12 February 2020 - The initial announcement on the travel embargo, which included strict quarantine rules for visitors to the country who had been to China, released on Feb. 2 covered mainland China and its special administrative regions meaning Hong Kong and Macau.
This announcement was welcomed by the Filipino community in Taiwan, close to 160,000 strong, of which a little less than 150,000 are OFWs, as well as by Taiwanese businessmen who need to come periodically to the country to manage their investments in the Philippines.
Even if Taiwan was not included in the advisory, the Manila Economic and Cultural Office tightened its rules on the issuance of visas in order to prevent the possibility of some Taiwanese who may have visited China since mid-January from entering the Philippines. We required a certification from the National Immigration Agency of Taiwan, attesting per their records that the visa applicant did not visit the mainland during the proscribed period. After they present the certification, we stamp it with the MECO seal, and issue a single-entry visa.
This was properly coordinated with our Bureau of Immigration in Manila and cleared with the Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Our precautionary measure was in fact adopted by other representative offices of different countries and Taiwan itself required such a travel history before allowing entry of foreigners who came from China and its SAR’s.
In our Monday column, we listed some of the salient measures undertaken by the Taiwan government, particularly its Ministry of Health, in order to contain the spread of the virus that emanated from Hubei and spread all over China, with the death toll now surpassing the previous SARS pandemic. One has to admire the efficiency of the health management system in Taiwan which is among the best in the world.
But last Monday, first on their Facebook page, the Department of Health announced that the travel ban earlier announced as covering China and its SARs would include Taiwan, such that we were swamped by inquiries from both OFWs and travel agencies. Sometime towards noon, DOH Usec. Gerardo Bayugo said the inclusion of Taiwan in the travel ban is “not yet agreed or final.” And DOH withdrew the advisory on its website.
But later in the afternoon, the DOH held a press conference where another undersecretary, Dr. Eric Domingo said: “Since we have a temporary travel restriction on China, then Taiwan is included.”
This naturally raised the hackles of the government in Taiwan, because its government and its people speaking loudly in the last elections, maintain that they should not be considered as part of the People’s Republic of China.
This issue is however political, and in truth, the Philippines adheres to the One China Policy. But matters of health should be beyond the realm of politics, especially when we are dealing with a pandemic that even the United Nations agency, the World Health Organization, took a while to recognize even as it had already raged all over China, with manifestations of contagion in other countries as well.
We were informed by three government offices that there would be an emergency meeting of the Task Force nCoV today, Feb. 12, and the matter would be taken up in said meeting as well. Therefore, nothing is final as of today, and pronouncements made, especially if based on a political and not a medical or scientific basis, were premature.
As chairman and Resident Representative of the Manila Economic and Cultural Office which represents the interests of the Philippines in Taiwan, I had to assure our Taiwanese and OFW constituents that nothing final has been decided insofar as said travel restrictions are concerned.
These confusing statements from within the Department of Health do not bode well for our image as a country, and creates undue reactions not only from foreign governments, but our people as well, specifically the OFWs whom we always salute as our modern-day heroes, and for whom we even want to create a separate cabinet-level agency.
Imagine an OFW who comes home for a vacation after taking a leave from work in Taiwan, is quarantined for two weeks, found clear of the nCoV strain, yet is thus unable to return to resume his work contract.
Imagine a Taiwanese executive who invested in the Philippines, and is barred from looking after his business concerns which employ thousands of Filipinos, because of a disease that emanated not from Taiwan and whose limited contagion is already being effectively managed in Taiwan.
How would they react? What future consequences could such travel bans have on our work deployment overseas, our foreign investments?
We keep saying these travel bans are temporary, and when the pandemic is controlled, it will be business as usual. But when, pray tell, will that be?
The point being argued here is simple: Let us not make health issue a political issue.
Recall that we dilly-dallied in banning the entry of mainland Chinese visitors here even as the virus had spread to so many provinces in China, and even beyond, to Canada, the US, European countries, and other Asian neighbors.
The reason given by the DOH? “Political and diplomatic.”
Now the same agency wants to include Taiwan, where the contagion is well-controlled and effectively managed by world-class medical professionals, and the reason we invoke is geopolitical, and not health-related.
Confused and confusing.
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The above article was written Monday night, after an unnerving series of counter-checking with Manila. We retired for the night looking forward to the Wednesday, Feb. 12 meeting.
Then, just before midnight, we received a copy of the memorandum from the Bureau of Immigration addressed to its immigration supervisors and inspectors stating that “effective 2150 hours Feb. 10 (9:50 p.m.), a travel ban from and to Taiwan is hereby implemented.”
Filipinos are now temporarily banned from traveling to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China. The entry of any person regardless of nationality except Filipino citizens or holders of permanent residence visas are also temporarily banned from entering the country.
The unhappy denouement. Taiwan is disturbed and dismayed and the sentiment reached me just before midnight on Monday. I am filing this article early morning Tuesday for Wednesday.