MANILA - Hundreds of repatriated Filipino workers made their way to bus and airport terminals on Tuesday to return to families, the first among around 24,000 nationals stuck for weeks in the capital's quarantine facilities, hotels and aboard cruise ships.
Weary but happy, the returnees queued or dozed in bus stations and at Manila's airport, awaiting transport to home provinces. Many have lost jobs abroad as the coronavirus batters economies worldwide.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has told his government to do everything possible to process within a week the thousands of returnees, some of whom tested negative for the coronavirus and completed the mandatory 14-day quarantine long ago.
The authorities blame testing bottlenecks for the quarantine delays, including those experienced by thousands of Filipino crew of more than two dozen cruise ships moored for weeks in Manila Bay.
Among those hit by the crisis was English teacher Anna Marie Del Carmen, who has been stuck in the capital for two months since her repatriation from Thailand.
"It feels really good. It's like finally being free from jail, but I learned a lot while being under lockdown, and I met and became friends with a lot of people," she said.
"So it was both a sad and a happy experience now that we are all going our separate ways."
Overseas Filipino workers, better known locally as OFWs, are breadwinners and a key support base of Duterte.
Their more than $30 billion of annual remittances is an important driver of the Philippine economy, sustaining millions of family members.
More than 30,000 overseas Filipinos have returned home and 515 of 27,000 tested for coronavirus were positive as of a week ago, authorities said.
Roughly 10 million Filipinos work or have settled overseas, with large communities in North America, the Middle East and Europe.