MANILA, 31 July 2020:
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte today promised to supply the communist guerrilla of the New People’s Army (NPA) with the vaccine against Covid-19 when it is available – if they abandon the armed struggle until the end of the year.
“If you stop fighting for a while, until December, because my soldiers are busy with the response to the pandemic, I will give you the vaccine,” he said in a televised appearance announcing the new phases of de-escalation in the Philippines, which began strict confinement March 15.
“After Covid-19, let’s fight again. I warn you, stop for a while and allow the normal process of recovery to the country,” said the president, who last year cancelled the peace process with the communists and intensified the military offensive.
At the start of the pandemic, both the Philippine government and the NPA guerrillas declared a ceasefire – so the military confrontation would not hinder the response to Covid-19.
But the truce ended in mid-April after clashes between the parties when aid was being distributed in rural areas.
The president said his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping guaranteed the Philippines would be among the first nations to receive the vaccine when clinical trials are successfully completed.
Chinese companies Sinopharm and Sinovac are in charge of two of the world’s three most advanced Covid-19 vaccines, which have already started human trials, the last step before regulatory approval.
“Our first option to get out of this crisis is China,” said Duterte, who since coming to power has strengthened relations with Xi.
The president also said when the vaccine is available, it will be the Armed Forces which will be in charge of distributing it to the entire population – with priority to the poorest, due to rampant corruption in local governments.
The president announced today the cities of Manila, Cebu and Zamboanga, as well as several provinces on the island of Luzon surrounding the capital – Batangas, Cavite, Rizal, Laguna and Bulacan – remain in “general quarantine.”
This is an intermediate confinement phase that allows the partial recovery of economic activity but restricts movements between provinces.
The Philippines reached 89,374 infections yesterday – of which 22,327 are still active – and nearly 2,000 deaths since the Covid-19 outbreak was announced in late January.
Meanwhile, in the absence of opportunities across rural areas in the Philippines, migrating to the capital, where the country’s economic activity is concentrated, and even abroad, has traditionally been almost the only alternative for millions of low-income Filipinos.
Most of them take up jobs as domestic workers, nannies, masons, hauliers or sailors, but many have lost their employment because of the novel coronavirus crisis.
Jonathan Amarata, aged just 18 and with two children to take care of, lost his job as a security guard in Manila when a lockdown was declared due to the Covid-19 epidemic in March. He had migrated to the capital from Cebu Island a few months ago.
The country too has been hit, given that workers abroad support large families back home and foreign remittances amount to as much as US$33.5 billion per year – which amounts to around 10% of its GDP.
“I’ve been slumping around Manila for over four months, hoping to be able to go home to my family. I was the only one who made money and now we have nothing,” Jonathan said while waiting for a bus to take him — and several others in a similar situation — to a hostel to the north of Manila.
There he will wait for the authorities to charter a flight to fly people like him to Cebu, after the aviation sector was temporarily shut down due to the crisis.
For the last few days, Jonathan slept at the Jose Rizal football stadium in Manila, where the government asked those from the provinces who have been recently unemployed to gather as to arrange their return home.
Authorities were expecting some 7,500 people, but 2,000 more than expected turned up. They all had to spend several days in an overcrowded stadium, in unhygienic conditions and without maintaining social distance.
At least eight people from the gathering tested positive in the rapid tests carried out before their return, thus increasing the risk of the virus spreading in the provinces.
Some 8,000 people have already returned to the islands of Bisayas and Mindanao, but Jonathan still remained in Manila since Cebu was still under strict lockdown.
“We have no guarantee that we can return to Cebu and we have no family in Manila to help us,” said Jonathan, who, besides living in fear of contracting the coronavirus, distrusts the authorities.
He has been lodged at three different hostels in Manila already at different times, and even had to sleep two nights inside a bus.
Meanwhile, Rowena Reyes, 35, waited with her meagre belongings to enter the Army bus that would take her to the same hostel as Jonathan. She too hoped to be able to return to Cebu, where her 13-year-old daughter awaited her.
“I worked as a domestic worker in several houses, but I lost my job because with the lockdown I couldn’t go to work and the house where I was staying kicked me out because I couldn’t pay,” said Reyes, who, like many others like her, has had to sleep outdoors for more than one night.
Beyond the borders of the Philippines, in almost every corner of the world — from Saudi Arabia to Norway, from Singapore and China to New Zealand — hundreds of thousands of Filipinos have lost their means of livelihood.
The Philippines is among the top 10 countries in the world with the largest migrant population, amounting to more than 8 million people. Some 3.8 million of them are permanent workers based in another country and 3.4 million are temporary employees, while 1.55 million work illegally abroad, according to the Department of Employment.
The government has embarked on the arduous task of repatriating all those who have lost their jobs.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has repatriated more than 106,000 citizens, 43% of them sailors. It is estimated that by the end of the year the figure could reach 700,000, most of them from the Middle East.
“The DFA had to embark on a repatriation programme of such magnitude which the country has never seen before. Overseas Filipinos are returning not by the hundreds but by the hundreds of thousands,” remarked undersecretary for migrant workers’ affairs Sarah Arriola earlier this week.
Keeping in mind that these migrants, known in the Philippines as OFW (overseas Filipino workers), have been a lifeline in successive crises and form an important vote bank, the government has created a US$50 million emergency assistance fund for them.
“I have been waiting for three months to return. All my flights have been cancelled, my only hope is the government,” Khate Azhlee, who worked as a waitress at the Doha Opera before losing her job due to the pandemic, posted on a Facebook page dedicated to OFWs.
However, many OFWs have chosen to remain abroad and wait for the worst to pass, aware that job opportunities in their home country are limited and wages low.