“We have tried to reach out to the health department but we have only received their reply via email saying that we should practice social distancing. There was no response to our call for mass testing. None of the phone lines given by DOH was picking up.”
By MENCHANI TILENDO
MANILA – Anton, a Filipino seafarer who went home from San Francisco, United States could not calm himself.
Anton (real name withheld upon request), 42, is one of the 538 Filipino seafarers who had been on board the Grand Princess Cruise Ship for over a month since it journeyed back to its home port at the San Francisco Cruise Terminal. This was after an outbreak of coronavirus infection was confirmed in early March, which led to the death of a Filipino crew member.
Anton was among the first batch to be repatriated home. He arrived in Manila on March 14 and was sent to a quarantine facility in New Clark City in Tarlac. He narrated his 14-day ordeal,“We were picked up by the coast guard and the DOH [Department of Health], but we still sat side by side in the bus, no social distancing. They assigned us rooms and posted house rules. Crew members were not allowed to go outside, a contact number was given to us in case of medical and non-medical needs.”
“Every morning they would check our body temperature and ask whether we feel any symptoms. Before we arrived in the Philippines, they said we would all get tested. After three days of quarantine, that’s when they started random testing among the crew. Whenever we felt something, they would just list and take note of our names. I’m not even sure if they included in the random testing those who reported symptoms,” he added in an interview with Migrante International. Bulatlat was able to get the audio recording of the interview.
From the time they first learned about the 19 crew members who tested positive for COVID-19, the rest of the crew kept on working. He said this has made them vulnerable to infection.
“Instead of resting so we can build up our immune system, we were still forced to work. They could have at least given us vitamins like what they did on Diamond Princess, a sister cruise ship in Yokohama, Japan which reported more than 700 COVID-positive cases,”Anton said.
From then on until the end of the 14-day quarantine on March 29, Anton and most of the Filipino crew have not been tested. Some of them were sent to Bataan, and many were far away from their families. Several others were left in California seeking for urgent support so they could be repatriated and given assistance.
With the absence of a swab test, Anton and his fellow seafarers have been burdened by the fear of possibly contracting the virus. They are now left wondering whether or not they could exhibit symptoms.
“We have tried to reach out to the health department but we have only received their reply via email saying that we should practice social distancing. There was no response to our call for mass testing. None of the phone lines given by DOH was picking up,”Anton said.
On March 28, Anton said that he was feeling dizzy and reported it to the authorities manning their facility in Tarlac. He was told that they have referred his report to the health department but no action was taken.
“I had to find my own ways to lower my blood pressure. I drank a lot of water, rested and closed my eyes. We have now returned home but we still haven’t had any swab test and I still have high blood pressure,” Anton said.
On March 30, the majority of the quarantined Filipino crew members were released. Some have gone back to their families while some are staying in hotels in Manila due to the lockdown, which prevents them from entering their hometowns. Some local government units are refusing to honor the certificates issued to them by the DOH.
The Grand Princess Cruise Ship is just one of the many ships currently stranded at sea scrambling for safe harbor. According to Migrante International, thousands of passengers and crew members remain on board in at least 15 cruise ships worldwide, with workers representing dozens of countries and nationalities. Port closures, flight restrictions and border closures add to the direful situation.
The Philippines is among those hardest-hit by the economic paralysis brought about by the pandemic. In the same breath, overseas Filipino workers are among the most vulnerable sectors hit by the impacts of the COVID-19. Migrante International reported that there are over 420,000 OFWs likely to return back to the Philippines within the next several months, and about US$5 billion worth of remittances per year is expected to be lost. Migrante stated that without welfare assistance, starvation awaits displaced OFWs and their families who will bear the full weight of the Duterte government’s crippling lockdown.
Like Anton and his fellow Filipino seafarers, many OFWs are desperate for the government’s urgent and comprehensive plan to address the crisis. On the other hand, the families of these Filipino migrants back home are troubled by the delayed and insufficient relief, stringent quarantine mechanisms, and threats of President Duterte’s shoot-to-kill order.
“We OFWs deserve mass testing, and free medical and welfare assistance. Until now, we have no assurance that the government will provide us aid and proper compensation. I hope that this all ends soon. In the middle of a crisis, we do no want to be left wondering for so long,”Anton ended.