Filipinos from UAE among 6,000 stranded in Manila over Covid-19 testing delay
On the first day without the PRC's help, it took the PCG around 24 hours to encode 30 per cent of 2,833 swab samples.
Filipino expats who flew home from the UAE are among the thousands who are now stuck at Manila hotels because of delays in Covid-19 testing. Many have no idea when they are going to get the results.
"My pregnant wife and I have been here in the hotel for nearly a week now. I am worried that she may have to deliver our baby in our hotel room, though there are nurses and midwives stationed here," said Nemar Galagate, a waiter who flew from Dubai to Manila on October 15.
Results of the government-funded Covid-19 tests for returning overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) used to be released in one to two days. But that was when the Philippine Red Cross (PRC) was conducting the screenings for the government.
Since October 15, the PRC has stopped processing swabs because the embattled government health insurer PhilHealth failed to pay Php930 million (Dh70.37 million) in bills.
Nemar and his wife Zuena were among the over 6,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who are currently stranded at hotels serving as quarantine facilities across Manila, according to the latest figure revealed by Philippine Labour Secretary Silvestre Bello III on Wednesday.
"We are now faced with another stranding of our OFWs. Before, we succeeded in bringing home OFWs (to provinces) at the rate of 1,000 to 3,000 a day, now we are talking about of maximum 300 a day so you can just imagine how many OFWs are stranded in all the hotels in Metro Manila," Bello said in a virtual briefing on Tuesday.
Nemar and his wife, for example, still have to fly home to their province in Iloilo. Now, they have no choice but to wait in the Philippine capital. "We are yet to find an ob-gyn for my wife in the province and she's already 33 weeks pregnant. We really hope we can go home soon," said the expat from Dubai.
Without the PRC's service and automated system, screening procedures turned manual. Over a hundred Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) frontliners have to encode the details for the thousands of expats who arrive at the airport in Manila every day, according to a report from the Philippine government's news agency.
They collect the swabs, register details, and transport the samples to government laboratories. Each lab provides only a maximum of 100 slots daily - which meant the frontliners had to visit several labs in a day so that thousands of collected samples can be processed, the PCG said in a recent statement.
On the first day without the PRC's help - it took the PCG around 24 hours to encode 30 per cent of 2,833 swab samples collected from OFWs. Thousands more arrived the following day, and the next. Based on government's estimates, more than 100,000 expats are expected to return home until the end of the year.
'What about those who are given only two weeks of vacation?'
Jaime Panopio Jr, a chief accountant who returned home from Dubai, said he couldn't help but worry about other expats who flew home on emergency or could stay for only a couple of weeks in the Philippines.
"There are some who had to come home because someone died in the family. Others are here only on a two-week vacation. I came home for good so I consider myself in a better situation somehow," he said.
Panopio, 40, arrived in Manila on a Cebu Pacific Flight on October 16. He had been waiting for days until he decided to try his luck and call the Bureau of Quarantine (BoQ) directly.
"I dialled their number about 100 times until I got lucky and managed to talk to someone. I was told that my name was on the list submitted by the testing laboratory of the Philippine Lung Centre but the result was blank," he said. He then called the lung centre and was told his results were in.
"The process of calling all these offices was stressful. Then, finally, the BoQ found my results and e-mailed it to me."
Panopio, who was able to check out of quarantine on Wednesday, said that his experience only showed that gaps in communication and coordination that could be resulting in delays.
"Imagine, my test was already done but I didn't receive any update. I wouldn't be able to get it if I wasn't lucky enough to get in touch with the BoQ after countless tries," he told Khaleej Times.
'We're well taken care of'
Both Panopio and the Galagate couple knew that their frustrating ordeal was "a result of the corruption in PhilHealth" - and not because of any failure of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (Owwa), which takes care of Filipino expats around the world.
"Owwa has been very helpful and their approach has been excellent since we landed at the airport. We are also staying comfortably in our hotel room," Nemar said.
The government agency shoulders all expenses for returning expats - from Covid tests to their hotel stay for quarantine and all their meals daily. Those who live in provinces, like the couple, are also flown home for free after getting their negative test result.
Midwives and nurses are on stand by at the hotel where Nemar and his wife are checked in.
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