Pandemic, lockdowns test global endurance of overseas Filipinos’ spirit

OFW Journalism Consortium | Jeremaiah M. Opiniano

Special to the BusinessMirror

Editor’s note: The real identities of some overseas Filipinos interviewed here are being withheld for their protection.

ADELAIDE, Australia–Her eyes widened when her Indian employer went straight inside the condominium unit to embrace his six-year-old son: He still had his shoes on.

Divina, a Filipino household worker, said she refused to let go of the child and instead asked her boss to remove his shoes.

“We had talked about this, sir, didn’t we?” she said she told her employer, a bank employee in Singapore, while still clinging to her ward.

“I have to take care of my alaga [baby],” Divina said. She frequently reminds the parents to always wash their hands: her weeks-long refrain.

Who would not be reminded of this hygienic habit in that condominium? That residence, found in Singapore’s Orchard Road, has four bedrooms, a living room, a dining area and a kitchen. In each area a 500-milliliter bottle of hand sanitizer is conspicuous.

This is because Singapore, on its fifth week of trying to mitigate the outcome of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19), is not on a lockdown.

Employees still work. Buying groceries is normal as usual. The special child’s mother is with an Indian business outsourcing firm, Divina said, and “always likes to go shopping.”

Jitters addressed

But Divina’s daughter Babyruth, a graduating nursing student based in Baguio City, is also the mother’s worry. The Philippine homeland is rattled as families are in a month-long enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) since March 16. Baguio General Hospital (BGH) may soon call Babyruth for reinforcement.

“Mama, if I will not do this [go on duty at BGH] and this Covid-19 will spread in the future anyway, how will I be able to conquer my fears?” Babyruth told her mother. “Please allow me to go.”

Divina said she went on an online huddle with two sisters in the United States working as a doctor and a nurse. They all agreed to Babyruth’s request. The three siblings pooled money (Divina sent SGD$400 via her mobile wallet account with SingTel Dash) to Babyruth.

“Withdraw all of it [the remittance],” Divina instructed her daughter. The latter’s budget, Divina says, is good for up to mid-April, the target “end” of an ECQ that had dwarfed the entire Luzon island (and that may soon happen in provinces of the Visayas and Mindanao).

Economic lifeline

DIVINA is part of the Philippines’s economic lifeline—the 10.3 million citizens scattered throughout the world—that is teetering on a tightrope. Overseas Filipinos don’t know if Covid-19 had struck them before and during these lockdowns in destination countries, even in some countries where life is still “normal,” like Singapore.

In their homeland, also on quarantine and with Covid-19 now island hopping, dollar-receiving families are killing time or praying for the early resolution of the crisis.

In destination countries, Filipinos are also witnessing how governments attempt to address the impact of Covid-19 on the host economies.

Data released by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) showed there are 25 countries or regions with Filipino Covid-19 cases, the total confirmed numbering to 169 as of March 24.

The DFA said 77 of these Filipinos are undergoing treatment while 90 have recovered or were discharged from medical facilities. Two were confirmed to have died.

The DFA data revealed that 111 cases are in Asia-Pacific countries; 18 in the Middle East countries; 20 in Europe; and, 20 in the Americas.

Of the cases in Asia-Pacific, 86 have recovered or were discharged, 24 are undergoing treatment and one died. In Middle Eastern countries, two have recovered while 16 are undergoing treatment.

One death was recorded in Europe while 17 are undergoing treatment. Two patients were reported to have recovered or been discharged.

All cases in the Americas are undergoing treatment.

Endurance tested

THE Philippines’s so-called ‘modern-day heroes’ are still eking out a living as long as physical distancing and quarantine-related regulations in host countries allow them. If stuck at home or in workers’ quarters, they go online.

Many of us working abroad for a long time have withstood civil strife, work-related abuses and abusive employers, natural disasters and many other crisis situations, according to Geronimo Yabut, an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) in Qatar. But this Covid-19 pandemic is different, he admitted.

Indeed, the endurance of the overseas Filipino spirit is confronting perhaps its biggest test.

Data from the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) revealed 3,160 OFWs were repatriated, displaced or stranded due to travel restrictions.

The DOLE also reported that a total of 3,089 OFWs are affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and the responses of government and the private sector.

Of these, majority or 1,560 have been displaced. Macau reported 795 OFWs displaced; Qatar, 280; Italy, 143; and, Japan, 135. Other markets that reported displaced OFWs were Hong Kong (53), Bahrain (96), Norway (80), Spain (43), Taiwan (3), Switzerland (2) and the Czech Republic (2).

But life overseas must go on, says Piedad, a household worker in South Korea, even under this global “war of mass destruction” that has struck nearly 400,000 individuals in 174 countries and territories.

Reduced activities

IN Qatar, Covid-19 was said to have first popped up in industrial areas like warehouses, labor camps and factories, according to Yabut.

Yabut, a quality control engineer, said all workers of his Qatari firm’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing works projects live in these industrial areas.

While he lives with another Filipino at a villa provided by his engineering firm, eight-to-10 foreign workers live together at quarters found in these industrial areas. Only very few Filipinos are laborers in construction projects there, Yabut said over teleconferencing.

But there’s still work at his firm. Temperatures are checked; people keep distance with each other and company meetings have also been reduced, he said.

“To be honest,” Yabut said, “we are all scared because we do not know who among us are infected.”

Meanwhile, in all of Spain, it’s “house arrest,” reveals NiceAnn Teleron of Cebu City.

On her first overseas sortie, this language assistant (Auxiliares de Conversacion en Espana) is on her first 8-month contract in the city of Oviedo. But on Friday the 13th of March, the Spanish government suspended all classes and non-essential businesses.

“House arrest” was initially for two weeks, until this was stretched to a month. It could be more given Spain’s rising death toll (2,991 out of the 42,058 Covid-19 cases, as of 24 March).

“Fortunately, I still get my allowance as promised by the head of the language assistant program,” Teleron said. Since classes are canceled, “apparently my income is now smaller.”

“Luckily, three of my students agreed to continue the classes online.  Ayun, tiyaga lang  [We have to persevere],” said the 25 year old.

Europe, Australia

DIFFERENT countries and their governments have adopted various ways to arrest the spread of the virus. The European countries have locked down their airports and their communities a week ago, especially hard-hit Italy, Germany, Spain, France and Switzerland.

Others, like Australia were late to respond. It was only last March 23 when premiers of the country’s seven states, as well as Prime Minister Scott Morrison, have started to close non-essential businesses. But schools are still open.

“Those in schools have to practice social distancing,” said the prime minister of Australia, which now has 2,318 reported cases of Covid-19, as of March 24.

Universities and schools still are open in South Australia state. That is even if there’s already a confirmed case at a branch of the University of South Australia, in Magill suburb, and two cases at Unley High School in Netherby suburb.

Meals, medicines

SOUTH Korea, another hard-hit country—9,037 cases as of March 24—had to be strict. Since the second week of March, establishments are closed and foreign workers in factories ordered to stay in their premises while they continue working.

These EPS workers have living quarters, supported by their companies, Piedad said.

And if you get out and go to a public place here, Piedad adds, “the person will be jailed!”

“The people here listen and follow instructions; they cooperate,” Piedad added.

France, to note, increased cash penalties for those going out of their homes, according to OFW Tina.

First it was 135 euros; now the penalty is 375 euros, she said. Freshly announced last March 24 by the government of President Emmanuel Macron is a 6-week extension of the lockdown.

“Others are hard-headed here,” Tina said. If one wants to get out and buy meals and medicines, one must have that permit: the  attestation de déplacement dérogatoire.

But even if French authorities still allow people to exercise outside their premises alone, Tina and her best friend and fellow Filipino Carol are now on a week doing Zumba.

“But we still eat and eat [lamon nang lamon]!” Dried fish (tuyo) brought from a recent Philippine trip are aplenty in Tina’s home. “[Tuyo  is] what is keeping us alive [Iyan ang bumubuhay sa amin].”

A security guard stands at the entrance to Yokohama port as the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship is seen in the background on Wednesday, February 19, 2020, in Yokohama, near Tokyo.

In docks

THE global shipping industry is docked on its tracks. So is Raymond of Capas town in Tarlac, who had been an engine rating, an engine oiler and a motorman in his previous work stints.

The 10-year seafarer is supposed to leave last January. But given the discovery of Covid-19 at the Diamond Princess cruise ship that’s docked at a port in Japan, shipping firms have yet to give clear words if operations will continue or resume.

Raymond was supposed to board MV  Glovis 5  but the vessel remained on a shipyard. A replacement work assignment came, MV  Feyha, that’s set to start April.

There’s no word yet from the shipping company, he said with a sigh as his wife is giving birth in five months.

And it might be “years,” Raymond thinks, when the global shipping industry and seafaring will normalize.

“Many have shut down their operations,” he said citing failed attempts to secure employment.

Open hours

ANOTHER Singapore nanny, Rhiza, is currently on a 2-month vacation from her Filipino employers. She’s locked under the ECQ directive for the entire Luzon that President Duterte ordered implemented beginning March 17.

At her farming family’s simple home, Rhiza heard the rooster crow—a sound she is not used to hear many times in the past 13 years in Singapore.

Luckily, her family has a farm to get their rice and a piggery where they can get some meat, in Santa Ignacia, Tarlac. Local authorities roam around, she says. “Mornings, [they’re] barangay officials and tanods; evenings there are lots of police and military,” she said adding that farming is still allowed as long as the field is beside one’s house.

Rhiza’s employers, both Filipinos, still give her salary of SGD680 even during her vacation. As she is bound to return to Singapore on April 21, Rhiza was told that her compatriot employers are willing to wait.

She is not worried if the Philippine lockdown is extended.

“I can easily get another employer; very seldom that families in Singapore do not have a domestic worker or a nanny.”

An Indian and a Chinese couple are waiting in the wings, tentatively by August, Rhiza added.

Both “grounded” OFWs Raymond and Rhiza though, got a blessing in disguise from the Philippine lockdown: their physical presence at home. Extended days and weeks with their spouses and children is what both OFWs are savoring.

Rhiza said she’s using her time to rest.

Pay limits

TINA told her children to economize the P40,000 she sent before the Luzon-wide ECQ came into effect.

Thanks to part-time morning cleaning work and a “semi full-time” babysitting job every 2:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., this former undocumented migrant monthly sends about €700 to her three children from a first marriage. Now with France’s lockdown, the 10-year-old permanent resident is somewhat lucky: she will still get salaries from the French employer of her “semi full-time” job—because she’s legal.

But not Tina’s compatriots, who are cleaners but are undocumented. “No work, no pay for them,” she says. Some of them were accommodated by their employers —to stay with them— because no one’s allowed to go out, Tina explained.

For a country banking heavily on the dollars from Filipinos abroad, the current pandemic’s economic wrath on countries will test remitters’ resolve to still send some more. Since 2009 (fresh from the 2008 global economic crisis), the pace of growth of all these cash remittances from Filipinos abroad has gone to below 9 percent. That is, even if Filipinos abroad sent about $247.52 billion, from 2010 to 2019, to the Philippines.

Inflow of cash

THE global spread of Filipinos allows their homeland to spread the risks of possibly lower amounts of total remittance inflows—in normal times.

Now with Covid-19 striking at 184 countries and territories, global and per-country remittance totals are at watch. Filipinos abroad sent about $30.13 billion last year, some $1.19 billion higher given the $28.94 billion total in 2018 (says data from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas).

However, Filipinos in at least 121 countries and territories sent lesser money home in 2019 than in 2018. The estimated total of the lesser money sent by Filipinos from these 121 states is $1.36 billion.

About 22 of those 121 countries and territories combined for $1.33 billion of the total remittances amount sent less year-on-year. And the country destinations whose Filipinos there sent less than a year ago are Covid-hit countries: The United Arab Emirates ($442.8 million), Qatar ($249.9 million), Saudi Arabia ($131.7 million), Germany ($97.5 million), Italy ($68.8 million), New Zealand ($59.2 million) and the pandemic’s epicenter China ($43.4 million).

New methods

IF countries that currently enforce lockdowns or area quarantines are stuck at home, how can they send money? Friends Divina and Rhiza have their mobile phone to rely on.

I have SingTel Dash, said Rhiza, currently on a two-month leave.

Before the March 21 advisory of Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower that foreign domestic workers must stay indoors, “good thing I went to 7-11,” Divina said, “to load my SingTel Dash account and send money to Babyruth.”

Piedad said Hanpass, targeting foreign workers from five countries (like Filipinos), is “very convenient.” If Filipino workers under Korea’s Employment Permit System (EPS) have a Hanpass account, they can have their remittance to the Philippines debited automatically on a set date, like their payday.

But Tina still relies on going to the remittance outlet, like a Filipino store in Paris.

“Online remittance is scary for me.”

Remittance giant Western Union had advised its customers to use its mobile app to send money home.

“But Hanpass is overtaking Western Union here in Korea during this lockdown,” Piedad observes.

Only a few provinces, cities and municipalities under the Philippines’s ECQ coverage have allowed money transfer operators (MTOs), especially pawnshops that are payout agents of firms like Western Union and MoneyGram, to open. All banks are closed in ECQ-covered areas.

For many areas with no banks, pawnshops and MTOs are the quickest ways to receive remittance transfers. Seven of 10 Filipino households get their foreign remittances from MTOs, according to the 2018 National Migration Survey of the Philippine Statistics Authority.

Institutional support

DURING crises, the Philippine government has built in place its government agencies and their packages of economic and social programs and services for distressed overseas Filipinos. The Philippine government is used to repatriating distressed workers and providing other assistance-to-nationals (ATN) services, the latter through the embassies and consulates.

As early as late-January, when China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan ordered travel bans, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (Owwa) had given P10,000 cash assistance to individual OFWs stranded in the Philippines.

The Filipino workers in Wuhan, China (the epicenter of Covid-19) were bravely sent home by Filipino diplomatic personnel. The same repatriation service was accorded unto the Filipino seafarers and some passengers onboard Diamond Princess.

At the moment, the DFA has over-60 full-fledged embassies and consulates. Owwa has welfare officers in 16 countries (including countries with multiple welfare officers given the size of the Filipino population in a certain country). Owwa’s regional offices are operational; they also work with local government units (especially if they have migrant desk officers) during repatriation and reintegration assistance to returning OFWs.

The Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) has some seven social welfare attaches who can backstop the DOLE’s 46 labor attaches, the latter found in 30 destination countries.

Assisting workers

THE Philippines is not like other countries sending out migrants, given its organized “migration management” bureaucracy to help overseas Filipinos in need.

Its agencies have even incorporated crisis management in programs and services. Assisting Filipino migrant workers during the crisis brought about by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS, 2002) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-Coronavirus (MERS-Cov, 2013) are examples.

But is this Covid-19 pandemic the biggest test yet for the Philippine migration bureaucracy?

“It is a bit early to state that,” said political scientist and migration analyst Jean Encinas-Franco of the University of the Philippines. “Historically, our migration management system has been resilient given that crises of varying nature have affected Filipino migrants abroad.”

However, the economic impacts of Covid-19 in destination countries will be similar, or even heftier, than the 2008 global economic crisis. Job cuts in these countries are expected. Filipino migrant workers, “especially the undocumented and who are in the formal sector…are in peril,” Franco said.

“The Philippine government must start to assess this as soon as possible,” she added.

Novel approaches

FOR now, the locked-down overseas Filipinos are creating surviving measures at home and abroad.

Even while Oviedo in Spain only has a few cases, NiceAnn found a way to send a higher remittance amount recently; usually, she sends between P15,000 and P18,000 to Cebu City.

“My family needs [food] stock, plus I gave extra help to our neighbors who do not have much resources [walang wala].”

Tina, for two years, had been operating a palay-credit business for fellow overseas Filipinos from Cagayan de Oro, taking orders via Facebook. A cavan is worth P2,350; and up to 80 cavans are being sold monthly.

But since Cagayan de Oro City’s own ECQ recently, Tina instructed her children to stop rice lending and loan collection. And the sacks of rice on deck at home? “That’s their [my children’s] supply for the meantime,” Tina said.

Even on normal days, “no worries for us,” Rhiza said.

Her family has “lots of palay and pigs.” When the spread of African swine fever (ASF) forced Rhiza’s husband to slaughter their pigs, “now we have stock of meat; we have our vegetables, too.”

Rhiza is even ready when the country’s international gateways re-open and she can go back to Singapore. She was able to buy some alcohol in Santa Ignacia prior to March 16.

Optimism remains

‘YOUR daughter’s a nurse?” Divina’s Indian employer asked. The mother of the special child bought 500 surgical masks and gave some to Divina. Divina in turn asked Rhiza to bring these masks home and send to daughter Babyruth by post.

“Your daughter can even share these to her classmates who may not have masks,” the Indian employer told Divina.

As of late, Divina has taken to reading paperback fiction novels.

Given how her stomach “works,” she eats little rice but with some meat or fish at lunch time, and then fruits at night. But her ward is not left behind.

Yet Divina still smiles to endure all this stress in the world.

“Don’t think negatively too much. Do not panic,” she says. “You will only get sick. Don’t let nerves get ahead of you.”

In today’s world that Covid-19 overflowed with panic and negativity, the overseas Filipino spirit is being pushed to the limits. Though many of them and their families have some financial resources, the months ahead for overseas Filipinos—filled with job cuts, diminished incomes and nearly-wiped out savings—will be crucial.

But “I am always ready,” Divina says. “That’s how positive I still am.”

“We continue working, whatever happens. That’s how we Filipinos abroad are.”

Image Credits: MIAA Media Affairs via AP, AP/Jae C. Hong

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