If being quarantined is hell for most people, David Borja has made it a way of life. As a seafarer for more than 20 years, he is used to being adrift at sea for up to eight months at a time, before touching ground. To keep sane, he, like the rest of his fellow seamen, busy themselves with a ton of work. “Para sa pamilya, titiisin mo ang lahat”, he says.
But David’s most recent trip has so far been the longest. He was cooped up inside their oil tanker ship for 10 months straight before finally dropping anchor in Iran. The pandemic made matters worse: the Iranian government prohibited the seafarers from leaving the vessel. They had to stay quarantined for another month before securing flights back to their respective countries. “Isang buwan kaming naka-anchor lang ‘dun,” he recalls. “Busy pa rin kaming nagtratrabaho. Tuloy-tuloy lang iyong trabaho.”
If you think their trip back to the Philippines is the end of this over-extended journey, you can’t be more wrong. Upon arrival, David, was transported directly to a hotel to serve another quarantine sentence. By Friday, May 8, David and his 12 companions had already quarantined for 10 days. In reality, except for the flight home, they have not been out for over 11 months. “Siyempre medyo mabigat”, he admits. “Pero for safety kailangan tiisin.”
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Because of the NCR lockdown, the seafarers have not been allowed outside their rooms. Their only human contact is the person who brings their meals, and medical personnel who checks their temperature three times daily. To fight homesickness and pass the time, David video calls with his wife and three kids the whole day.
David is just one of thousands of seafarers quarantined at hotels, and inside their ships right now in Manila. Over at Manila Bay, some 5,000 Filipino seafarers on board 17 ships are also quarantined. The Philippine Coast Guard says it is expecting over 40 thousand seafarers to anchor at Manila Bay, as the pandemic temporarily halts many shipping operations.
The trouble with a homecoming
A seafarer’s woes doesn’t end when he’s cleared of COVID. After quarantine, there’s the process of going home, and the question of being allowed to enter their hometown. Last April 26, the first batch of 391 seamen stranded in Manila were finally granted their wish: to be able to go home to their provinces. Ian Ceasar Frias, a crew-member of the ill-fated Diamond Princess, and previously positive with COVID-19, was in that voyage. Despite donating his plasma twice (to help COVID patients) and testing negative before leaving for Manila and upon arrival in Dumaguete, he was still quarantined for 14 days. On top of suffering the long wait, being quarantined has taken a toll on his health. His blood tests showed an elevated level of cholesterol due to inactivity and his diet while in quarantine.
While Ian is slated to reunite with his family in Bais, Negros Oriental tonight, close to 3 months after arriving in the country, his shipmate was not as lucky—his LGU refused to accept him (the seaman refused to be interviewed). He is the last member of the Diamond Princess cruise ship still in Manila.
President and CEO of Magsaysay Group, Doris Ho, says cruise companies are doing everything to comply with government regulations in the matter of COVID-19 safety. “The cause of the long wait to get crew to disembark and overstay in hotels is because many LGUs will not welcome them home even if quarantine periods and PCR tests have been completed.” She laments that the very stringent requirements might come off as the opposite of the appreciative welcome our seafarers deserve. “Yes, we must be careful... and yes everyone is fearful. But once government protocols are complied with, shouldn't we all, especially the LGUs, be welcoming our kakabayans who have contributed so much to our local communities—and who have endured so much in this plight that COVID-19 has caused—with kindness and open arms?”
To hear Ho say it, the Filipino cruise personnel are among our most prized exports. They have been sending to the Philippines at least USD 1 billion of the 7 billion inward remittances from Filipino seafarers. They also provide for their families, contribute to their local economies, and to the country’s GDP. “The balance of USD 6.0 billion are remitted by seafarers on commercial ships. These seafarers are essential workers—frontliners who work on merchant ships that continue to deliver 90 percent of everything the global population uses in our daily lives.”
Meanwhile to speed up the process of disembarkation, the new arrivals at Manila Bay are no longer billeted at hotels. Instead the Philippine Coast Guard immediately conducts swab tests that turn up in just two to three days. Out of over 5,000 seafarers currently docked, more than 2,000 have already been tested. Once cleared, a seafarer can immediately go home to his province. But if found positive, they are turned over to the Department of Health (DOH). The Coast Guard declined to disclose how many have turned up positive to date. But they have over a thousand medical personnel working round the clock, to attend to the seafarers.
“Pagod na rin sila at walang matulugan,” admitted PCG spokesperson Armando Balilo. “But we consider them (Filipino seafarers) heroes. So we have to assist them and give them what is due them. That is our attitude”.
The government’s effort is not lost on David and his comrades. He says they have been well taken care of by everyone— the government, their agency, and their company. Which is why, despite the cabin fever, they are fully cooperating with the quarantine protocol.
In fact, once home in Laguna, and despite being away for a year, David plans to self-isolate for yet another week. “Para lang po makasiguro”, he explains. “Mahirap na kasi, hindi mo masabi sa biyahe pauwi, baka ma-expose ka”.
Besides, what’s another week, he reasons, when he would soon be safely reunited with family.