overseas Filipinos

Cebuanos returning from abroad caught between changing quarantine rules

Lorraine Ecarma
Cebu province's requirement was for returning residents to quarantine for two to three days. The national anti-COVID task force, backed by President Duterte, requires 10 days.

For a month, the national government and the Cebu provincial government had an intense back and forth on policies for overseas Filipino workers (OFW) and other Filipinos returning from abroad. The debate on where arriving passengers would be quarantined, and for how long, escalated into the two levels of government threatening to bring each other to court over issues of autonomy, and also reached both houses of Congress. 

It seems everyone who had a stake in the issue had been heard, except one: the returning Filipinos themselves.

William Wenceslao, 64, booked his flight to the Philippines from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, thinking he’d have at least three days to spend with his daughter before she leaves for the United Kingdom for work. They may have international addresses for work, but home is Minglanilla, a municipality in Cebu province, 15 kilometers south of Cebu City.

But because of the shifting policies on the arrival of returning Filipinos, the long overdue reunion he has been looking forward to will be reduced to him receiving a packed lunch from his daughter but waving at her from behind the window of his quarantine hotel room.

William has been working as a supervising electrician abroad for almost 30 years now – 18 of those spent with his wife, Lydia, 61, who also picked up jobs along the way. The couple used to travel to the Philippines for a month each year to be with their five children. But since the pandemic restricted travels, it’s been almost two years since they last saw their children. 

“Akong anak nauli gikan sa gawas. Mag one month na siya gikan sa Pilipinas so molarga siya sa 27. Mao na akong gipaabot nga magkita mi,” William said. 

(My daughter flew home from abroad. It’s been almost a month since she came home to the Philippines, and she’s flying out again on the 27th of June. I’ve been looking forward to seeing her.)

He landed in Cebu on June 21, expecting only a maximum of three days in hotel quarantine while awaiting the hopefully negative results of his RT-PCR after being swabbed upon arrival. 

Under this protocol – laid down in Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia’s Executive Order No. 17, supported by Provincial Ordinance No. 2021 –returning Cebuanos will only have to quarantine in hotels for two to three days to await a negative test result. After that, they will be allowed to spend the remaining days in barangay isolation facilities or under home quarantine. Here, they will be swabbed again on the seventh day since their arrival in the country. 

On June 22, when President Rodrigo Durterte reiterated the policy of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for a 10-day hotel quarantine, it dawned on William that having flown over oceans and across time zones to see his family complete might all have been futile. 

Slowly, he had to accept that he would not be able to even hug his daughter goodbye – his hotel quarantine would end on July 1 yet, or four days after her scheduled flight. 

“So, dili na mi magkita siguro ani kay gibag-o na man pud sa atong presidente ang rule nga i-ten days instead na three days lang,” he said. (So, we might not see each other after all because the President has again changed the rule to 10 days instead of only three days.)

William will only be home for more or less a month. Apart from spending time with his daughter, he is also hoping to get checked for his high blood pressure. He has also begun feeling pain in his prostate. 

“Duna koy high blood nya duna koy gibati inig ihi nako. Mura ba’g prostate ito. Kaya pa checkup ko ito sa Cebu. Katapusan nakong pa checkup wa man gud naapil ang prostate,” he said.

(I have high blood [pressure] and I feel pain whenever piss. It seems like it’s my prostate. That’s why I want to get it checked here in Cebu. The last time I had a check up, it didn’t include my prostate.)

Both he and his wife had received the COVID-19 vaccine while abroad. Frustrated, he said he hoped the IATF would consider prioritizing the elderly.

“Ang ako lang i-awhag unta sa IATF o kinsa na sila, bigyan nila ng priority ang mga may edad. Alam nila na may mga sakit na ito, may mga edad na ito,” said William. 

(I’m requesting the IATF or whoever is in charge to give priority to the elderly. They know these people have underlying illnesses, these people are old.)

“Kung atakehon ako dito sa hotel kay na stress ko dire – kahibalo baya ka anang usa sa maka taas sa pressure kay ang stress nimo – kung matikog ta dire then thank you ta?” he said.

(If I suffer a heart attack in this hotel because of stress – you know that stress causes your blood pressure to rise – if anything happens to me here, we’ll just say our thank you’s?)

Being an overseas Filipino worker (OFW), William at least no longer has to worry about hotel bills – the national government takes care of that – unlike his wife. 

Lydia, who arrived on June 3, weeks before her husband did, was among the returning Filipinos who got caught between the changes in policies that resulted in Cebu-bound flights getting rerouted to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) in Manila.

A bubbly woman, Lydia said she didn’t mind the quarantine time that much. She said she made do with her hotel’s WiFi, despite it being slow, to contact her family. For Lydia, keeping in touch with her husband and kids was all that mattered.

But before she was able to settle down in her quarantine room, she admitted she was not able to sleep for three days after hearing of the flight rerouting to Manila. She would be alone in the middle of pandemic restrictions, an island away from her hometown. 

On top of that, Lydia had to worry about the expenses: 10 days in Manila, whose hotel rooms cost more than those in Cebu, and an additional domestic ticket for her flight from Manila to Cebu.

“Mas mahal oy! Dire gyud nagbayad gud ko dire sa 3 days lang to or 4 days, nibayad ko og P6,000 to 8,000. Unya didto nakabayad ko og P25,000 apil ang pagkaon. Unya ang ticket pa gyud kay among sariling gasto kay dili man kasalanan sa airline na na-divert ang flight,” said Lydia.

(It’s so much more expensive! In Cebu, I booked a hotel for three to four days, I had to pay P6,000 to 8,000. But, in Manila, I paid P25,000 inclusive of food. And we had to pay for the ticket to Cebu because it’s not the airline’s fault that the flights were diverted.)

Later on, President Duterte, as a concession to Cebu Governor Garcia’s plea to consider the limitations of returning Filipinos, made a promise to use remaining Bayanihan to Recover as One Act funds “to pay for the expenses for sequestration of every returning Filipino” and not just OFWs.

After completing her hotel quarantine in Manila, Lydia was surprised to find that her RT-PCR results were not even checked at the NAIA when she checked in for her flight to Cebu – as if putting to waste the supposed health protocols she endured for more than a week.

She surmised the airport crew merely assumed she was just another domestic traveler. 

“Pagka 10 days, naa na ang result so niadto na ko sa airport. Gidala nako akong result, wala man nangita sa airport,” she said. (After the 10 days [of hotel quarantine], I got my result so I went to the airport. I brought my result but it wasn’t checked in the airport.)

“Boarding pass ra ma’y gitan-aw. Bisan ID gane nako wala ma’y gipangita, boarding pass ra man,” she added. (They only checked my boarding pass. They didn’t even check for an ID, only a boarding pass.)

Lydia is staying in the Philippines for good. During the interview, however, she said the policy significantly trimmed down precious vacation days for OFWs like her husband. 

“Pila na man la’y mahabilin?” she asked. (How many days will be left?)

After a month-long standoff, Garcia yielded to Duterte, allowing the enforcement of the IATF’s protocol of requiring a longer hotel quarantine period for Cebuanos returning from abroad. 

However, the Cebu governor is still scheduled to meet with medical experts from IATF and Health Secretary Frasncisco Duque III on Monday, June 28. She says she remains hopeful that the task force will be open to Cebu’s data, and adjust the protocols according to what is happening on the ground. 

After all that has been said, the Wenceslao couple still consider themselves lucky. 

Lydia said she knew of people who were coming home after losing their jobs due to the pandemic. She said she had received hopeless messages from friends worrying about the additional expenses during the flight diversions. 

After the interview, Lydia told Rappler that she and her daughter would be driving to William’s hotel in Cebu. They had prepared for him a packed meal. If they could not hold him, she said, at least they could wave at him from the outside of the hotel. 

“Bisan kaway-kaway na lang sa among anak kay di man ud ni sila magkita kay molarga na ni balik sa UK intawn. Nangita ra mi og paagi,” Lydia said. (Even just to wave at our daughter since they would not be together because she ‘s flying back to the UK. We’re just trying to look for a way.) – Rappler.com

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.