Coronavirus: Philippines shuts airports to returning Filipino workers as quarantine capacity is overwhelmed

In a photo from March 19, 2020, passengers queue outside Manila's international airport. PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - The Philippines is shutting its airports to all commercial flights for at least a week starting Sunday (May 3), as its quarantine capacity is near breaking point following a recent surge in Filipino workers returning from abroad.

The decision has left hundreds of thousands of Filipinos marooned in over 40 countries dealing with their own viral outbreaks. Most have lost their jobs.

Many were furious that the government gave the order abruptly. It also caused confusion, after ambiguous official instructions were sent out on social media.

"So frustrating!" said Mr Roldan Abarentos, who said in a Facebook post that he worked as a seaman.

"As seafarers, we really want to go home. We're stuck in the ship, and now again you make a decision without any further notice," he said.

"Oh, wow! Advisory effective in 8 hours… You display the responsibility and common sense of a toddler," said one Mr Yznan Frost, who on Facebook identified himself as an American.

Mr Carlito Galvez, head of a task force overseeing the country's efforts to check the spread of the coronavirus, said in a statement the new restrictions on inbound flights were meant to "give the government the opportunity to decongest the quarantine facilities in Metro Manila".

Over 24,000 Filipinos working abroad have so far returned to home , the Foreign Ministry has said.

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who helps steer the anti-virus task force, said in a radio interview some 40,000 overseas Filipinos, many of them in the Gulf states, were expected in the coming weeks.

All would have to be quarantined.

The government has been using hotel rooms and ships docked in harbours as quarantine facilities, and it is quickly running out of space.

The Overseas Workers and Welfare Administration estimated that up to 250,000 migrant Filipino workers might be forced to return home because of the pandemic.

At least 90,000 working abroad as seamen, hotel and mall staff, waiters, cooks, entertainers, and factory, oil and construction workers have been furloughed, without pay, or are now jobless because of lockdowns or stay-at-home restrictions.

With the world's economies cratering, researchers here estimate that up to 400,000 out of some 4 million Filipinos in 46 countries may be affected.

The Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) said in a post on its Facebook page on Saturday (May 2) that all commercial flights "to and from the Philippines" had been suspended starting 8am on Sunday.

Only flights carrying cargo and medical supplies, as well as "utility and maintenance flights", would continue, it said.

That came after Mr Galvez's task force said there was "a need to ramp up the capacity of our current systems to properly process the growing number of Filipino expatriates coming back to the Philippines on a daily basis".

It then asked the MIAA to "suspend the use of all Philippine international airports".

But Mr Lorenzana later clarified that the ban would affect only returning overseas Filipino workers.

Foreigners who are still in the Philippines and Filipinos with jobs waiting for them abroad can still leave, said Mr Eduardo Menez, an assistant secretary at the Foreign Ministry.

Mr Galvez clarified on Sunday inbound commercial flights would have to seek an "exemption" from civil aviation officials.

But he did not say in his statement whether this was meant to prevent Filipinos abroad from boarding their flights.

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