Coronavirus: Philippines lifts travel ban for domestic helpers as one in HK tests positive for virus, taking total number of confirmed cases in city to 61

19-Feb-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

The Philippines lifted its coronavirus travel ban on domestic helpers on Tuesday, hours after it was confirmed one had tested positive for the virus in Hong Kong, taking the total number of cases in the city to 61.

The country’s Department of Foreign Affairs’ undersecretary for civilian security and consular concerns, Dodo Dulay, announced in a tweet that overseas Filipino workers could return to Hong Kong and Macau, as they were now exempt from the ban.

Earlier, a source told the Post that a Filipino woman whose employer had previously been diagnosed with the coronavirus had been infected.

She was being treated at Pamela Youde Nethersole Eastern Hospital in Chai Wan. Her employer, a 67-year-old woman, was confirmed as infected on February 13.

The latest victim initially tested negative for the virus, but returned a positive result three days later, the source said.

Health authorities previously revealed that the employer had been to a meal at Star Seafood Restaurant in North Point, which 29 people attended. At least five other people who were there had already been diagnosed as infected.

Hong Kong is home to more than 380,000 foreign domestic workers. Most of them are from the Philippines and Indonesia.

“[Overseas Filipino workers] returning for work in Hong Kong and Macau have been exempted from the outbound travel ban… subject to certain procedural formalities,” Dulay tweeted.

Migrant groups had urged the government to let them return to the cities, as many feared losing their job, while some wanted to reunite with their families.

At the beginning of the month, Manila issued a temporary ban on travel to China, including Hong Kong and Macau.

The move to safeguard the country against the coronavirus epidemic came after the Philippines had its first confirmed coronavirus-linked death.

Filipino nationals have been allowed to return home, but they have been subject to a 14-day quarantine, while thousands of domestic workers and other nationals were left stranded in the Philippines.

Grace Sheila Estrada, chairperson of the Progressive Labour Union of Domestic Workers in Hong Kong, received the news with caution. She noted that the ban had not been completely lifted and that more details were needed from the Philippine government, as well as those of Hong Kong and Macau.

“It’s a positive move, but we need a clearer understanding… It seems that it only applies to those who already have contracts… And we don’t know if we are going to be quarantined or not when we arrive,” she said.

The union leader also said it could be difficult to get flights to Hong Kong and Macau. Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific had previously announced they would not fly to China, including Hong Kong and Macau, until the end of March.

“Those stranded in the Philippines already cancelled their flights… many workers will try to book their flights again… it may be hard,” Estrada said.

She said that, according to numbers from different unions and rights groups, there were about 10,000 migrant workers, residents and students waiting to return to Hong Kong and another 4,000 to 5,000 waiting to be allowed back to Macau.

Last month, the domestic-worker community in Hong Kong hit out at the Labour Department after it encouraged them to stay at home on their rest days as much as possible.

Some said the statement was discriminatory, as they said it insinuated their community was particularly prone to the virus.

Noting that anyone could contract the coronavirus, Dolores Balladares-Pelaez, chairwoman of the Filipino Migrant Workers’ Union, said she hoped the newest case would not fuel discrimination against domestic workers in the city.

“We should not be discriminated against because of something like this,” she said, adding that the case should not be used by employers or the local government to restrict the workers’ ability to rest.

“It’s still not appropriate to stop the domestic workers from going out and not giving a day off,” the union leader said.

Balladares-Pelaez said some domestic workers had been neglected by their employers during the outbreak.

“There are domestic workers complaining they are not being given masks or had sanitisers while at home [doing their jobs]. This must be provided by employers,” she said. “Otherwise, we are forced to buy expensive masks. That is a problem for us because our wages are very low and it may cost us HK$300 to HK$400 a box.”

But Betty Yung Ma Shan-yee, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Employers of Overseas Domestic Helpers’ Association, said many employers had provided workers with masks and sanitisers, adding that many also told the workers to minimise going out, in some cases buying enough groceries to last a week during each trip to the shops.

“Employers are concerned about the health of their workers because they live in the same house and have close contact,” she said.

Yung agreed with the Labour Department’s statement that domestic workers should stay at home on rest days, but said it was important for employers not to give them work to do on those days.

Meanwhile, Philippine consul general Raly Tejada said diplomats were still trying to get an official confirmation from Hong Kong’s Department of Health over the newest case.

“If indeed a Filipino is confirmed as infected, the consulate will spare no effort in rendering assistance,” he said. “Given that patients are under isolation, we will officially liaise with the Hong Kong health department on the health protocols in place so that we can be informed of the specific things we can do for our national.”

Tejada said the consulate had distributed about 18,000 masks so far to Filipino nationals in Hong Kong.

“We will soon give out more as soon as supplies are available. Rest assured that the Philippine government is doing its utmost best to procure more supplies,” he said.


Category: Philippines

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