On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global public health emergency due to the rapid spread of the Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) that originated in a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan City (population: 11 million), in the province of Hubei (population: 50 million), in China. As of Saturday, varying television news reports said there are now close to 10,000 infected persons worldwide, with 200+ dead from the virus, for which a vaccine is still being developed. Novel Coronavirus — nCoV — has spread to 22 countries and regions, according to the WHO.
Countries scrambled to airlift their citizens out of Wuhan and many are banning travel to and from China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan — places where Chinese family ties urge frequent visiting and intermingling — because of the risk of infection by “carriers” or asymptomatic afflicted persons. Russia has totally closed its borders with China. Airlines have temporarily stopped flights to and from Mainland China and Hong Kong, while connecting flights from elsewhere are checked for the passengers’ flight history.
Immigration and health officials are on guard at airports international and local, with temperature tests and empirical observation of cold symptoms (initial indication of affliction) in passengers at loading and at unloading. In the US, a mandatory quarantine of five days at Air Force hospitals has been enforced if ever even one single passenger is suspected of being infected. Airport and airline employees are refusing to work under threat of infection with nCoV. Global businesses in affected areas, like Toyota, Ikea, Starbucks, Tesla, MacDonald’s, Volkwagen, and Foxconn have stopped operations in China.
Hardly anyone, country or people, wants to deal with China at this time. What a pity for all the efforts of this market-based political economy to be accepted by the world as a sincere and honest participant in global trade and cooperation, as it built itself up into the second largest economy in the world and staying up there for decades now being a discriminated and distrusted political persona in the 1970s. In an AFP report, Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a meeting with the head of the WHO: “(China) is waging a serious fight against the ‘demon’ coronavirus outbreak… The Chinese government has always adopted an open, transparent and responsible attitude to timely release of information on the epidemic to domestic and foreign countries.” Even before the WHO declaration of global emergency, he imposed a total lockdown on Hubei, where neither locals nor foreigners can leave or enter.
The first confirmed nCoV case in the Philippines is that of a 38-year-old Chinese woman who had taken multiple flights — from Wuhan to Hong Kong, to Cebu, to Dumaguete, and on to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) in Manila — arriving in the Philippines on Jan. 21. Testing positive for fever at the airport, she was sent for check-up and confinement at a local government hospital and found to be infected with nCoV five days later after testing at an Australian laboratory (the Philippines has no testing capability for nCoV yet). After this first confirmed nCoV case, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered a ban on Chinese nationals coming from Hubei province, which was already on lockdown, anyway.
What about the other 130 or more passengers in each leg (possibly times three) she took in her travels on Cebu Pacific, Cebgo, and Philippine Airlines — who were with the nCoV-positive passenger? Department of Health (DoH) spokesperson Undersecretary Eric Domingo told DZMM Radio on Jan. 30 that the nCoV Task Force (with the Department of Immigration) is working from the plane manifestos to try and find these co-passengers of the afflicted woman — but they have already dispersed to resorts and other places in Dumaguete and Cebu and Manila, or perhaps moved on to still other places in the Philippines.
Sad that it had to be the nCoV that brought out the apparent laxity of our immigration regulations and the flexibility allowed. The unique arrangement where Chinese nationals are issued visas upon arrival (VUA) for entry to the Philippines has been temporarily stopped after the first nCoV case was confirmed — too late, but better late than never. The VUA facility has been offered to Chinese nationals since 2017 in an effort to boost tourism (including “gaming tourism”). Those who were eligible to avail of it included investors and businessmen, athletes, delegates to international conventions, and tour groups. ABS-CBN News pointed out on Jan. 28 that Chinese tourists accounted for 22% of the 7.5 million visitors to the Philippines between January and November last year, making China the second top nation of origin for international travelers to the country.
But most of the seemingly innocent and harmless Chinese tour groups (with fat wallets for the local economy) are players in the Philippine online gaming market (POGOs) — gambling is not allowed in any form in China. When President Duterte had just assumed office, he soon signed Executive Order 13 of 2016, opening the new and very lucrative industry of POGOs. There are now 60 licensed POGOs in the Philippines with 48 in operation, and 100 illegal, and unmonitored/unregulated Chinese and Filipino-dummy owned POGOs in the country.
Collateral beneficiaries to the POGO boom are the real estate and hospitality sectors, where hotels and condos (both for living accommodations and office space) have become voraciously in demand by mostly Chinese nationals legally or illegally staying in the Philippines as online gamers and/or gamblers in casinos (yes, also as innocuous tourists), or as workers in the POGOs (licensed or not, but needed by the POGO industry because of the language barrier in online gaming and in casinos.)
“More than three million Chinese nationals have been allowed to enter in the Philippines since 2016, coinciding with the rise of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has pulled out all the stops to thaw his country’s frosty ties with China,” the Philippine Star of June 9, 2018 said. “I simply love Xi Jinping,” Duterte openly declared at a press briefing before leaving for an official visit to China in 2018. “He understands my problem and he’s willing to help. And I’d like to say, ‘thank you, China.’” — a direct quote in the Philippine Star of April 10, 2018, and likewise in the archives of other media. “While China refuses to budge from areas in the West Philippine Sea where the Philippines has been awarded sovereign rights, President Duterte continues to profess goodwill toward Beijing,” the Star added.
But a Social Weather Station (SWS) poll taken last September and released in early December (before the nCoV scare), found 70% percent of Filipinos were worried over the increasing presence of Chinese nationals in the workplace with some even believing it may be a threat to national security. The Philippine National Police declared that kidnappings in Metro Manila doubled from 2017 to November 2019. In 2019 alone, at least 58 Chinese nationals were kidnapped (CNN Philippines Dec. 14, 2019). So, the Chinese “tourists” and overstaying entrants seem to have their own mafia for the settling of debts and differences — bypassing the legal and social systems in their host country. Senator Risa Hontiveros has raised concern over the growing sex trade allegedly servicing Chinese POGO players.
They are a separate, unfriendly community implanted in our society. We cannot even perfunctorily communicate with them, the local Filipinos and other resident foreigners say. And with their profligate cash, they crowd us out in day-to-day economic activities and even more in deep investments like real estate and finance, driving up prices by their voracious appetite to make money from money, as in the way of the inveterate gambler. We hope the economic bubble does not burst when their President Xi rounds them up to go back to the Mainland — after all, gambling is not allowed in China. Why is the Philippines providing a way around an activity which is not allowed of Chinese nationals?
There is the to-and-fro of advantages and disadvantages, the give and take of allowing the hordes of Chinese nationals here in the country. At one time, President Duterte said, “The Chinese who are here for work, let them be. Why? We have 300,000 Filipinos in China. (They will be sent home if we send home the Chinese here)” (ABS-CBN News Feb. 25, 2019).
The Novel Coronavirus has the last say. At least for health and safety reasons, people are best taken care of by their own country.
Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.