MANILA, Philippines >> The Philippines lifted a deadline for thousands of foreign travelers to leave the northern third of the country, including the capital, after quarantining the region due to an increase in coronavirus infections, officials said Wednesday.
The monthlong quarantine declared by President Rodrigo Duterte requires people to stay mostly at home and restricts land, air and sea travel for one month on Luzon, the main and most populated island in the archipelago of more than 100 million people. But the restrictions caused initial confusion and traffic jams, and the suspension of public transport stranded many health workers and emergency personnel.
Philippine officials initially asked foreign travelers, including tourists, to leave Luzon within 72 hours because all flights from the region would eventually be suspended. An inter-agency group dealing with the health crisis, however, said the deadline had been lifted and foreigners could leave Luzon anytime.
“We don’t want to give them pressure because it’ll be more difficult for them, so we opened up,” Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles told a late-evening televised news conference.
Any foreign travelers in Luzon may face limited options for staying as mass transportation was suspended and more businesses decide to close. Some airlines have cancelled international flights, complicating the problems of outbound travelers.
A medical student from India, Abhishek Mishari, said he and dozens of fellow Indian students wanted to go home but could not because of virus-related restrictions in India. “We’re just stuck here … we are just afraid of coronavirus spreading over here,” the 22-year-old told The Associated Press outside Manila’s international airport.
The Philippines has reported 187 cases of infection with the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the Department of Health, which confirmed Tuesday that one of its officials was among those sickened. Fourteen people have died, the most in Southeast Asia.
While the virus can be deadly, particularly for the elderly and people with other health problems, for most people it causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. Some feel no symptoms at all and the vast majority of people recover.
The drastic moves announced by Duterte on Monday night caught many by surprise.
Hundreds of taxis were stopped by police along metropolitan Manila’s main EDSA highway for violating the transport ban and made to wait for hours in long rows on the sidelines. Many drivers said they were unaware of the ban and were eventually allowed to leave without fines.
“I’m the breadwinner of my family. If I don’t work for a month, will the government help me put food on our table, pay our house rent and our bills?” asked one of the taxi drivers, Jun Vergara. “We support this lockdown but we want to know if the government will help us survive it.”
Only one member of a family can leave home to buy food, officials said, but many establishments were closed Tuesday and long lines of people waited in front of supermarkets in metropolitan Manila.
Police and army troops stopped traffic at checkpoints to see if motorists had fevers and if they were among those allowed under quarantine rules to be out of their homes. Some argued heatedly with law enforcers after being stopped and ordered to go back.
Health workers and other employees allowed to report for work complained there were no buses or passenger jeeps to take them to work. Army trucks were later deployed to ferry them, officials said.
“These are first-day kinks. We’ll fix them,” Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya said.
Aside from the containment effort, Duterte declared all of the Philippines in a state of calamity for six months to allow the faster release of emergency funds.