DOLE to raise with IATF families' appeal to fly home Saudi OFWs who died of COVID-19

Katrina Domingo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jun 24 2020 08:44 PM | Updated as of Jun 25 2020 12:25 AM

MANILA - The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) on Wednesday said it would present to the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases the appeal of several families to repatriate remains of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who died from COVID-19 in Saudi Arabia.

The government had decided to bury the bodies of Filipino COVID-19 fatalities in the Middle Eastern country as health regulations prohibit the transport of deceased COVID-19 patients, unless these are cremated. 

The deceased OFWs could not be cremated as Saudi Arabian culture prohibits cremation.

"The decision is to bury the COVID-related deaths in Saudi pero medyo malakas ang panawagan ng mga kamag-anak (but there's a strong appeal from relatives)," Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said in a hybrid Senate committee hearing.

"I will present the letter of the relatives to the IATF tomorrow, baka sakaling magbago ang isip (maybe it would change their minds)," he said, noting that the government is prepared to send 2 airplanes to retrieve the bodies.

There are 257 Filipino corpses in Saudi Arabia that need to be repatriated. Of these remains, 107 were COVID-19 patients while the rest died of natural causes, Bello said.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia's King Salman gave the Philippines 72 hours to retrieve the OFWs' bodies.

International health regulators require all persons who died from infectious diseases to be cremated before being transported to other countries, Health Undersecretary Mario Villaverde said.

"Kailangan sa origin pa lang [cremated na]. Otherwise, may potential for some form of decomposition kahit well-preserved 'yung body at may potential na maka-contaminate din 'yun," he said.

(It has to be cremated in the area of origin. Otherwise, there is still potential for some form of decomposition even if the body is well-preserved and that can also be a cause of contamination.)

The Department of Health (DOH) will look into World Health Organization guidelines that the Philippines may use to justify the transport of uncremated COVID-19 corpses, Villaverde said.

As of June 23, 508 OFWs have died from COVID-19, according to data from the Department of Foreign Affairs.