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Philippines lifts deadline for foreigners to leave region

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MANILA (AP) — The Philippine government lifted a 72-hour deadline for thousands of foreign travelers to leave the country’s main northern region, which has been placed under quarantine due to a growing number of coronavirus infections, officials said Wednesday.

Foreigners wearing protective masks prepare to enter the departure area of Manila’s international airport on Wednesday.  AP

President Rodrigo Duterte declared what he is calling an “enhanced community quarantine” on the main island of Luzon that requires millions of people to stay mostly at home and restricts land, air and sea travel to fight the Covid-19 disease.

The monthlong containment, which took effect Tuesday and applies to a third of the archipelago of more than 100 million people, restricted public movement and caused confusion and stranded many health workers and emergency personnel after mass public transport was suspended.

Philippine officials initially asked foreign travelers, including tourists, to leave Luzon, where the capital Manila is located, within 72 hours to avoid being stranded because all flights from the densely populated region would eventually be suspended.

An inter-agency group dealing with the health crisis, however, announced late Tuesday that the deadline had been lifted and foreigners could leave Luzon anytime during the monthlong quarantine.

“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.

Still, many travelers faced problems, including the suspension of public mass transport in Luzon. Some airlines have cancelled international flights, complicating the problems of outbound travelers.

The Philippines has reported 187 cases of infections, 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, which include the suspension of mass transport, caught many by surprise and sparked traffic jams and confusion in many areas.

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.

 


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