Bring them home

The city of Al Khobar in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, currently the largest hirer of overseas Filipino workers, and has the largest Filipino population in the Middle East.

LOSING a loved one abroad, and not being able to say good-bye properly, is a most painful experience. Worse than this is learning that there’s no way one can ever pay one’s respects to the dearly departed, because the laws of the foreign land forbid cremation—which would have made it easier to transport the remains. Thus, they will be buried there.

This is the dilemma that has led families of more than a hundred overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in the past week to storm the gates of heaven and of Malacañang, begging the Philippine government to recall its decision not to bring home the remains of 107 such workers who succumbed to Covid-19 in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Department of Foreign Affairs personnel assist 345 Filipino repatriates, all crew members of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines who arrived at the Clark International Airport on June 6, 2020.

Instead, the government will focus on bringing home the remains of more than 200 others who died of natural causes, while promising to provide all the benefits due the Covid victims’ families, such as those provided by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA).

The Philippine government decision was understandable, given the rigorous arrangements required in bringing home a cadaver—not just one, but 107—of Covid victims, to cut the risk of infection.

For one thing, people who die even of just “suspected Covid-19” in the Philippines have been required to be cremated within 12 hours, with no wakes allowed and the families given just brief moments to say their good-byes. A painful thought, indeed, compounding the earlier anguish of not having been allowed to care for them in the hospital, until their dying moments.

Thus, it was not surprising that the Philippine government, through the Department of Labor and Employment, announced that only the non-Covid remains of OFWs will be brought home from Saudi, which hosts the biggest number of OFWs worldwide.

IATF relents

On Friday morning, however, the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) did a turnaround and announced that Manila will, after all, bring home even the bodies of the Covid-19 victims.

However, in response to a BusinessMirror query earlier on Thursday, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said that if the Covid dead will be allowed to be transported to the Philippines, these would have to be completely sealed.

“It can’t be opened and has to be buried soon, within 24 hours, once it arrives in the country. Relatives can’t open the sealed casket anymore,” Vergeire told the BusinessMirror.

Following the announcement on Friday that even Covid victims’ remains  will be brought home by the Philippine government, Vergeire reiterated that proper handling of the body should be done.

“Closely sealed casket can’t be opened anymore once sealed; bury or cremate as soon as the remains arrive in Manila. Relatives will not be allowed to open the casket anymore,” Vergeire said.

When asked if the move is just proper and would somehow help ease the pain of the family members, Vergeire said, “It was a decision made by our government with the government of Saudi Arabia, there would be specific reasons. And as what was stated…because cremation is not allowed in Saudi Arabia.”

Infectious-disease specialist Dr. Rontgene Solante, meanwhile, said that cadavers of those who died from Covid-19 pose no hazard to the personnel who will facilitate the air transport, if these are sealed.

Wala namang health risk ’yan habang sa eroplano kasi, halimbawa sealed casket wala namanpero dahil sa batas, hindi ita-travel ang bangkay [through plane] unless i-cremate [It poses no health risk in the plane if it’s in a sealed casket…however, because of the law, a cadaver can’t be transported by air unless it’s cremated],” Solante said.

For the requirements of repatriation of human remains in the country for deaths related to Covid-19, the Bureau of Quarantine reserves the right to allow or disallow the transport of human remains whose death occurred during epidemics/outbreaks, or if the cause of death is due to a highly pathogenic organism, infectious disease subject to international health regulations, emerging or re-emerging disease, and a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (Philippine Department of Health Memorandum 2020-67).

According to existing rules, if transport is allowed for the human remains concerned, the following measures shall be undertaken as the case may be to ensure public health safety:

• The remains shall be cremated before shipment; or

• For remains that do not require cremation, the casket shall be permanently and hermetically sealed from the port of origin until burial.  The burial must take place within 24 hours after the issuance of clearance of admission into the country.

Pag Covid confirmed, ang patakaran diyan talagang ’di na iuuwi ang bangkay, dapat cremation. If Muslim, ililibing within 24 hours din [If Covid, the rules that have been set are, that the corpse will not be transported but cremated. If the deceased is a Muslim, it is buried within 24 hours],” Solante said.

He also cited the guidelines of the Department of Health in handling the cadaver of the person who died of Covid:

1. All personnel handling the cadaver shall wear personal protective equipment (PPE) while performing their task. All PPE should be disposed of after use. The PPE is important as possible health risks like fluid contamination or splashes could enter through the mucus membrane or skin of the health worker.

2. Cremation shall be done within 12 hours to prevent undue decay of the body in the crematorium and possible source of contamination.

3. When transporting the body to the mortuary, it should be properly packed, wrapped in an airtight impermeable cadaver bag, leakproof and be zipped or closed tightly with tapes and bandage strips.

4. At no instance shall unzipping of the cadaver bag of the body and removal permitted until it reaches the funeral home.

It may be noted that some of the frontliners of the DOLE and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in Philippine posts abroad have themselves gotten ill—two diplomats have succumbed to Covid-19—and, as noted in last week’s Senate Labor committee hearing, the OFWs in distress abroad have become increasingly desperate, as the government people helping them have been stretched thinly and forced to reduce duty hours in some cases.

Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the logistical nightmare—not to mention the anxiety from the infection risks—that DFA and DOLE people will face in implementing the repatriation of the remains, including Covid victims, in KSA.

At presstime, the DFA was negotiating with the Saudi government to extend the 72-hour deadline given by the king for Manila to bring home its dead.

Midway through the frenzy of repatriation, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. had said the DOLE and the DFA are doing what they do because the nation must prove that no one will be left behind among the OFWs.

Against all odds—lack of resources, lockdowns and stringent rules in host countries, lean manpower threatened by infection —they have brought home nearly 60,000 displaced OFWs, and an almost equal number remains in line, waiting to be brought home.

Daily, the anxiety levels rise, and the KSA dilemma poses yet another serious challenge.

The IATF has decided to allow the repatriation even of the Covid dead, and to their families in the Philippines, the thought that their final resting place will be at home may at least ease the pain somewhat. On CNN Philippines, one widow of a man who succumbed to Covid had cried that her three-year-old daughter couldn’t understand why her dad no longer responded to her repeated calls on the mobile phone, after he was intubated.

Now, he is gone, their tears adding to this bottomless well of pain among all those hit by the pandemic. Their only comfort, as of Friday, is the commitment of Philippine authorities to bring home all the OFW dead, by whatever means possible.

Image credits: DFA-OUMWA


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