To all OFWs, we all can relate how working abroad made us miss a lot of opportunities to be with our family. With the pandemic added to the picture, traveling home is almost impossible. If we’re friends IRL you’d know I was stressing out about this trip. Travel restrictions can change all the time and being away from the homeland will make you rely on news updates which aren’t all the time reliable. In case you don’t know, I’m a constant worrier and a plan freak. I like to be prepared and so even when I have a solid plan in place, I always ask myself, “What is the worst possible thing that can happen?”. I know it’s self damaging but I find comfort that I have prepared for the worst and if ‘that worst scenario’ doesn’t happen, then I am happy! Twisted I know, a total waste of overworked brain cells but that’s how I function.
So here are some tips to prepare if you plan a trip home, and also sharing my horrifying experience of testing COVID-19 positive in the Philippines!
1- Map out your holiday dates— 1 month is most ideal given the quarantine protocols and if you’re like me who lives in more than 1 place and have to isolate twice, any additional day is a bliss!
2- Travel documents from the Philippine consulate— I bet you already know you need to update your employment contracts and apply for OEC. I found this a waste of time and total inconvenience BEFORE but hey I was so impressed of what the OWWA membership slip can do (free everything, refer to 4.B and be sure to complete all the online registration instructions)
3- Destination and Airline of choice— it’s ideal for me to fly via Emirates because it’s a direct flight to Cebu (a little costly compared to the flagship airline but its way more convenient).
4- Airport experience
- A. Departure from Dubai— At the check in, I was asked for the usual process: passport, itinerary and copy of my OEC and then took the flight. The ground crew also handed out a face shield kit before boarding, the additional mask to be worn upon arrival in Cebu
- B. Arrival in Cebu— during the flight, the FAs handed out 3 papers to fill out (bring a pen for convenience). Don’t lose these papers and keep them handy. Upon deplane, a team will conduct a briefing. We were told about the new rules where you will take a swab test while in the airport, stay in the hotel approximately for 48hrs while waiting for the result, check out when you get the 1) COVID-19 negative test and the 2) travel pass certificate that will be sent to your email . This is the basic procedure for all but will differ based on your final destination. Apparently, the cities of Cebu, Mandaue & Lapu Lapu have additional quarantine protocols compared to the Cebu province (where my town, Liloan, is part of) and if you’re from other regions, you will need to coordinate with your local government for the transport from Cebu City. The OWWA guy says they can pay for your connecting flights or boat tickets to your province if you coordinate with them. Everything basically was paid for— from swab test, airport bus, hotel stay, food, transpo to your final destination.
Day 2: I got my swab test result and unfortunately I tested positive for COVID-19! Crazy right?!! Even for an over-thinker, this wasn’t the worst scenario that I’ve pictured, I thought it was a sick prank! I was in denial and I felt defensive: I feel very healthy— no symptoms no anything plus I got fully vaccinated (Pfizer) 3 weeks back! My point is, from my end I was careful, I prepared and protected myself enough. So I relayed this to the doctor and she asked for my vaccine card and then another test was scheduled. It was supposed to check my antibody levels so if I have enough levels of it or more, they would release me and I can go home. Otherwise, if the antibody level is inadequate, I have to isolate for the next 10 days— they have transferred me to another hotel facility, also I was picked up by an ambulance and I felt it was an overkill?! I’ve always associated ambulance with critically injured and serious medical case but I learned later on it was a standard protocol EVERYWHERE!
Day 3: I was scheduled for the Antibody test.
Day 4: I got my results — it reads REACTIVE, that’s a good sign and I would be discharged soon. I got lost with the explanations — I was told I have enough antibody to protect me from getting the virus but I will need to quarantine again. I have lots of follow up questions about my status, if I am still tagged as a POSITIVE case or if I have recovered but unfortunately, nobody was patient enough to explain things to me. Instead I felt I was just shoved in the corner and told to follow the rules— it is what it is, I should just abide. I was mandated to home quarantine for the next 10 days (this is on top of my 6 days hotel isolation). I only have total of 24 days vacation leave and the 16 days will be spent for quarantine. At this point, I felt helpless and angry about the situation, I questioned the reliability of the tests, I was disappointed about the cold shoulder treatment from everyone and I started to regret coming home.
Day 6: I had to stay in the hotel for 2 more days even if I was medically cleared to go. Apparently my paperworks were not ready, the signatory wasn’t there and my ride wasn’t available until 7PM! My ride finally came, an ambulance again, this time with the lights on (so much for discretion and subtleness my neighbors were craning their necks to check me out).
Day 7 or Day 1 of 10: I had to try my luck again and ask the LGU if there’s anyway to shorten my quarantine. I have asked if they would subject me to another PCR test after 10days and they said, no more repeat testing needed, they will assume I am negative by then! So when I heard this, I negotiated that if I can show a negative PCR result before my 10th day, will they let me out freely? They didn’t give me a hard NO so I pushed my plan.
Day 9 or Day 3 of 10: I booked and paid for a COVID-19 home service swab test. I didn’t want to totally break the law and I was scared that I can infect anyone if I go to a testing laboratory so I opted for a home service. The sample was collected at 3PM and on the same day at 8PM I got the result that says I’m COVID-19 NEGATIVE!! I still didn’t go out right away — I finally decided to go out on Day 11. I have relayed my result to the LGU but they refused to give me any clearance certificates because I didn’t completed their protocol. It’s also worth mentioning that my profile as an OFW with COVID-19 POSITIVE result wasn’t mentioned in the LGU’s Facebook page. I was checking their posts from the date I entered the country until the supposed time I would complete the quarantine period just to know my COVID-19 patient number and to you know, to officially say I am part of the statistics. But no mention of me! I know, Facebook pages aren’t legit information sources but well, I guess I can get this petty. 😂
5- Final destination— from Cebu, I travelled to Southern Leyte to visit my parents. The local rule is to home quarantine for 7 days— at this point I really didn’t give a shit anymore about not being allowed to go outside. I was treated as a returning resident, not as an OFW since I’ve already stayed in Cebu. The rules would have been different if I came home straight from OWWA/ Cebu quarantine, possibly requiring another negative PCR test with longer days in isolation in a quarantine facility.
6- Going back to Dubai— Emirates requires a negative PCR test 72hrs valid before the flight so I have secured the test prior to my flight. Upon check in, I was asked for usual requirements: passport, OEC certificate, negative PCR test and OWWA membership fees. There was a bit of a holdup since I didn’t print the certificates so it’s worth to mention to prepare these things to avoid delays. Upon arrival in Dubai T3 airport, I was required to do another swab test and right after, I took a cab home. After about 6hrs I received a text message confirming my Negative test result.
What’s my takeaway from this trip?
Apart from physically preparing yourself NOT to test positive, be mentally prepared for the plot twists! Traveling in the time of corona is really stressful and although the government has solid protocols, there are still uncharted waters that they themselves don’t know (exhibit A: my case). When something similar happens to you, remember 2 things: 1) being mean won’t help — well, being assertive does — ask thoughtful questions, be persistent and pressure people enough so they’ll take you seriously 2) take care of your mental health and find something to keep you sane— for me it was food deliveries, beer included.
Was this trip worth all the emotional lows? If I am honest, NO. For someone with high anxiety, I have nearly lost my shits being scared and isolated. I went on vacation to relax and recharge but what happened was the total opposite. Granted, I was so happy seeing my family and spending my dad’s 70th birthday at home, but I wouldn’t subject myself to that kind of trauma ever again. I would surely rethink traveling home next year.
Just to close this chapter, I’m still looking for answers. To my medical friends reading this, please shed some light.
- My RT-PCR swab test result came back positive from the sample taken on 27Apr.
- I got 2 jabs of pfizer vaccine, 2nd dose was completed on 6Apr.
- DOH ordered an Antibody test on 30Apr, the result says REACTIVE and they have medically cleared me to go home — I was given a fit to work/ fit to travel certificate from DOH.
What does a REACTIVE result imply?
- If it means I have enough antibody count, was it from the vaccine? If it was from the vaccine, why was I still infected?
- If it means I have enough antibody count, does it imply I have recovered from COVID-19? How fast can you recover from the illness and get a REACTIVE Antibody result in a span of 3 days?
- If it means I have enough antibody count, what is my status? Am I still positive or negative? The LGU regarded me still as a positive case and so I had to follow the protocols despite the clearance certificate from DOH that says I am fit to work/ fit to travel. Had I not insisted on a repeat swab, I would have wasted more days locked at home.
- I was discouraged to get a swab re-test and I was warned I could still get a positive result if I do it, how does it happen? I did a swab re-test 10days after and my test came out NEGATIVE.
My friends would tell me I should just let this go but I can’t, until I find answers. The emotional turmoil I experienced was too much — I can finally rest if there’s a medical explanation to back this up. Because up at this time, I can think of a lot of conspiracy theories all boiling down to my distrust to the system. I have heard enough first-hand stories of people making money out of this situation, and helpless people being taken advantage of. I’m truly hoping I am wrong though because if I’m not, then, God bless the Philippines!