Life on pause: OFWs strive to keep healthy during unpaid time off

AT A GLANCE

  • A working Filipino family in dense, coronavirus-ridden New York City fears bringing home the virus to the more vulnerable, older generation at home.
  • At least 600 overseas Filipino workers in Italy are temporarily or permanently removed from their jobs, having to stay with other Filipinos willing to take them in. 
  • OFWs find a sense of community among each other and connect remotely with loved ones even as physical distance separates them.

24-year-old Prio Opelanio finds himself locked up in his New York home for a week in the city that never sleeps.

Prio, who comes from an immigrant Filipino family living in relatively quiet Queens, is the only member of the family that goes to Manhattan on the daily for his work in jewelry merchandising. The business gets its stocks exclusively from China, and with factories closing down due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, operations there have been suspended too.

Prio is paid per day's work. He has no idea when he'll get to earn again, but he knows he has it better than most in his city, because he has his family there with him.

Seven of the 8 members of Prio’s household work. His older brother and sister are nurses who do clerical work at a clinic, where some people who suspect they have the virus show up. The clinic deals mostly with outpatients, but that doesn’t stop possible carriers from seeking help at their facility.

“The virus has been spreading so much in New York. We tend to not use the transit most of the time, so we take Uber mostly if we have to go somewhere, or to work in the city. Medyo mahal, pero (It’s a little expensive, but) that’s the price of being safe,” he said.

New York is the nation’s epicenter of the outbreak, after being reported as the state with the most confirmed cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) – at least 37,258 as of Thursday, March 26. With 28,000 residents per square mile, New York City is more crowded than any other major city in the United States.

Such a density enabled the virus to spread rapidly through packed subway trains, busy playgrounds, and hivelike apartment buildings, The New York Times reported. The bustling city is now on lockdown, with 100% of the "non-essential" workforce required to stay home starting March 20.

Like Prio, overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) across the world have to deal with the coronavirus pandemic away from home. As of March 26, at least 203 cases of COVID-19 have been recorded among Filipinos outside the Philippines. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority, there are around 2.3 million OFWs across the globe as of 2018.

'Nightmare pandemic'

Before his office closed on March 16, Prio’s company did all the work that it could after the closure of their partners' facilities in China. He noted the kindness of his employers, who said that if an employee felt sick, they could just stay home.

But Prio knows that this situation holds in his case. While not naming industries, he knows that there are plenty of New Yorkers who still have to work in a pandemic to pay their bills.

When the nurses in the family would report to the clinic for work, they worried about bringing the virus home, especially to the elders in the house. The mudroom at the entrance of their house used to contain only fragrance to welcome the family home. Now they’re welcomed with disinfectants.

FAMILY. Priolo Opelanio (third from the right, back row), along with his 3 siblings, cousin, parents, and aunt, pose with 2 friends at a wedding reception in South Salem, New York. Photo courtesy of Priolo Opelanio

FAMILY. Priolo Opelanio (third from the right, back row), along with his 3 siblings, cousin, parents, and aunt, pose with 2 friends at a wedding reception in South Salem, New York.

Photo courtesy of Priolo Opelanio

The older generation in the household, which include Prio’s parents and aunt, are “terrified.” The kids make an effort to keep things calm.

“We, the younger ones, we try to keep a good amount of level-headedness with the situation. Kasi kunyari, ‘yung usual na nagpa-panic sila, na kailangan naming bumili ng marami at mag-stock up ng maraming pagkain, pero kaming mga bata, ayaw namin gawin. Kasi one, it’s unfair for other people if you stock up. And two, wala namang magagawa ang pagpa-panic eh,” said Prio.

(For instance, in the times they panic and say we need to buy a lot of things and stock up on a lot of food, we kids don’t give in. Because one, it’s unfair for other people if you stock up. And two, panicking will get you nowhere.)

Similar to President Rodrigo Duterte’s “everything is well” statement in early February, US President Donald Trump had his own: “It’s going to be just fine,” he told Americans in late January. Trump’s statements of “reassurance” went on through February, even as cases escalated. It's going to disappear like a miracle, Trump said. 

“This pandemic has been a nightmare for people all over the globe, especially for those most vulnerable. The way it was downplayed was a huge mess and a huge miss. Not only did those words make people lax, they made policies lax as well,” said Prio.

On March 25, Trump signed into law a bill providing paid sick leave, unemployment benefits, free coronavirus testing, and food and medical aid to people affected by the pandemic.

Another epicenter

While New York is the epicenter of the outbreak in the US, Italy became the world’s new epicenter after its death toll surpassed China’s, where the virus first emerged. Italy has at least 74,386 confirmed cases and 7,505 deaths, as of March 26.

Data from the Philippine Consulate General in Milan (Milan PCG) estimates about 120,000 Filipinos in northern Italy, where the outbreak hit the hardest when it first came to the country. Areas in the north were the first to lock down on March 8.

Rhoderick Ople, a Florence-based private chef who leads nationwide community OFW Watch Italy, said that there are about 20 unofficial cases of COVID-19-positive Filipinos in Italy. One is reported to have recovered, while 3 have died as of March 26. This data is gathered through point persons of the community, which authorities don’t always pick up. 

Unlike the records of cases in the Philippines, cases in Italy are not classified by nationality, and so the Milan PCG has no official information on confirmed cases in Filipinos. However, the consulate said they relay suspected cases to the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

Some coronavirus-positive Filipinos, or at least those with symptoms, choose to self-quarantine at home for the sake of comfort and feelings of safety. Italy’s hospitals are also reaching capacity, with the healthcare workforce already strained.

May mindset na mas madali kang mamamatay sa ospital kaysa sa bahay (There’s a mindset of some that you could die more easily in the hospital than in the house),” said Rhoderick.

Italy’s total lockdown, which began on March 9, is not only a threat to health, but also to livelihood. OFW Watch Italy established a COVID-19 task force precisely to attend to pandemic-related concerns of the community.

Rhoderick said that they gathered some 600 names of individuals who have temporarily or permanently been displaced from their jobs. But the real number of affected Filipinos is 600 plus the total number of family members all those workers have. "That could be thousands," said Rhoderick.

IN TRANSIT. Rhoderick Ople wears a face mask while riding a train in Italy. Photo courtesy of Rhoderick Ople

IN TRANSIT. Rhoderick Ople wears a face mask while riding a train in Italy.

Photo courtesy of Rhoderick Ople

Left behind

Rhoderick said around 70% of Filipinos in their network are in domestic work. When the outbreak first erupted in the northern provinces, wealthy families fled to central and south Italy before the lockdown was put in place. With no one in the house, there was no need for house help.

A loss of a job for some domestic helpers means the loss of a home, too. Displaced workers have to seek refuge with other Filipinos who will take them in. So far, OFW Watch hasn’t received information about Filipinos with nowhere to go. But it could only be a matter of time before the community runs out of space to offer.

OFW Watch has reached out to all the OFW-related institutions one can think of: the Philippine embassies and consulates, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), the DFA, and the Commission on Filipinos Overseas. 

On March 24, OFW Watch sent Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr a letter with 4 specific requests: a chartered plane for distressed Filipinos who wish to be repatriated, financial assistance, a shelter house for displaced or jobless OFWs, and easy renewal of documents.

The Milan PCG has relayed these concerns to “relevant agencies in Manila for appropriate action.” It has been the most active office in Italy in terms of engagement, said Rhoderick. But while they are active in releasing advisories such as sickness prevention, the OFW community is left wishing for less circulars, and more action.

On March 25, DOLE announced that OFWs across the world whose employment was affected by the pandemic may avail of a one-time P10,000 payout, roughly only $200. How long will this last? 

Finding community

37-year-old Joanne Rico, who does marketing and sales for a hospital in Abu Dhabi, has been working abroad for the past 10 years. All of her family is in the Philippines. 

While not a frontline healthcare worker in the face of COVID-19, Joanne still makes her rounds at the hospital. Living alone can be lonely, but she doesn’t have to worry about bringing a virus home to loved ones.

Her communities, which include religious groups and an alumni association, are where she and other Filipinos comfort in each other. 

“In addition to regularly sending awareness content about COVID-19 through our social media groups, we also share positive and motivational messages in order to boost the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual strength of each other,” said Joanne.

“That we share the same values and belief systems, same traditions and culture, or even the same daily struggles help overcome the fear of being outside our comfort zones and the homesickness prompted by being away from our families back home,” she added.

Joanne feels secure about the containment of the outbreak in the United Arab Emirates. Recent data shows that the UAE has been testing almost 13,000 per million people for COVID-19. UAE has recorded only 333 cases and two deaths as of March 26.

It’s her family in the Philippines she’s worried about. Here, numbers as of March 26 show that only around 20 people are tested for every million. In comparison, South Korea conducts 6,148 per million people. Once having the second highest number of cases after China, it has been able to keep infection levels low through efficient testing, tracing, quarantine, and travel bans. (READ: [ANALYSIS] Beating COVID-19: The hammer and the dance)

“I am more concerned about our families in the Philippines. Being a developing country, the Philippines has very limited resources to curb the spread of the coronavirus infection,” she said.

Being a healthcare professional, Joanne makes an effort to guide her family back at home with the right information. She reassures them when they get anxious about the daily rising case count – that the rise of confirmations just means that more are being tested.

"Without me realizing it, I may have made them feel more scared rather than comforted. Very recently, I changed my tone and voice – I started sending positive, light-hearted messages instead. But deep in my heart, God knows I am doing this only because I love my family," said Joanne.

Revisiting social distancing

Prio shared advice that OFWs around the world can use when they are feeling afraid during the pandemic: stay informed, know your local representatives for when you have concerns, don’t hoard, and remember to talk to someone. (READ: Call it 'physical distancing,' not 'social distancing,' says WHO)

“Social distancing is really more on putting physical distance between one another rather than distancing ourselves from our loved ones. That’s very different. If you have friends in [your country] or in the Philippines, talk to them about it. For sure, they’re scared as well," he said.

“I think crises like these get the best of us. We see ourselves hoarding resources and building walls… But don’t build walls. We’re not alone,” said Prio. – Rappler.com

Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a researcher-writer at Rappler. Possessing the heart and soul of a feminist, she is working on specializing in women's issues in Newsbreak, Rappler's investigative arm.

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