Philippines lifts deadline for foreigners to leave north

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines lifted a deadline for thousands of foreign travelers to leave the northern third of the country, including the capital, after quarantining the region due to an increase in coronavirus infections, officials said Wednesday.

The monthlong quarantine declared by President Rodrigo Duterte requires people to stay mostly at home and restricts land, air and sea travel on Luzon, the main island in the archipelago of more than 100 million people. The restrictions caused confusion and traffic jams, and the suspension of public transport stranded many health workers and emergency personnel.

Philippine officials initially asked foreign travelers, including tourists, to leave Luzon within 72 hours because all flights from the region would eventually be suspended. An inter-agency group dealing with the health crisis, however, said the deadline had been lifted and foreigners could leave Luzon anytime.

“We don’t want to give them pressure because it’ll be more difficult for them, so we opened up,” Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles told a late-evening news conference.

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Foreign travelers in Luzon may face limited options for staying as mass transportation is suspended and more businesses decide to close. Some airlines have canceled international flights, complicating the problems of outbound travelers.

A medical student from India, Abhishek Mishari, said he and dozens of fellow Indians wanted to go home but could not because of virus-related restrictions in India. “We’re just stuck here … we are just afraid of the coronavirus spreading over here,” he said outside Manila’s international airport.

The Philippines has reported 202 cases of the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the Department of Health, which confirmed Tuesday that one of its officials was among those sickened. Seventeen people have died, the most in Southeast Asia.

While the virus can be deadly, particularly for the elderly and people with other health problems, for most people it causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. Some feel no symptoms at all and the vast majority of people recover.

The drastic moves announced by Duterte on Monday night caught many by surprise.

Only one member of a family can leave home to buy food, officials said, but many establishments were closed and long lines of people waited in front of supermarkets in metropolitan Manila.

Aside from the containment effort, Duterte declared all of the Philippines in a state of calamity for six months to allow a faster release of emergency funds.

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Associated Press journalists Jim Gomez in Manila and Kiko Rosario in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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