MANILA, Philippines – The burden added by Bong Go’s Balik Probinsya program on the government’s coronavirus response has finally led to its temporary suspension.
National Housing Authority General Manager Marcelino Escalada Jr announced on Thursday, June 11, that Balik Probinsya trips will be suspended for at least a month to allow the government to focus on “more important” efforts, like the return of stranded individuals to their hometowns.
Escalada is executive director of the Balik Probinsya program.
“I decided as a matter of strategy to suspend our rollouts of Balik Probinsya to prioritize stranded OFWs, construction workers, students, and tourists,” Escalada said in a mix of English and Filipino in a virtual press briefing.
More batches of Balik Probinsya beneficiaries were supposed to be sent home on June 11. But this did not push through because provincial transportation has been taken up by people whose need to return to the province is more urgent – people who are based in the provinces but were stranded in Metro Manila because of quarantine measures.
In contrast, Balik Probinsya beneficiaries are people who already have homes in Metro Manila but who originally came from the provinces and now want to go back.
Escalada said the Balik Probinsya trips might resume in July, if the number of stranded persons going to provinces goes down, thus reducing demand for inter-regional transportation.
“It cannot coincide with more important trips; the more important trips right now are the ‘Hatid Tulong,’ so we suspended it,” said Escalada, likely referring to the Hatid Probinsya government program.
Hatid Probinsya is a program that helps transport people unable to return to their provinces due to quarantine restrictions.
It’s been called a “short term” solution while Balik Probinsya is “long term” because it aims to decongest Metro Manila to reduce the impact of future pandemics, Escalada previously explained.
The two programs have often been mistaken as the same thing, leading local government officials to blame Balik Probinsya for OFWs returning to the provinces without proper coordination.
Because of the confusion, Escalada has had to issue repeated clarifications that Balik Probinsya does not cater to stranded OFWs.
So far, Balik Probinsya has released only one batch of beneficiaries. These are 112 persons living in Metro Manila for the past few years who were brought home to Palo, Leyte, on May 20.
The Balik Probinsya has gotten a lot of hype, largely because it is the pet project of Senator Bong Go, President Rodrigo Duterte’s longtime aide.
But debacle after debacle has revealed deficiencies in the conceptualization and planning of the program.
For instance, two of the beneficiaries sent back to Leyte tested positive for coronavirus through swab tests done a week after their arrival. By the time the results came in, they were already in their hometowns of Tanauan town and Baybay City, which previously had no coronavirus cases.
Because of this, Department of Health Eastern Visayas Regional Director Minerva Molon said there was a need to review Balik Probinsya’s implementation.
Ormoc City Mayor Richard Gomez rebuked the national government for its “carelessness” in implementing the program, leaving local governments to deal with the consequences.
Escalada said he has added a new requirement for Balik Probinsya trips – a certification from the receiving local governments that they are ready to take in returnees.
“Another requirement for our Balik Probinsya is an official communicaton from the mayor or provincial governor that they are ready to accept, as the recieving LGUs, our Balik Probinsya beneficiaries,” he said.
The arrival of the Balik Probinsya returnees taxed Leyte’s testing capacity.
Because of the shortage of supplies at the Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center there, most of the samples of the returnees had to be brought to the Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center in Cebu.
Critics had earlier predicted such complications.
Provinces outside Metro Manila don’t have the same level of healthcare capacity as the megacity. Because Metro Manila was the hardest hit region by the pandemic, the national government put most of the testing laboratories and coronavirus-dedicated facilities there.
These facilities are not as common in the provinces where the virus has not spread as much. But their COVID-19-free status could be endangered by programs like Balik Probinsya, as can be seen in Leyte’s case.
Rappler asked in a June 4 press briefing why Balik Probinsya is being implemented now when the pandemic is still raging. Why not start the program when there is a vaccine since the returnees have no urgent need to go home anyway?
Escalada said, “That’s debatable because it is a pandemic so the virus is everywhere. Instead of us complaining on this, why not start to prepare? We cannot hold them in Metro Manila.”
Balik Probinsya has been regularly promoted by state media and often cited by Cabinet officials in their interviews and press releases. It is always mentioned alongside Senator Bong Go who pushed for it when the pandemic began dominating news headlines.
It was eventually adopted by Duterte, through an executive order that made it a priority program of his administration.
But the amount of attention and prioritization it has received did not stop major problems from plaguing its implementation. – Rappler.com