Lack of information compounds grief of kin of OFWs who died of COVID-19 in Saudi

"We're like inside a dark room. We don't know what's happening."

This is how Krizzia Roxas-Plumo, 27, described her family's situation as they await the repatriation of her deceased father.

(Photo courtesy of Joselito Roxas)

She said that until now (July 7), the remains of her 60-year-old Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) father Joselito is still in Saudi Arabia pending issuance of necessary clearances. Joselito lost his battle against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on June 25.

Aside from the temporary closure of the Philippine Consulate for disinfection in the Arab country, the lack of proper communication between them and the government is causing the delay of Joselito’s return.  

“My dad still has no No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the embassy until now. The NOC is needed to secure clearances from Saudi authorities and to get my dad's exit visa," she told Manila Bulletin in Filipino in an interview.

She said, this came about despite having been able to immediately file necessary documents on June 30 which her family was required to do.

"My dad's company also already sent necessary documents. The consulate e-mailed back on July. But what it contained was only an official advisory, saying they would be closed for disinfection after some employees tested positive for COVID-19. That's what my dad’s company received. Then, we could no longer contact the consulate," Krizzia said.

"We're not receiving any official statement from the government. So, for the families who lost their loved ones abroad, we are only relying on our own contact persons. And we share what we get to our group chat to have a pool of information and help each other," she added.

Krizzia, a Caloocan resident, is among the relatives of at least 39 OFWs based in Saudi who are part of the Facebook page “Bring Home the COVID Fatalities.”

All of them share a common appeal: fast track the repatriation of the bodies of their loved ones who died of COVID-19 before the foreign government buries them.

"We made the Facebook page to spread awareness regarding our situation. And also to get assistance to bring all our families back in all ways possible,” she said.

"Because, in fact, we have someone whose loved one was already buried without their family's consent," she added.

Early next week

The repatriation of the remains of nearly 300 deceased overseas Filipino workers from Saudi Arabia was supposed to have been carried out last July 4.  But Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III in a statement Friday, July 3 said “the repatriation has been extended to early next week for us to fly home our beloved modern day heroes.”

Bello explained that the delay is due to the "pending release of documentary requirements, and our common desire to strictly adhere to the health protocols in transporting them."

From 301 remains of OFWs that will be brought home, the number is now down to 274. He said

some of those who died, particularly of COVID-19, were already buried in Saudi.

"Twenty three of the 152 who died of COVID were already buried. It was permitted by the next of kin," he said.

Bello also received a notice from Saudi that they buried three more from those who died of COVID.

"So we are talking of only 129 OFWs who died of COVID. As to the 149 who died of natural causes, four were already repatriated by their relatives," he said.

"We are talking only of 274 (dead OFWs)," added Bello.

The Labor chief said they are doing their best to meet all the health protocols and requirements including the permission of the next of kin of the dead OFWs.

He also explained the procedure that will be followed in handling the remains of those who died of COVID-19.

"According to the standard of the World Health Organization, the body of those who died of COVID will be placed in a body bag that has been disinfected. It will then be sealed before being placed in casket that has been disinfected also. It will then be sealed again. That's how strict the protocol is," Bello said.

"Once here, from the airport, it will be brought to the crematorium for cremation because the recommendation of the Department of Health is if a person died from an infectious disease, it should be cremated within 24 hours," he added.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said government is preparing at least three chartered flights to bring home the remains of the OFWs.

At a loss, emotionally exhausted

But until now, Krizzia remains "at a loss." Like the other relatives of OFWs who died of COVID-19, she is not aware of her father's situation, which prompted her to find ways on her own to expedite his repatriation.

Through a statement posted on the Facebook page, the families of the deceased OFWs expressed their gratitude to President Duterte "to finally grant the request to repatriate our modern-day heroes."

However, they said, "the employers are having great difficulty acquiring clearances," since they do not have an official "Note Verbale coming from the Ministry of Health (MOH) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) of Saudi Arabia stating that the host country allows processing of documents for the shipment of the remains of COVD-19 victims."

The lack of official Note Verbale also stalled the logistical efforts since transport carriers need a clearance both from the MOH and MOFA, the statement added.

"The bereaved families are very worried and scared that anytime their loved ones might be buried. The families are emotionally exhausted bearing this challenge," the appeal read.

In these trying times, Krizzia appealed to the government to be "visible" in their process.

"We're asking for help and we hope that we will not be forgotten. Just because the OFWs are already dead, the government should no longer mind them. They are our so-called modern-day heroes," she added. (With a report from Leslie)