On the second day of the strictest lockdown in Metro Manila and the 4 provinces surrounding it in March 2021, Jelo still managed to travel with ease from Pasay City to Oriental Mindoro some 230 kilometers away in the south. He didn’t have to show a negative COVID-19 test result in any part of his trip to his home province.
In theory, his travel was not supposed to be easy. Under the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) – in effect until April 11 – people within the so-called “National Capital Region Plus” weren’t allowed to travel outside of the bubble – unless for essential purposes. An 11-hour curfew was in effect.
Yet Jelo’s travel was “mainly for vacation because it was Holy Week,” he said on April 5. He entered Batangas effortlessly, and only had to sign up for contact tracing at the port in Calapan in Oriental Mindoro. He has since returned, again with ease, to Metro Manila, where he works.
Despite this, government guidelines allowed “anyone going back home” to areas with a lower quarantine classification. Oriental Mindoro at the time of Jelo’s travel on March 30 was under the less stringent modified general community quarantine. That month, the province had recorded 412 new COVID-19 cases – a spike from the 36 new cases it recorded in February, based on data from the health department.
The province’s tourism officer confirmed to Rappler on April 7 that domestic travelers didn’t have to present a negative test result, only a travel pass, at their port of destination.
Jelo’s experience was not an isolated one.
On March 25, Brian took a provincial bus from Manila to his hometown in Batangas – government guidelines allowed workers – people considered performing essential tasks – to leave the travel bubble. No checkpoints from Manila to Batangas, no presentation of a negative COVID-19 test result, he said.
Alyssa went to visit her grandparents in Bataan, some 122 kilometers from her residence in Quezon City, on April 2. Border control officers didn’t even check her temperature. “I was just asked where in Bataan I was going and for what reason. The checkpoint was in the Pampanga area, not even in Bataan,” she said.
Porous borders make travel control more difficult
The relaxed, if not totally absent, checks at borders alarmed Dr Tony Leachon, a former government adviser who was eased out of the pandemic response task force over differences in strategies with officials.
When hospitals are overbooked, medical workers are on their toes, and the number of new COVID-19 cases is hitting 5 digits daily, local government units shouldn’t be taking any chances, he said.
At the time Metro Manila, Bulacan, Rizal, Laguna, and Cavite were placed under ECQ on March 29, they had combined active cases of 85,533, while the rest of Luzon – 34 other provinces – had a total of around 17,000 active infections.
“Our borders are porous. Treating a province as another country should be our mindset,” Leachon said, suggesting that stricter measures should be taken, especially in an archipelago like the Philippines, where checkpoints can be avoided by taking other routes to the same destination.
Lax borders result in easier entry of the virus, Leachon made it clear to Rappler. He cited what happened in the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) in January, when COVID-19 cases rose at the same time the United Kingdom variant of COVID-19 was discovered in the region.
A stricter community quarantine was implemented in the CAR in February, but domestic tourists were still allowed to enter the region, which is home to Baguio, the summer capital of the Philippines. By March, new COVID-19 cases in the city more than doubled.
Dr Esperanza Cabral, a former Philippine health secretary, suggested that cities and provinces close their borders to “people from areas with high COVID-19 prevalence.”
‘Difficult to monitor and check’ every traveler
League of Provinces of the Philippines president Presbitero Velasco Jr, governor of Marinduque, said these suggestions are easier said than done in some provinces.
“It’s really difficult to monitor and check each and every one of them, especially say, Isabela and Batangas, which have many points of ingress and egress,” Velasco told Rappler on April 6.
Besides, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), as of March 24, has left it up to local government units (LGUs) whether to compel inbound travelers to present a negative COVID-19 test result or not.
A month prior to that, the DILG had eyed uniform guidelines by scrapping such a requirement for all LGUs, as part of the government’s efforts to revive the local tourism industry. Some provinces opposed it, however, and the DILG left the matter to the LGUs’ discretion.
The context, however, significantly changed in a span of a month. Average daily cases nationwide tripled from February to March. On April 2, the Philippines set a record single-day tally of 15,310 COVID-19 infections.
Still, it’s a difficult proposition to impose uniform, stricter guidelines across LGUs, said Quirino Governor Dakila Cua. He heads the Union of Local Authorities of the Philippines, the umbrella organization of all local government leagues.
“The context is different for some LGUs. Some don’t have cases, they would like to nurture their economy more; others want containment compatibility…. There’s really no unified, single position for all LGUs,” Cua said in an interview with Rappler on April 5.
He, however, acknowledged that the lack of a negative COVID-19 test result requirement for inbound travelers opens LGUs to further risks. “If you do not impose requirements, you’ll be a bit vulnerable,” Cua noted.
LGUs set their rules
This setup became apparent when Rappler spoke to the provincial governments of Batangas and Oriental Mindoro.
“There is a provincial resolution, but municipal or city LGUs can request additional protocols,” said Batangas Provincial Health Officer Dr Rose Ozaeta.
Oriental Mindoro follows the national government guidelines, where the default is not to require travelers to present a negative COVID-19 test result. “The provincial LGU is different from the LGU of destination. It is up to the municipality to impose its own guidelines,” said Provincial Administrator Dr Hubbert Dolor.
Health or economy?
Velasco echoed Cua, saying that some LGUs are trying to strike a delicate balance between prioritizing health care and reopening the economy.
“They have taken into consideration the need to start recovery right away and to reopen the economy. If they feel they should ease up on the travel requirement, they will not impose it,” Velasco said.
Both Velasco and Cua’s provinces, Marinduque and Quirino, require incoming domestic travelers to present a negative COVID-19 test result. This is particularly important for Quirino, where a spike in COVID-19 cases prompted the declaration of the modified enhanced community quarantine, the second strictest form of lockdown, until April 15. That lockdown status has since been extended until April 30.
For Leachon, economic recovery should take a backseat when more lives are lost as a result of hospitals’ incapability to attend to patients, whether suffering from COVID-19 or other illnesses.
“We have to recognize the problem. COVID-19 transmission will never be stopped and the economy will never recover as long as COVID-19 is there,” he lamented.
Cabral said COVID-19 testing for inbound travelers will not necessarily eliminate the risk of virus spread in a locality. “The negative RT-PCR test does not assure anybody that the person does not have COVID-19, is not carrying the virus, and will not get sick with COVID-10 later on,” she said.
Leachon, however, was insistent that as long as mass immunization in the Philippines is not in full swing, the government must resort to border control, and must reduce as much as possible the risk of letting a virus carrier cross borders.
The country’s testing czar, Vince Dizon, already rejected the idea of mass testing in favor of “risk-based” and “targeted” testing.
What are LGUs doing?
Recently, the Philippine National Police was on alert over reports that people untested for COVID-19 were being smuggled into and out of “NCR Plus” using colorum vehicles. Such incidents highlight how lax border management could aggravate the already worsening pandemic situation.
Another unavoidable problem is the possibility of some domestic travelers lying about their recent contacts or health status just to get to another locality outside the “NCR Plus” bubble.
Asked about contingency plans, provincial LGUs said they are relying on systems that were already in place since the pandemic began.
“We have a Barangay Health Emergency Response Team per LGU. The barangay knows who the new arriving travelers are. Barangays will monitor them. If there are positive cases, they do contact tracing,” Ozaeta said in a mix of English and Filipino.
Ozaeta admitted however that there is still a shortage of contact tracers in Batangas, as they are unable to meet the ideal 1:35 contact tracing ratio for urban areas. Currently, Batangas, more than 100 kilometers south of Manila, is only able to identify at least 10 contacts per COVID-19-infected person, she noted.
Dolor meanwhile said the port of Calapan adheres to COVID-19 safety guidelines, despite the lack of a negative test result requirement for returning travelers.
“When [passengers] disembark the vessel, they will have to pass through our health profiling…. When they are clear and they present no symptoms, they are allowed to travel to their destination…. Cargoes are also being inspected to make sure no additional traveler slips by,” Dolor noted in a mix of English and Filipino.
“LGUs are in-charge of tracing those who slip past our borders. But these incidents seldom happen, and they are apprehended at the port of entry,” he added.
Leachon thinks the LGUs may not be doing enough.
“I don t think there’s a contingency plan. They have been declaring the ‘Prevent, Detect, Isolate, Treat, Reintegrate’ strategy in this ECQ. This is an old one. But we can’t be doing the same things over and over again and expect the same results,” he told Rappler.
The Philippines is in a worse situation this year than in 2020, based on the 190,245 active COVID-19 cases as of April 10, and the decreasing capacity of hospitals in Metro Manila to accommodate more patients.
Leachon said the government should not let its guard down even when quarantine classification in “NCR Plus” is eased. It can no longer fight “too many battles” in various parts of the Philippines.
At the same time, he said, “We need border control, targeted lockdowns after ECQ, travel bans on countries with variants, 50,000 to 100,000 COVID-19 tests per day, [intensified] contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine.”
In the afternoon of Sunday, April 11, the national government announced that, starting April 12, it would be placing “NCR Plus” under the more relaxed modified enhanced community quarantine anyway. – Rappler.com