A Job Overseas, but Stranded by Coronavirus Travel Bans


HONG KONG — Jade Doringo arrived at Manila’s international airport more than five hours ahead of her scheduled departure to Hong Kong, where she worked as a software engineer. But instead of getting on her flight, she was asked to surrender her boarding pass.

That morning, on Feb. 2, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines had announced a temporary travel ban that barred flights arriving from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau. At the airport, officials told Ms. Doringo that the ban also applied to Filipino travelers going in the opposite direction.

As the new coronavirus has spread around the world, several countries have issued restrictions on travelers arriving from mainland China. The Philippines, which has reported one death from the virus, is unusual in imposing rules that prevent its citizens from traveling also to Hong Kong and Macau, semiautonomous Chinese territories.

Ms. Doringo is among hundreds of Filipinos whose lives have been upended as they find themselves unable to return to their jobs in the two cities. “Imagine the confusion we felt at that time, not knowing everything,” she said in a phone interview last week.

Ms. Doringo had been sitting at the gate, watching as the crew waited for approval to board the flight and listening as airline employees repeated an announcement about the new travel ban. At 4 p.m., all Filipino passport holders were asked to go to immigration. Around her, domestic workers called their employers in Hong Kong, their voices rising in panic.

  • Updated Feb. 10, 2020

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is possibly transmitted through the air. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • How worried should I be?
      While the virus is a serious public health concern, the risk to most people outside China remains very low, and seasonal flu is a more immediate threat.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      World Health Organization officials have praised China’s aggressive response to the virus by closing transportation, schools and markets. This week, a team of experts from the W.H.O. arrived in Beijing to offer assistance.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The United States and Australia are temporarily denying entry to noncitizens who recently traveled to China and several airlines have canceled flights.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.

Then her suitcase got lost. But there was little else she could do besides huddle together with the other grounded passengers. Most of them had not eaten since that morning. Rather than splurging at the airport’s restaurants, they snacked and skipped dinner.

At 11 p.m., Ms. Doringo left the terminal empty-handed.

She had moved to Hong Kong two years ago with dreams of creating a better life for her family. The job in Hong Kong paid a better salary than what she would have earned back home, and soon after starting she was able to buy a plot of land in her rural province. She began setting aside money every month to build a house for her family.

She missed them constantly, particularly during the chaos of the past seven months when Hong Kong was rocked by antigovernment demonstrations. Her homesickness only intensified in late January as the coronavirus spread.

“Protests, disease, the loneliness of living alone — all of this triggers the longing of going back home,” she wrote in an Instagram post on Jan. 25 before she returned to the Philippines for a nine-day vacation. “To your real home.”

That trip started out in Manila, where she took her siblings, their spouses and their children to eat lechón, a spit-roasted suckling pig, at a mall.

Later, she returned to her hometown in the countryside and rode on a motorized tricycle with her father to a small creek near where she planned to build a house for them. Her mother cooked her nilagang baka, a steaming beef broth. She cried, feeling relieved to be under their roof.

“I get to eat in Hong Kong, but it’s different when you get to share the meals with your family,” she said.

When it came time for her to return to Hong Kong, her brother bought a box of masks for her and her parents nagged her to be careful. She ended up spending all day at the airport after her flight was canceled, then stayed at her brother’s home in Manila. Her lost luggage showed up two days later.

Her supervisor had given her permission to work remotely, but she was worried about being absent for too long.

“As overseas Filipino workers, none of us can afford to lose our jobs,” she said.

Ms. Doringo still is not sure when she will be able to return to Hong Kong. But she has stocked up on masks, rubbing alcohol and snacks so that when she does, she will not have to venture outdoors.

“I am afraid to get sick. We all are, but it’s our decision to take the risk,” she said. “We know the consequences of going abroad.”

Hannah Reyes Morales contributed reporting from Manila.


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