DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 27 July) – A total of 2,753 Mindanawons stranded in Manila were sent home by bus or boat from July 25 to 27 while another 1,800 will leave Manila on Tuesday, the chief of the Hatid Tulong Initiative (HTI) said.
Assistant Secretary Joseph Encabo of the Presidential Management Staff (PMS), head of the HTI, in a telephone interview told MindaNews on Monday that a total of 1,903 locally stranded individuals (LSIs) were sent home by boat or bus on Saturday and Sunday: 724 bound for Region 12 (Soccsksargen), 517 in Region 11 (Davao region), 316 in Caraga and 246 in Region 10 (Northern Mindanao).
Encabo said 850 LSIs from Caraga boarded a ship bound for home Monday evening while on Tuesday, 900 more bound for Caraga will leave Manila and another 900 bound for Region 9 (Western Mindanao), by boat.
HTI is a project of the Office of the President and the Department of Transportation and Communications to provide transport for locally stranded individuals (LSIs) who want to return home. Due to social distancing, Encabo said, boats can accommodate only 1,000 passengers out of what would have been 1,900 capacity while buses can accommodate only 20 to 23 passengers each.
The LSIs bound for Mindanao comprised the bulk of those who waited for their ride home in the jampacked Rizal Memorial Sports Complex in Manila.
Photographs of the people waiting on the bleachers without social distancing raised fears of widespread infection of COVID-19.
Encabo said they “accept and recognize” the criticisms but explained that they were able to address the problem of social distancing hours later.
“The snapshot of a picture does not tell the entire story,” he said.
Encabo said the photographs published in the newspapers and social media show a jampacked sports complex but from afar, some of the boxes and bags “mura mag tao” (looked like people). He claimed the bags were used by the people as “shield” to maintain distance.
Encabo explained that they decided to allow the people to enter the sports complex because of the heavy downpour. Instead of letting them stay out there on the streets, the passengers were allowed inside the complex “to give them shelter … the shade of the stadium,” particularly for the elderly, children and pregnant women.
He said social distancing would have been defeated also out on the streets as the people will still gather in one area to seek shelter from the rain.
He added that people entering the sports complex were sprayed with alcohol and were required to wear masks.
Before boarding the vehicles for home, passengers are made to undergo rapid tests. Those who test negative can proceed to travel while those who test positive are swabbed for the confirmatory Reverse Transcription-Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) test and are sent to a quarantine facility.
Asked why the passengers are not administered RT-PCR tests to ensure those who are positive of the virus will not spread the disease elsewhere, Encabo replied that the HTI Technical Working Group has no budget for RT-PCR testing, hence the resort to rapid tests.
RT-PCR is the gold standard for COVID-19 testing.
The local government units nation that will receive the LSIs home are mandated to swab the arrivals and ensure that they follow the 14-day quarantine period. The RT-PCR testing, he said, will be at the cost of the receiving LGU.
He said a number of LGUs informed them they would only accept a certain number of LSIs as they have limited quarantine facilities.
In Hatid Tulong’s “first wave” of send-off on July 4, rapid tests were also conducted before the passengers boarded the ship that would take them home.
Four hundred Mindanawons bound for Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi were among the passengers of a 2Go vessel that offloaded them in Cayan de Oro on July 7 instead of Zamboanga City. When the 405 were swabbed for RT-PCR testing upon arrival in Sulan Kudarat, Maguindanao in the early hours of July 10, a total of 120 tested positive for COVID-19.
Encabo said passengers who test negative are given a medical certificate and a travel pass and are given 2,000 pesos each by the Office of the President as “pabaon” (travel allowance).
Meals during travel, he said, are provided for by Hatid Tulong.
Those who take the bus to Mindanao, for example, stop in designated areas where packed food is handed over to the bus conductor who then distributes the meal inside the bus, he said.
According to Encabo, those who were not able to leave during this “second wave” of send-offs because of the cut-off number given by the LGUs, were brought to a housing facility of the National Housing Authority, there to await their schedule of departure. He said Hatid Tulong “will also provide them assistance like food.”
He said they will try to schedule their departure “within one month’s time.”
He said this would depend on the availability of transport resources. “We have to consider the turnaround time,” he said, for the ships to return to Manila and undergo maintenance.
For the buses, he said, the bus drivers and conductors have to undergo a 14-day quarantine when they reach Manila. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)