming pamilya,” Marlo said. (We are emotionally tortured, wondering when we’ll be able to go home to our families.)

“Kami po ay may maayos na pag-iisip at may maayos na kalusugan noong dumating kami dito sa Pilipinas, pero sa nangyayari sa ngayon sa amin, baka dito na kami magkasakit at masiraan ng bait,” he added.

(We were of sound mind and good health when we arrived here in the Philippines, but the way things are going with us here, we might end up getting sick and losing our minds.) – Rappler.com

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.