National Housing Authority General Manager and executive director of Senator Bong Go’s Balik Probinsya program Marcelino Escalada Jr announced Thursday that trips will be suspended for a month so the government can focus on “more important” problems, like assisting the stranded back to their hometowns.
“I decided as a matter of strategy to suspend our rollouts of Balik Probinsya to prioritize stranded OFWs, construction workers, students, and tourists,” Escalada said in a virtual press briefing.
The Balik Probinsya program caters to people who have homes in Metro Manila but originally came from the provinces that want to go back, while Hatid Probinsya is a program that helps transport people unable to return to their provinces due to quarantine restrictions.
The Balik Probinsya is seen as a “long term” solution because its goal is to decongest Metro Manila hoping to reduce the impact of future pandemics.
Many think the two programs are the same thing, which prompted local governments to blame Balik Probinsya for OFWs going home to their respective provinces without following certain protocols but Escalada made it clear that Bong Go’s program does not handle OFWs.
Balik Probinsya was supposed to cater to several batches of people who were looking to be sent home on June 11. However, the available vehicles instead took in those who needed to return to the provinces which was seen as more important.
If the number of stranded persons going to provinces decreases, then Balik Probinsya will most likely resume in July.
“It cannot coincide with more important trips; the more important trips right now are the ‘Hatid Tulong,’ so we suspended it,” said Escalada.
Bong Go’s program has only released one batch of beneficiaries which were 112 people living in Metro Manila for the past few years who were brought home to Palo, Leyte, on May 20.
The program still needs improvement, after two of the beneficiaries sent back to Leyte tested positive for COVID-19 through swab tests done a week after their arrival. The two of them were already in their hometowns of Tanauan town and Baybay City, which previously had zero coronavirus cases when the results came out.
Department of Health Eastern Visayas Regional Director Minerva Molon said that a review of Balik Probinsya’s implementation is needed.
Ormoc City Mayor Richard Gomez called it an act of “carelessness” because now the local governments have to deal with problems that weren’t there in the first place.
Escalada said he has added a new requirement which is a certification from the receiving local governments that they are ready to take in returnees.
“Another requirement for our Balik Probinsya is an official communication from the mayor or provincial governor that they are ready to accept, as the receiving LGUs, our Balik Probinsya beneficiaries,” he said.
The arrival of the Balik Probinsya returnees taxed Leyte’s testing capacity.
Most of the samples of the returnees had to be brought to the Vicente Sotto Memorial Medical Center in Cebu due to a shortage of supplies at the Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center.
Many provinces do not share the same level of healthcare capacity as Metro Manila since the megacity has the most of the testing laboratories and coronavirus-dedicated facilities and it is still the epicenter of coronavirus transmission.
Provinces are just not that advanced and had Bong Go’s program not been suspended then the people and LGUs will suffer more than ever before.
President Rodrigo Duterte adopted the Balik Probinsya through an executive order that made it a priority program of his administration after it was hyped up by state media and cabinet officials.