Potential COVID hotspots

Potential COVID hotspots

Into the fifth month of crippling lockdowns, basic lessons on preventing coronavirus transmission continue to be ignored. This is evident in the management – or mismanagement – of the situation of locally stranded individuals.

LSIs, as shown in video footage and photographs, have been crammed into the Rizal Memorial Track and Football Stadium and the Quirino Grandstand in Manila’s Rizal Park. Some LSIs have set up camp outside the domestic seaport in Manila and around the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

An ongoing program called Hatid Tulong has assisted thousands of people in returning to their provinces. But the crowds keep swelling as people hope for free COVID-19 testing and a free bus ride home.

The program has been slowed down by the reluctance of local government units to accept people returning particularly from Metro Manila, epicenter of the COVID-19 contagion in the country. Several LGUs have noted that their first COVID cases were LSIs who returned from the National Capital Region.

Travel restrictions to contain COVID transmission created the LSI phenomenon. Overseas Filipino workers who were repatriated after losing their jobs have also been stranded in Metro Manila, even after undergoing the mandatory 14-day quarantine.

LGUs have expressed concern that the rapid antibody tests that LSIs must undergo before they are cleared for return to the provinces do not guarantee the absence of infection. The more accurate swab test for the presence of the COVID virus costs at least P4,000 – an amount that the typical LSI cannot afford. LGU and national government officials must quickly decide who can foot the bill for swab testing for LSIs.

In the meantime, authorities should improve crowd management and strictly enforce public health protocols in the temporary shelters for LSIs, which are starting to look like hotspots for COVID.

Already, several LSIs have tested positive for the potentially deadly and highly infectious disease. There are many children including infants among the LSIs, and images clearly show that physical distancing has flown out the window in the temporary shelters.

Metro Manila local executives can set up a system under which their constituents can apply for assistance in returning to the provinces. The applicants can then wait at home to be notified about the availability so they need not go to temporary shelters while waiting for COVID tests and free rides.

If this is impossible to implement, the temporary shelters need better management. Areas can be designated, for example, for LSIs from particular provinces or regions, to improve crowd segregation and management. The last thing the country needs amid this public health crisis is a humanitarian crisis.