Thousands of people rushed to the Philippines’ main international airport on Thursday in a bid to get out of the country amid a month-long lockdown on the main island designed to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.
Foreigners and Filipinos crowded Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila to try to get on a flight out of the country, where 217 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed, with 17 deaths.
The exodus came as Foreign Secretary, Teodoro Locsin, announced that the Philippines was temporarily suspending the issuance of visas to all foreigners.
“Starting from today, all our embassies and consulates will temporarily suspend visa issuance to all foreign nationals as well as the visa-free entry privileges of all foreign nationals.
“Moreover, all previously issued Philippine visas to foreign nationals are deemed cancelled,’’ he wrote in a tweet, adding that visas issued to foreign spouses and children of Filipino nationals are still valid.
Foreign nationals are allowed to leave anytime, Locsin said, noting that it would be idiotic to detain them.
The island of Luzon, where Manila is located, has been under lockdown since Monday.
School classes, work and public transport, including domestic flights, are suspended in the island, which is home to nearly 60 million Filipinos more than half of the country’s population.
International flights are allowed to operate, to allow foreigners and overseas Filipino workers to travel out or for Filipinos to return home during the duration of the lockdown.
But few flights are available and some countries have already banned flights from the Philippines, stranding hundreds in Manila.
The German government organised chartered flights starting from Thursday to bring home dozens of its citizens and European Union nationals who needed to leave the Philippines.
Jonas Roloff Krah, a 24-year-old software developer from Berlin, has been visiting with a friend in the Philippines since February when the lockdown was imposed.
“We’ve been here for one month now.
“We were supposed to be travelling the world for one year, but it’s not possible anymore,’’ ’’ he told dpa from Manila’s airport while waiting for a Lufthansa flight.
Krah said he and his friend were not afraid for their health, but needed to get back home.
“Last night, we slept at the lobby of a hotel because they are not allowing us to check in anymore.
“We’re not allowed to sleep on the street or go anywhere else,’’ he said.
According to the government, hotels are not allowed to accept any new bookings, and can only cater to their existing or long-staying guests.
Alexander Deutschle, a partner in a local construction and engineer company, said he wanted to return to Berlin because he felt the Philippines’ health system is not capable of handling the crisis.
“I am not desperate to leave, since I live here, just not sure about the local health system.
“Germany might be safer,” said the 32-year-old Deutschle, who has been in the Philippines since 2016,” he said.
Concerns about the lockdown pushed share prices in the Philippine Stock Exchange to a 12-year-low as shortened trading resumed on Thursday.
The main index of the PSE shed 711.95 points or 13.34 per cent to close at 4,623.42.
The number of stocks seeing losses was higher than the number seeing gains, 211 to 8, while 21 issues were unchanged.
As the government reminded the public to stay at home, Health Secretary Francisco Duque went into isolation at home after being exposed to a director at the department who tested positive.
Duque does not have symptoms, but has been tested for COVID-19 because he was asthmatic and hypertensive, said Assistant Secretary Maria Rosario Vergeire.
On Monday, senator Miguel Zubiri became the first senior government official in the Philippines known to be infected by the virus after he tested positive for the disease while asymptomatic.