A passenger wearing a mask gestures as they arrive at Manila's international airport, Philippines, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. The…
A passenger wearing a mask gestures as they arrive at Manila's international airport, Philippines, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.

TAIPEI, TAIWAN - The deadly coronavirus outbreak spreading in parts of the world this month threatens the Philippines because 2.3 million of its citizens work overseas. In bleak technical terms, they either risk illness to work abroad or return to the Philippines and earn less money than they would get overseas.  

But the people who staff hotels, stores, factories and hospitals from Saudi Arabia to the United States are expected to stay on board after taking routine health precautions. The Philippine government forecasts only a slight dip in their remittances this year because of the disease outbreak.  

“If remittances are affected, that’s a big issue here,” said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Metro Manila-based advocacy group Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. But, he said, “this time I don’t think there will be that big an impact.”  

Workers have moved to 100 countries, about half the world, to boost incomes and send much of it back to the Philippines. Their remittances make up about 9% of the largely impoverished Philippine economy.

Most do not work in places with the worst outbreaks, though a combined 243,000 live in South Korea and Singapore where authorities are grappling with especially high caseloads.  

To leave their posts in a disease-hit area such as Hong Kong would put them at risk of quarantine once back in the Philippines, and flights can be hard to find anyway because about 25,000 are cancelled due to immigration restrictions aimed at stopping the virus spread.  

Overseas Filipino workers, often called OFWs for short, have survived worse upsets than the coronavirus, said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school. About 4,000 Filipinos remain in Libya despite shelling and other strife since 2011, for example.

“I don’t think this virus would scare the OFWs to go home,” he said. “In fact, those who stayed in Libya chose to stay even at the height of the shelling and the war.”  

An ambulance enters the main gates of the San Lazaro Hospital in Manila, Philippines, Feb. 2, 2020. The Philippines reported the first death outside of China from the coronavirus, deepening global fears about an epidemic.

Saudi Arabia, the most popular destination with a quarter of all OFWs, has no virus outbreak. Just 12,000 Filipinos work in China, excluding Hong Kong, and send back 0.1% of total remittances from overseas. China has reported the vast majority of the 80,000-odd virus cases worldwide.  

Those who work in healthcare overseas may be especially welcome as hospitals double up efforts to treat patients, said Christian de Guzman, vice president and senior credit officer with Moody’s Sovereign Risk Group. Places such as Singapore have offered to retrain OFWs, another reason to stay, he said.  

The Philippine government forecasts a 0.8 percentage-point drop in remittance growth this year due to COVID-19, the respiratory disease's official name, cabinet secretary Karlo Nograles told a news conference Monday. That revised forecast would take growth to 2.2%, Nograles told the news conference.  

Slowing remittances from January through March would also reflect a normal dip after Christmas and New Year’s Day, de Guzman said.

“The first quarter is always tricky simply because you kind of get this overhang from the holiday remittances, so there’s always going be a slowdown anyway, so I think what you can expect is that sort of slowdown may be exaggerated this time around,” he said.  

The government had initially expected remittances as high as $34.5 billion this year.  

Any drop now would probably point to losses of jobs in tourism, such as cruise ships and hotels, analysts believe. The disease outbreak has taken its heaviest toll on travel so far, compared to other sectors, because people are either ordered to stay put or fear catching the disease on tour.

Impacts on Filipinos stationed overseas depends ultimately on “duration and severity” of the outbreak, de Guzman said.

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