My wife and I are both avid travellers, but we had never been to the Philippines, nor had it been on our bucket list. In January 2020, however, we received a job offer in Manila, so set about doing some homework before deciding to relocate our family 8,000 miles away.
In recent years, the Philippines has grown in popularity among international travellers. There are thousands of idyllic islands and brilliant diving spots, the people are friendly, and it has some of the best mangoes in the world.
Lured by the tropical climate, and an endless selection of beautiful beaches, the number of foreign visitors increased by nearly three million between 2016 and 2019, and the country’s government has spent large sums of money on marketing, as well as growing its eco-tourism sector.
It was well on its way to becoming one of the premier destinations in south-east Asia. We happily took the job, and 2020 got off to a great start.
Then the pandemic hit.
Like most nations, the Philippines followed China’s lead and instituted its own authoritarian lockdown, closing its borders and effectively placing its entire population of 106 million under house arrest. It wasn’t until October that the immigration bureau reluctantly granted us a special visa after four months of lobbying by our employer and the US State Department.
Up to that point, we had split our time between New York and Italy, where my wife is from, so we had seen our fair share of lockdown madness. However, we were unprepared for the absurdity that awaited us in Manila.
Upon arrival, we were subjected to a PCR test and then sent to a hotel at our own expense. After receiving negative test results, we were able to go home to finish our two-week quarantine; today, however, visitors must stay five days in a hotel and receive two negative tests before being released to finish their quarantine, and couples/families must quarantine separately at the hotel.
Of course, the standard Covid protection measures are mandatory in the Philippines, but in Manila we get to enjoy extra protection: face masks and face shields are mandatory in public from age 2 and up (making it the only country, I believe, to mandate both masks and shields), temperature checks and contact tracing forms at every commercial establishment, security enforced one-way systems and social distancing in many commercial areas.
Like many developing countries, rules here change frequently and without notice, so every day is a surprise – one week, contact tracing is mandatory, the next week not. The government has taken particular pains to make life difficult for children and therefore families, as they believe, contrary to international scientific consensus, that children are asymptomatic spreaders and must therefore be shut away in their homes.
Children are barred from restaurants, malls, and similar commercial establishments. At my local coffee shop, dogs are welcome, but children are not. Obviously, in-person schooling is out of the question, with no plans to return in the foreseeable future. Technically children are not even allowed out of the house, but the authorities usually turn a blind eye because this is such a young, family-oriented society. The same rules for children also apply to the elderly.
Because the culture in the Philippines is one of obedience, most people comply, and criticism of the policies and whether they are effective is scant. The corporate media fear campaign has also been successful here, so the lack of critical thinking regarding such extreme prevention measures in a country that has done relatively well during the Covid crisis is both frustrating and disconcerting (the country currently has half a million cases and around 12,000 deaths – a relatively small number considering its population size).
Even with all the policies and regulations, the so-called ‘British variant’ has made its way to these shores, and that has put more petrol in the government’s tank when it comes to endlessly extending the restrictions and regulations. Cases continue to rise, and from a public perspective (and, increasingly, that of the national media) the only visible effect of these totalitarian restrictions is total economic destruction and increasing levels of human suffering.
Naturally, international travel to the Philippines is off the table, as borders remain closed to tourists indefinitely. Domestic travel, however, is slowly picking up, with the government pushing the ‘new normal’ of future travel with gusto.
Vaccines aren’t here yet, but the ‘vaccine passport’ is absolutely on the cards. For now, each province has its own travel requirements, which is both a blessing and a curse, and getting on a plane – or even driving to many provinces –requires a negative PCR test within 72 hours of travel, registration with the tourist bureau, and a plethora of paperwork that is enough to discourage any regular weekend warrior.
We did jump through all the hoops and manage to travel to the beautiful island of Boracay for the Christmas holiday. On New Year’s Day, I sat alone on the white sand beach with my son, building a sandcastle and watching the sunset over turquoise water.
“Excuse me, sir.” I looked up to see a municipal official. “Your mask,” he admonished me. I sighed and put on my mask: normality is nowhere on the horizon for this country.