Lockdown in Italy: Testimonies of OFWs

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“If Italy and other developed countries could admit that their health care systems could collapse in the advent of disease outbreak, then what more in our own country where health care is inaccessible and highly privatized? Duterte’s assurance is for the police and the military, not for us and our families in the Philippines.”

By MENCHANI TILENDO
Bulatlat.com

MANILA — Following the sudden spike of coronavirus cases in Italy last week, the country has been put under a total lockdown. As of Monday, cases of covid-19 rose to 9,172 with 463 deaths, making Italy the hardest-hit European country. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte declared the entire country a “red zone” which entails drastic limits to roughly 60 million people.

Authorities have reported on Tuesday that permission would be required for Italians who needed to move around the country for work reasons, emergencies, and other irrepressible circumstances. Mass gatherings and other nonessential movement across the entire country are included in the government’s blanket restrictions. This clampdown in Italy has not only affected most of the Italians but also posed consequences for 165,888 overseas Filipino workers in Italy.

One of them, Franklin Irabon, 47, has been working in Italy since 1998. “My work in Switzerland for the longest time has required me to cross the border from Lombardy, where I live. The entire lockdown has now obliged the likes of us to present our permit to work before crossing the borders. However, our company has decided to prohibit its personnel to go to work and it’s been two weeks since I’m stuck here at home,” Franklin told Bulatlat in an online interview.

He lives in Lombardy, one of Italy’s provinces and home to some of Italy’s best hospitals. However, Franklin shared that even in their region, health services could not make up for the “tsunami of patients” who have been required intensive care amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Franklin Irabon (far left) has been stuck in his home since Italy was placed under total lockdown. (Contributed photo)

“My wife is also an OFW here in Italy. Her work entails her to travel to Milan everyday, but her employer has also decided to prohibit her from going to work in order to avoid risks of infection. During the earlier stages of the disease outbreak, a number of Filipino workers here were aggressively beaten up for being mistaken as Chinese. There was no proper information dissemination that time, thus racism has largely contributed to the unnecessary chaos,” Franklin shared.

Risks in a developed country

Intensive health care measures in the northern Lombardy region have been pushed over the edge. Entire hospital sections and even corridors were emptied to make space for seriously-ill patients. According to news sources, there could be over 18,000 patients in the crisis unit by the end of the month if the virus continues to spread.

“Although we relatively have the assurance of an accessible health care service from the Italian government, the health care system of this country is at risk of collapsing. With the rate of increase of those affected by the virus, Italy’s public health system could not keep up. There is scarcity of hospitals, of medical working force, and even basic medicine supplies,” Franklin said.

The spread of the novel coronavirus in Europe and North America appears to be worsening. Migrant workers from Italy’s service sector have been hit the hardest by the lockdown as they fear of losing their jobs. However, Franklin explains the huge difference between the Italian government’s disease outbreak mitigation and that of the Philippine government.

“Here in Italy, there is real cooperation from the citizens because the government has strengthened its information dissemination regarding the virus. Workers like us are somehow reassured with the economic relief of suspending our loans in electric and water bills. Large-scale factory workers are also provided with financial support,” Franklin shared.

According to Franklin, health services in Italy are still somehow socialized and migrant workers like them are still able to access free health care. The only problem is the overflow of patients that might cause the possible collapse of their hospitals.

Franklin and his wife are also worried for their relatives and loved ones in the Philippines. “If Italy and other developed countries could admit that their health care systems could collapse in the advent of disease outbreak, then what more in our own country where health care is inaccessible and highly privatized? Duterte’s assurance is for the police and the military, not for us and our families in the Philippines,” Franklin said.

Stranded in one’s homeland

On the other hand, Alex Reyes, 46, a domestic worker in Rome, currently faces the agony of uncertainty as he and his wife wait for updates on their flight back to Italy. The declaration of lockdown has temporarily suspended the operations of their agency and has left them indefinitely stranded in their province in Laguna.

“I and my wife have been domestic workers in Rome for twelve years now. We went home here in the Philippines to celebrate our daughter’s debut on March 5. After the declaration of the Italian government’s nationwide quarantine, we could not contact the ticketing agency. Instead, we were directed to its Makati branch last Friday, but upon our arrival there, the office was also closed. We were then instructed to proceed to the airport and we found out that almost all flights were fully-booked,” Alex shared.

Alex Reyes and wife Virgie Reyes are among OFWs who could not go back to Italy due to lockdown. (Contributed photo)

Alex and his wife’s recruitment agency is yet to issue an update tomorrow. They were supposed to fly back to Italy on the 17th, but all inbound flights there were canceled because of the lockdown.

“It bothers us. It’s so hard to look for proper jobs here in our own country, that is why we were pushed to seek jobs abroad. Our employers expect us to be back by the 17th, but we cannot take control of things like these,” Alex said.

“My wife’s employer just called her and told her that they cannot wait for her for so long. There is a huge possibility that my wife could lose her job as a domestic helper”, Alex added.

In these times of uncertainty, Alex hopes for the Philippine government’s urgent assistance and reassurance that OFWs like him and his wife be secured with their livelihood.

“If our government could not provide basic jobs in our own country, they might as well provide sufficient assistance to OFWs like us who are greatly affected by the outbreak. I hope that the government ensures we could go back to our jobs abroad, and our families in the Philippines are well taken care of,” Alex ended.

Collective rage from miles away

Franklin, Alex, and their fellow Filipino migrants in Italy have expressed their disappointment with the Philippine government’s measures in handling the disease outbreak, and the lack of sufficient alternatives for OFWs. The lack of assistance has pushed them to organize themselves through Migrante International, and collectively monitor the cases of disease outbreak in Italy. This solidarity has somehow eased their panic and longing for their loved ones in times of crisis.

“Thousands of Filipino migrants here still fear for the loss of their jobs. Majority of us here do not have a secure contract, and could face the high possibility of termination. We are imposed with limited mobility which, in effect, resulted in less income. More than the flight cancellations and airport closures, the Philippine government must negotiate with foreign countries to assure that we, OFWs, wont’ completely lose our jobs,” Franklin said.

Like Alex, Franklin and his wife would not have risked working away from their loved ones had the Philippine government provided sufficient and decent jobs in the country. The struggle to survive overseas at a time of a pandemic is as excruciating as those Filipinos who have long been deprived of basic social services.

“Our primary need is not military action. They cannot demand cooperation from Filipinos when they cannot even present concrete, proactive solutions,” Franklin ended.

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