Not many are aware of the role of the Philippine Coast Guard in fighting the pandemic.
When President Rodrigo Duterte placed Metro Manila under “community quarantine” on March 14, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) was tasked to ensure that the instruction was strictly carried out. The PCG, together with the Philippine National Police-Maritime Group and the Armed Forces of the Philippines-Joint Task Force NCR, composed the Task Group Laban COVID-19 Water Cluster. The primary role of the Task Group, to combat the spread of COVID-19, is to screen with the use of thermal scanners all the crew of the vessels and watercraft that enter the ports in Manila. Further, it conducts seaborne operations to apprehend those watercraft that are not permitted to enter the maritime boundary of the nation’s capital.
Although the task force is a composite unit, the PCG serves as the backbone of its operation. Given that the PCG has existing units in various ports surrounding Manila Bay, it became easier for the Task Group to rely on these coast guard units on the ground. Likewise, the strategically deployed PCG small craft and prepositioned logistical requirements made it more manageable for the task group to sustain its 24/7 maritime patrols. Accordingly, the PCG and the other Task Group members checked approximately 3,500 vessels and more than 50,000 fishing boats. The group was able to carry out 857 seaborne patrols to caution some watercraft that violated the guidelines set forth by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF).
In ZamBaSulTa (the Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi area), when the threat of COVID-19 became apparent in the wake of hundreds and hundreds of Filipinos sailing to cross the border from Malaysia, the PCG vessels served as a blocking force. These PCG vessels became the frontliners guarding the shores of this region to ensure that all of those who came from Malaysia would be quarantined before joining their respective families. The PCG members acted as quarantine officers, carrying thermal scanners to check the body temperature of each of the passengers of the arriving boat. Further, these PCG vessels served as logistical carriers in constructing the quarantine tents on Sibakel Island and delivering the necessities to support those in quarantine. Until now, the PCG units ashore and afloat remain vigilant in guarding the shores of these provinces.
When the cruise ships carrying Filipino seafarers were permitted by the IATF to anchor at Manila Bay, the PCG’s role was amplified. At first, its function was only to supervise the Filipino seafarers’ disembarkation from the cruise ships since it was initially the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) that facilitated their accommodations to observe the 14-day quarantine.
With the support of Transportation Secretary Arturo Tugade, the PCG was able to convert the Eva Macapagal Terminal and two floating facilities into COVID-19 quarantine facilities which could accommodate approximately 1,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). The coast guard did not just provide medical personnel to operate and man these facilities, but it also stationed buses and coasters at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport to shuttle those returning Filipino seafarers.
Due to the massive influx of returning OFWs, the IATF created the Sub-Task Group for Repatriation of OFW, headed by the PCG Commandant, Admiral Joel Garcia. The arrival of OFWs from countries with a high number of COVID-19 cases exposed the government agencies’ lack of personnel and resources to immediately address COVID-19 testing, transportation requirements, accommodation, and security detail.
The arrival of OFWs from countries with high infection rates is one of the weakest links in our fight against COVID-19. Hence, arriving OFWs need to be tested and quarantined. However, the huge number of daily arrivals require an efficient way of testing them to free up the quarantine centers. Their prompt testing, immediate mobility, and transportation requirements have to be effectively carried out. Since the PCG already started running the OFWs’ quarantine facilities and had the logistical capability, it has been put in a position to undertake new tasks and fill in the gaps.
At present, PCG personnel are deployed at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) to guide the arriving OFWs. They are brought to the Reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) testing locations for swabbing, also carried out by coast guard medical technologists. Notably, the Philippine Red Cross has entrusted to the PCG the testing kits for the OFWs. The PCG was the first government agency to receive training from the health department and the Red Cross in conducting RT-PCR testing. The PCG has proactively recruited medical technologists and has utilized its trainees who have had medical courses to sustain the swab testing of the OFWs as well as address the backlogs in testing.
The PCG personnel carry out swabbing, be it at the airport, hotels, or even onboard the cruise ships. The majority of these testing sites are in 121 different hotels in Metro Manila where the OFWs are temporarily housed. Likewise, the PCG personnel went onboard 20 cruise ships that anchored on Manila Bay to test the Filipino crew that were quarantined there. The PCG teams also conducted testing at the NAIA Terminals 1 and 2, the Eva Macapagal Terminal, and the Palacio Gobernador Mass Testing Center. Additionally, the international airports that will soon be reopened like those in Cebu and Davao will have PCG-manned testing booths.
The PCG’s role does not end with testing. The agency’s buses and vehicles are being used to transport the OFWs from the airport or seaports to various quarantine facilities or hotel accommodations. The PCG has deployed covert and overt security personnel to quarantine facilities to ensure that the OFWs strictly observe the 14-day quarantine.
From serving as guardians of our coastal areas and port facilities, the PCG’s role has evolved significantly as frontliners in ensuring the health and safety of our OFWs, their families, and the community. The PCG’s duty is no longer limited to safeguarding our shores and waters. The coast guard has now become the gatekeepers for our OFWs who deserve to be welcomed despite the threat that they may bring COVID-19 into the country. The PCG may be a small service of approximately 16,700 personnel nationwide, but they are performing a big job in the country’s COVID-19 response.
Jay Tristan Tarriela is a commissioned officer of the PCG with the rank of Lieutenant Commander and a Japan International Cooperation Agency scholar at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. He collaborates with Action for Economic Reforms on issues relating to maritime security.