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Gov't facing 'problem' with thousands of returning OFWs – Galvez

MANILA, Philippines – As the coronavirus pandemic forces thousands of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to return to the Philippines, National Task Force (NTF) COVID-19 chief implementer Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr said the government could be overwhelmed with even more arrivals in the coming months.

Speaking to President Rodrigo Duterte in a late-night address aired on Tuesday, May 19, Galvez said agencies are facing problems in ensuring OFWs move smoothly from testing and quarantine to their hometowns.

"Malaki po ang problema po natin sa returning OFW. Kasi po sa ngayon po, more than 27,000 na po ang nandito sa Manila. At mayroon pa pong darating na 42,000 this coming May and June. So mao-overwhelm po 'yung ating mga – mga hotels," Galvez said, referring to hotels used as quarantine facilities.

(We have a big problem with returning OFWs. Right now, we have over 27,000 in Manila and there are 42,000 more arriving this coming May and June. So our hotels will be overwhelmed.)

What's happening with OFWs? The Department of Foreign Affairs has facilitated the repatriation of over 25,000 OFWs who were displaced or decided to go home due to the pandemic, which began in China in late 2019 and spread worldwide in early 2020.

Once they arrive in the Philippines, OFWs must be tested and isolated for a 14-day period. The protocols are part of overall efforts to avoid importing cases of the disease.

While that may be the ideal scenario, the government has struggled to conduct tests due to the huge number of returning OFWs.

Some local government units also initially refused to let OFWs return to their hometowns over fears they were virus carriers. This meant the affected OFWs were left stranded in Manila after completing the mandatory quarantine.

What's happening now? Galvez said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who chairs the NTF, has coordinated with concerned government agencies to make room for arriving OFWs by bringing those already cleared by the Bureau of Quarantine back to their hometowns.

"He (Lorenzana) directed DOTr (Department of Transportation), he directed also OWWA (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration), and also the Marina (Maritime Industry Authority) to immediately release all the OFWs [who] have been tested negative," Galvez said.

According to Galvez, the Philippine Red Cross has tested 22,432 OFWs as of Tuesday. Of the 22,432 tested, 465 were found to have the coronavirus.

The 465 OFWs who tested positive, he said, could have seeded cases in their respective localities had they not been tested.

Last May 3, the government suspended international flights to and from the Philippines for about a week in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus and give time to decongest quarantine facilities housing OFWs.

International flights have since resumed, with the country's main gateway, the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, limiting capacity to 400 passengers per day as a precaution. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs, the overseas Filipino workers, and elections. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.

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