DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 08 July) – Stranded in Manila for months due to the COVID-19 lockdowns, 499 persons bound for home in the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-tawi, availed of the national government’s “Hatid-Tulong Program,” that sent them off on a ship that docked July 7 in Cagayan de Oro City, at least half-a day’s travel by land to Zamboanga City, the nearest port of disembarkation for the islanders.
Naguib Sinarimbo, Bangsamoro Minister of Local Governments, said he was surprised to receive a message Tuesday afternoon that at least 400 residents of the island provinces were “dropped off” at the port of Cagayan de Oro that same afternoon. “I cannot understand why we were not notified ahead of time or why these locally stranded individuals (LSIs) bound for the island provinces would have to be brought to Cagayan de Oro instead of Zamboanga, the closest port of entry to the islands,” he wrote on his Facebook page late Tuesday night.
Sinarimbo said 414 islanders arrived in Cagayan de Oro but as validated by the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) in Northern Mindanao, where Cagayan de Oro is, the total number is 499: 354 from Basilan, 101 from Sulu and 44 from Tawi-tawi.
Of the 499, there are 40 children with ages ranging from four months to eight years old.
Sinarimbo said the BARMM hired 17 buses to ferry the residents from Cagayan de Oro City to Zamboanga City on Thursday, July 9 but on Wednesday noon, the plans had to be changed.
Sinarimbo told MindaNews Wednesday night that the 499 stranded residents will be transported by bus from Cagayan de Oro to Sultan Kudarat in Maguindanao where they will stay in the quarantine facilities, including the 100-bed Sanitarium they had prepared, undergo swabbing for the Reverse Transcription-Polymerase Chain Reaction (RT-PCR) test and those who test negative will be allowed to board the naval vessels that would bring them direct to their islands. Those who test positive will undergo treatment until they recover and are fit to travel.
“It was explained to them”
Assistant Secretary Joseph Encabo of the Presidential Management Staff, the officer in charge of this latest government initiative intended to help some 5,000 LSIs return to their respective provinces, told MindaNews that the passengers on board 2Go Shipping’s MV St. Pope John Paul, were informed they would dock in Cagayan de Oro.
“It was explained to them. Di na maka-proceed ang 2Go kasi ang barko (It could not proceed to Zamboanga because the boat) is compelled to dock due to cargoes to be unloaded. More so, the vessel is required to be back in Manila kasi need to ferry passengers as schedule(d),” Encabo told MindaNews in a text message Tuesday night.
“If mag-proceed sa Zambo, magkaroon ng delay sa turnaround time and in effect, magkakaroon ng increase of stranded passengers” (If it proceeds to Zamboanga, there would be a delay in the turnaround time and in effect, there will be an increase in the number of stranded passengers), Encabo said.
MindaNews asked Encabo via text message how the islanders would be brought to their respective provinces, if Hatid-Tulong will take care of their food as well, what it would do given that Basilan had just announced that it was temporarily suspending receiving LSIs until July 21 and Tawi-tawi had just suspended transport to the island after it reported its first COVID-19 case. MindaNews also asked if Hatid-Tulong coordinated with the receiving local government units and if they were merely administered rapid tests instead of the RT-PCR test before leaving Manila.
Encabo replied: “Nasa event lang ako. Will call you bukas.” MindaNews sent the same set of questions on Wednesday but Encabo has not replied as of 9 p.m. Wednesday.
A July 4 report by the state-run Philippine News Agency said “more than 5,000” LSIS would be helped by the “Hatid-Tulong Program” and that around 3,570 LSIs bound for Mindanao “benefited from the program on July 4, with another batch of nearly 2,000 bound for Luzon and Visayas scheduled to be transported on July 5.”
LSIs bound for Caraga were not included because a moratorium on receiving LSIs from June 22 to July 4, following the surge of cases from only eight on June 4 to 87 on June 22, according to data from the regional health office’s Center for Health Development.
As of July 7, the number of cases in Caraga region, despite the moratorium, had reached 176.
“This day we have (sent LSIs to) Mindanao except for the Caraga Region and tomorrow we will be accommodating LSI’s bound for Luzon and other islands in Visayas and Palawan,” the PNA report quoted Encabo as saying.
The report did not say how many ships were used to accommodate the 3,570 passengers bound for Mindanao, given the minimum health protocols required such as physical distancing.
According to Encabo, the “Hatid Tulong Program” follows a “whole-of-government” approach to provide transportation to those stranded in Metro Manila who want to return home to their provinces, the Department of Social Welfare and Development extending financial support and food package assistance, while the Office of the President and the Office of Senator Bong Go also donated food packages.
Apparently the “whole-of-government” approach was only at the national level and not at the regional and provincial level as Sinarimbo said he received the information on the arrivals on the same afternoon the LSIs arrived in Cagayan de Oro.
Sinarimbo said he informed the Governors of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi about the arrivals in Cagayan de Oro.
“Give us time to prepare”
Basilan Governor Jim S. Hataman Salliman told MindaNews Wednesday night that they were informed about the arrival of over 300 stranded residents from Manila only when these residents had arrived in Cagayan de Oro.
“We are asking the Hatid Tulong people to give us time to prepare for the facilities – quarantine area particulary for them only because almost all our quarantine areas at the city and municipal level are full,” he said.
He said this is the reason why they asked the National Task Force Against COVID-19 to give them “15 days breathing space” so they could declog their quarantine areas. He said many of their frontliners dealing with the LSIs and inter-agency task force members are on quarantine, having been exposed to the LSIs.
Their request for a 15-day moratorium on the repatriation of LSIs “to allow our frontliners to recoup their strength and to continuously capacitate the LGUs to reinforce our machineries, bracing it for the next state n our fight against COVID-19” was approved by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzan, the chief of the National Task Force Against COVID-19.
Basilan’s COVID-19 cases surged from only one on June 1 to 18 on June 30, 28 on July 5 and 48 on July 7, according to records form the Bangsamoro Ministry of Health.
The PNA report also quoted Encabo as saying the program has preventive measures to avoid transmission of the disease.
“We provide them (LSIs) medical check-ups, we observe health protocols and at the same time, we assist them on the renewal of their expired travel authority,” the report quoted him as saying.
According to Encabo, the report said, the LSIs underwent rapid diagnostic testing for COVID-19.
Secretary Carlito Galvez, Presidential Peace Adviser and Chief Implementer of the National Task Force Against COVID-19, and Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque had earlier said that in response to complaints from Local Government Units that the arrival of LSIs and returning overseas Filipinos (ROFs) without proper health protocols from the point of departure had caused a surge in the number of COVID-19 cases, the new policy is no LSI would be allowed to return to their provinces without undergoing the RT-PCR tests, the gold standard for testing COVID-19.
Change of plans
Sinarimbo said the plan to bring the islanders stranded in Cagayan de Oro to Zamboanga City was scrapped Wednesday noon upon receiving word from Zamboanga City that the buses should proceed to the seaport for passengers to board the boats for home.
“It is impossible to bring them to Zamboanga as the requirement of Mayor Beng (Climaco) that the LSIs, now further stranded in CDO, should be brought directly to the port of Zamboanga and be fetched by the provincial governors is not feasible,” said Sinsarimbo, also spokesperson of the Bangsamoro region and head of the BARMM’s Rapid Emergency Action on Disaster Incidence
MindaNews sought Climaco Wednesday night if they would be able to accommodate the arrivals from Cagayan de Oro but she has yet to send a reply.
Zamboanga City has the second highest number of cases (after Davao City) across Mindanao’s 27 provinces and 33 cities. As of July 7, the Center for Health Development in the Zamboanga Peninsula region had recorded 327 COVID-19 cases, 249 of these in Zamboanga City.
“We do not want these LSIs to be left in a situation where they will further be stranded somewhere in the boundaries of LGUs (local government units) where they will not be allowed to enter and it becomes very difficult for the Bangsamoro autonomous government to provide them assistance,” Sinarimbo said, adding, “hirap na po yang mga tao na yan eh mas lalo pa silang mahihirapan. May mga maliliit pa naman na bata dyan.” (These people have been suffering and will be suffering some more. There are children among them).
Sinarimbo said Lt. General Cirilito Sobejana, chief of the Western Mindaao Command has committed to provide three naval boats to ferry the islanders from the Polloc Port in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao to their respective provinces, but asked that they be administered RT-PCR tests first.
“Assistance to our fellowmen”
Cagayan de Oro City again lived up to its claim as the “City of Golden Friendship” by providing transportation from the port to the gym of the state-run University of Science and Technology of Southern Philippines where the islanders were temporarily sheltered. The city also gave food.
The Provincial Government of Lanao del Sur, the Bangsamoro province nearest to Cagayan de Oro (some three hours travel by car), also quickly responded to calls for food on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Jennie Tamano, Provincial Information Officer said Governor Mamintal Adiong, Jr. directed the Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office to immediately respond to the needs of the islander LSIs.
The PDRRMO staff checked on their condition, and distributed dinner and water to them Tuesday and breakfast on Wednesday, Tamano said.
“As Muslims and public servants, it is our duty to ensure that we provide assistance to our fellowmen at any time and wherever they may be should they need it,” Governor Adiong said.
“The 2017 Marawi siege experience taught us the importance of immediately responding to the needs of our people because we know how it feels to be hopeless and helpless in times of crisis.” Adiong said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas with a report from Richel V. Umel / MindaNews)