Northerners in the Philippines watch and wait for safe way to get home
‘You wake up, you eat breakfast, do nothing … then comes lunch’
David Bob arrived in the Philippines on March 1.
"COVID[-19] wasn't really on my mind at all," he said. "I didn't really know what COVID[-19] was."
He started to realize the full extent of the pandemic around March 13. Three days later, the Philippines entered one of the world's largest and strictest lockdowns to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Bob had been to the Philippines before. He has a fiancée living there and had planned to stay for two months with her and her family. He had even planned to work remotely in his role as Northwest Territories president of the Northern Territories Federation of Labour.
But his scheduled departure date of May 1 has now come and gone and he doesn't know when he'll make it back to Canada. He hasn't left his fiancée's house in two months and isn't sure when he will again.
"I could probably stick it out here as long as I had to," Bob said. "But I don't really want to be here that long."
Bob is not the only northerner stuck in limbo.
Billy Danganan left his work as a registered nurse in Yellowknife in January, planning 10 weeks of travel in and around the Philippines.
His flight home was supposed to leave from Manila on March 18 — two days after the lockdown was declared.
Danganan is staying with relatives near San Fernando, about 70 kilometres northwest of Manila.
The rules of the lockdown are far stricter than what most Canadians have experienced. Everyone but essential workers is supposed to stay home 24/7; each household can designate a pass holder to buy groceries and essentials once a week; and an overnight curfew is enforced, except for night shift workers.
"We are not allowed to go anywhere. There are police, military officers going around," Danganan said.
And there isn't much to do.
"It's very boring. You wake up, you eat breakfast, do nothing … then comes lunch."
Lea Barbosa-Leclerc is the president of the Philippine Cultural Association of Yellowknife, which has about 300 members. She said she knows of at least 10 families in Yellowknife who have relatives stranded in the Philippines. Everyone is safe, she said. The biggest worry she hears about is financial.
"One of the reasons most of the Filipinos or Filipino-Canadians are here right now is that they work. They need to work. If they're stranded in the Philippines they don't have that capacity."
That's true of Danganan, who's been off work for about two months longer than planned.
He now has a flight booked from Manila to Vancouver on June 1. He says his manager in Yellowknife has assured him there'll be nursing shifts for him when he gets back, but that's if the flight goes ahead, and after he completes his 14-day self-isolation period.
Bob is at least working, despite a spotty internet connection. But he's wondering how he'll get back to Canada. He's already had several scheduled flights cancelled, then rescheduled, then postponed again. He's looking into other options.
"There are flights, but it's very challenging."
Bob says he's heard some U.S. repatriation flights have offered space to Canadians, but that they land in major U.S. transportation hubs, which Bob fears present a danger of infection.
Bob also knows people who've taken a Japanese airline still flying to Canada, only to be denied boarding when the plane stops over in Korea or Japan, and only citizens of those countries are allowed to proceed.
He's now looking into chartering a flight with a group of other Canadians he's met through Facebook.
If that works out, the next challenge is getting to the airport. Public transport options are limited, and not necessarily safe. Bob is in San Jose del Monte City, just north of Manila. Between those two cities lies Quezon City, which has the country's highest infection rate.
"Sort of like running a gauntlet," Bob said.
Bob said he would hire a driver and in fact, he's not worried about catching COVID-19 in the Philippines. When the lockdown arrived, he said, Manila had many more cases than Canada.
"But now it's completely reversed. The Philippines [number of infections] is around 13,000 and Canada's is around 78,000."
As of May 20, the World Health Organization was reporting 12,942 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Philippines and 78,499 in Canada.