Returning Filipinos included in India travel ban; vaccine shipment faces delay

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 28)— Filipinos hoping to return home from India will be also be barred from entering the Philippines during the travel ban imposed amid the ongoing COVID-19 surge in the South Asian country, officials said on Wednesday.

Unlike previous travel bans, Filipinos who recently traveled to India will not be allowed to return to the Philippines from April 29 to May 14 as the government imposes restrictions.

"Even our fellow Filipinos hindi muna natin papapasukin for this temporary period so we can ensure na ma-guard ang borders natin," Department of Health spokesperson Maria Rosario Vergeire said in a media briefing.

[Translation: We will not allow the entry of Filipinos during this period to ensure that we guard our borders.]

The Bureau of Immigration also said the travel ban is not "nationality-specific" and applies to any traveler coming from the South Asian nation.

Vergeire said the restrictions were put in place as a precautionary measure to prevent the entry of another COVID-19 variant first detected in India. The B.1.617 coronavirus variant dubbed as the "double-mutant strain" has a number of mutations that could increase transmissibility and help escape immune response, Indian health authorities said.

"Of course our country would like to restrict the borders first, mag-iingat tayo kasi nakikita na natin ang nangyayari sa kanila at ayaw natin magkaroon ng enabler ang ibang variants na pumasok sa bansa," Vergeire said.

[Translation: We'd like to restrict the country's borders. We are being careful because we see what is happening there. We don't want other variants to enter the country.]

The official, however, noted that experts are saying that the variant first found in the United Kingdom could be the reason why India is spiraling deeper into the COVID-19 crisis.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. is worried that the ban on returning Filipinos could pose a bigger problem if the second wave in India gets worse.

"Good policy but consider every Filipino has the absolute right to go home... If any get infected in India and die for lack of medical care, we’re screwed," he tweeted.

Maria Isabel Pol, a Filipino based in Bangalore, said they are left without any option even if they want to return home.

"Even na gusto naming umuwi sa amin, we cannot do anything kasi nga 'yung airport nila, parang strict din sa mga international travels... Naka-ban kasi 'yung travel ng India to everywhere, so hindi talaga kami, walang choice talaga po. Talagang nandito lang kami," she told CNN Philippines.

She said she and her husband are staying in their home since there is an ongoing lockdown and government is enforcing a limited time to access essential goods.

Deadlier virus?

Asked about the pandemic situation in the South Asian country, Philippine Ambassador to India Ramon Bagatsing Jr. told CNN Philippines' News Night that the new strain appears to be deadlier and more contagious.

“Last year, people were kind of easy because if you get hit, it’s a mild attack, you survive,” Bagatsing said. “It’s very sudden, it’s treacherous.”

Bagatsing said a member of the Filipino community in India passed away just three days after contracting the virus.

RELATED: Two Filipinos die of COVID-19 in India this week

Delay in India-made vaccines

Meanwhile, the Health Department admitted that the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines manufactured in India could be delayed as that country grapples with record-breaking new cases and death surges due to coronavirus infections. Vergeire assured that the Philippines' vaccine cluster is devising a distribution back-up plan.

"Because of what's happening in India, nagkaroon ng redistribution ng mga dapat na bakunang darating by May, June, July because of this issue. Flexible ang plano natin so we can be able to adapt and adjust," she said.

[Translation: Because of what's happening in India, the vaccines that were supposed to arrive in May, June, and July were redistributed. Our plans are flexible so we can adapt and adjust.]

Bagatsing said on Tuesday that the eight million doses of Covaxin vaccines made by Bharat Biotech that was ordered by the private sector and local government units could arrive in the country by the last week of May.

He also said the 30 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines from Covavax from Serum Institute of India — purchased by the national government — could arrive in the country by September.