By: Gabriel Pabico Lalu – Reporter
President Rodrigo Duterte hinted on Wednesday that he was not ready to grant a request for returning overseas Filipino workers to be allowed to cut short their quarantine so that they could go home earlier.
Currently, OFWs are required first to go on 14-day quarantine and have a negative COVID-19 test result before they could be allowed to return to the Philippines.
However, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III asked Duterte during Wednesday’s pre-recorded briefing if the quarantine could be shortened as the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) was already overwhelmed by the huge number of OFWs who wanted to come home.
“I’m quite not comfortable with the relaxation [in requirements] that’s being brought about now,” he told Bello. “So let us see.”
“There is no compromise here. So I won’t compromise,” Duterte added, speaking partly in Filipino. “So just an off-the-cuff statement before we make the final decision: I cannot, I am not ready for a compromise — especially now.”
At the moment, around 6,500 OFWs are staying in quarantine facilities — a manageable number compared to the previous 10,000, according to Leo Cacdac, administrator of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA).
But the problem of DOLE — the mother agency of OWWA — is that its funding may not be enough to support the continued quarantine of returning OFWs.
Last March 11, the department asked for an additional P9.8 billion budget to cover the costs of the OFWs’ quarantine.
Hence, Bello was looking at reducing the quarantine from 14 to just 1o or nine days.
As of Wednesday, no decision has been reached on that issue, as it would still be discussed more thoroughly in a meeting of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF).
Meanwhile, Dr. Cynthia Saloma, executive director of the Philippine Genome Center, said in Wednesday’s briefing that the government would have to enforce a strict quarantine for the OFWs.
“In our studies, Mr. President, based on genomic sequences, if just one [infected case] gets through, it will spawn many others,” Saloma said, speaking partly in Filipino.
“If you see the genetic tree of the virus, just one case that slips through, it will give birth to five others, and those five will give birth to other infections and so on And this is also what we see in cases of the B.1.1.7, the UK, variant and this South African variant,” she explained.
“As you know, Mr. President, if we let them go home — you know how exuberant we Filipinos are, Mr. President — it will be a difficult situation. They will chat with their neighbors, their siblings, their friends. So, even if we let them go home, or at least go to their LGU [local government unit], we really need to enforce strict quarantine,” she went on.
The country is facing a COVID-19 surge that health experts attribute mainly to new variants.
As of Wednesday, the nationwide tally of active COVID-1 infections was at 116,434, the huge bulk of which were recorded in the so-called National Capital Region Plus bubble — which is composed of Metro Manila and the surrounding provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal.