Philippines offers nurses in exchange for vaccines from Britain, Germany

By Neil Jerome Morales

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines will let thousands of its healthcare workers, mostly nurses, take up jobs in Britain and Germany if the two countries agree to donate much-needed coronavirus vaccines, a senior official said on Tuesday.

The Philippines, which has among Asia’s highest number of coronavirus cases, has relaxed a ban on deploying its healthcare workers overseas, but still limits the number of medical professionals leaving the country to 5,000 a year.

Alice Visperas, director of the labor ministry’s international affairs bureau, said the Philippines was open to lifting the cap in exchange for vaccines from Britain and Germany, which it would use to inoculate outbound workers and hundreds of thousands of Filipino repatriates.

Nurses are among the millions of Filipinos who work overseas, providing in excess of $30 billion a year in remittances vital to the country’s economy.

“We are considering the request to lift the deployment cap, subject to agreement,” Visperas told Reuters.

Britain is grappling with the world’s sixth-highest coronavirus death toll and one of the worst economic hits from the pandemic, while Germany has the 10th most infections globally.

While the two countries have inoculated a combined 23 million people, the Philippines has yet to start its campaign to immunize 70 million adults, or two-thirds of its 108 million people. It expects to receive its first batch of vaccines this week, donated by China.

The Philippines wants to secure 148 million doses of vaccines altogether.

The British embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment while calls to Germany’s mission went unanswered.

In 2019, almost 17,000 Filipino nurses signed overseas work contracts, government data showed.

While Filipino nurses have fought to lift the deployment ban to escape poor working conditions and low pay at home, the workers-for-vaccine plan has not gone down well with some medical workers.

“We are disgusted on how nurses and healthcare workers are being treated by the government as commodities or export products,” Jocelyn Andamo, secretary general of the Filipino Nurses United, told Reuters.

‘We’ve got your back’ – Trump advisor vows U.S. support in South China Sea

MANILA (Reuters) – U.S. national security adviser Robert O’Brien on Monday assured the Philippines and Vietnam, countries both locked in maritime rows with China, that Washington has their backs and would fight to keep the Indo-Pacific region free and open.

“Our message is we’re going to be here, we’ve got your back, and we’re not leaving,” said O’Brien, on a visit to the Philippines after concluding a trip to Vietnam on Sunday.

“I think when we send that message – that peace-through-strength message – is the way to deter China. It is a way to ensure the peace,” O’Brien said.

Vietnam and the Philippines have been the most vocal regional opponents to what they see as Chinese overreach in the South China Sea and its disregard for boundaries outlined in international maritime law.

China claims 90% of the potentially energy-rich South China Sea, but Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam each claim parts of it.

The United States has long opposed China’s expansive claims, sending warships regularly through the strategic waterway to demonstrate freedom of navigation there.

China maintains it is a force for peace in the region and sees the U.S. presence as provocative and interference by an outsider.

O’Brien, who led the turnover in Manila of $18 million worth of precision-guided munitions, said the United States stood with the Philippines in protecting its offshore resource entitlements.

“Those resources belong to the children and grandchildren of the people here,” he said.

“They don’t belong to some other country just because they may be bigger than the Philippines,” he said, adding: “That’s just wrong.”

His visit came more than a week after the Philippines suspended its scrapping of a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States for a second time, as the treaty allies work on a long-term mutual defense arrangement.

Last year, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the Philippines it would come to its defense if attacked in the South China Sea.

(Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Martin Petty)

In COVID-19 clampdown, China bars travelers from Britain, France, India

BEIJING (Reuters) – China has barred non-Chinese travelers from Britain, France, Belgium, the Philippines and India, imposing some of the most stringent entry curbs of any country as coronavirus cases surge around the world.

The restrictions, which cover those with valid visas and residence permits and take effect in conjunction with a more restrictive testing regime for arrivals from several other countries, drew a frosty response from Britain.

“We are concerned by the abruptness of the announcement and the blanket ban on entry, and await further clarification on when it will be lifted,” said the British Chamber of Commerce in China as the blanket bans were announced by the five countries’ Chinese embassies.

England started a month-long lockdown on Thursday. Britain’s virus death toll is the highest in Europe, and it is grappling with more than 20,000 new cases a day.

Belgium has Europe’s highest per capita number of new confirmed cases, while France and India are among the top five countries in the world with the most infections.

The suspensions were a partial reversal of an easing on Sept. 28, when China allowed all foreigners with valid residence permits to enter. In March, China had banned entry of foreigners in response to the epidemic.

‘SOLD OUT IN SECONDS’

Meanwhile, many people planning November visits to China scrambled to book earlier flights to circumvent potentially disruptive restrictions due to come into force for other countries from Friday.

Linyi Li, a Chinese national, had planned to fly from Seattle to China in mid-November but switched her flight to Nov. 6 even though fares had tripled.

“The tickets were sold out in seconds, as people were all scrambling to beat the deadline,” said Li, 30. “I’ve been rushing to sell many of my family belongings in the past days in case I can’t get back to the States.”

From Friday, all passengers from the United States, France, Germany and Thailand bound for mainland China must take a nucleic acid test and a blood test for antibodies against the coronavirus no more than 48 hours before boarding.

Flights scheduled for Friday are not covered by the new rule, since passengers would have done their tests before that day under previous requirements.

China also plans to impose dual-test requirements on travelers from Australia, Singapore and Japan from Nov. 8.

The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China said the antibody test was not widely available in many countries.

“(So) unfortunately, while technically leaving the door open, these changes imply a de facto ban on anyone trying to get back to their lives, work and families in China,” said the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China.

On Tuesday, China Southern Airlines, the country’s biggest carrier by passenger load, said it would suspend transit services for passengers embarking from 21 countries, mostly African and Asian countries and including India and the Philippines.

The number of weekly international passenger flights serving mainland China from late October through March is set to slump 96.8% from a year earlier to 592, the latest schedules show.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Lusha Zhang, Dominique Patton, Stella Qiu, Gabriel Crossley, Martin Pollard and Shivani Singh; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and John Stonestreet)

Pandemic ‘hero’ Filipino nurses struggle to leave home

By Karen Lema and Clare Baldwin

MANILA (Reuters) – From across the Philippines, they gathered to pray by Zoom.

They were praying to be allowed to leave: To be allowed to take up nursing jobs in countries where the coronavirus is killing thousands in hospitals and care homes. In recent months, these care workers have taken to calling themselves “priso-nurses.”

With infections also surging in the Philippines, the government in April banned healthcare workers from leaving the country. They were needed, it said, to fight the pandemic at home.

But many of the nurses on the two-hour Zoom call on Aug. 20, organised by a union and attended by nearly 200 health workers both in the Philippines and abroad, were unwilling to work at home. They said they felt underpaid, unappreciated and unprotected.

Nurses have been leaving the Philippines for decades, encouraged by the government to join other workers who send back billions of dollars each year.

With COVID-19 sweeping the globalized economy, the Philippine ban squeezed a supply line that has sent hundreds of thousands of staff to hospitals in the United States, the Gulf and Britain, where some commentators have called the nurses “unsung heroes” of the pandemic.

The Philippines’ healthcare system is already short-handed. In Germany there are 430 doctors and nurses per 10,000 people, in the United States 337 and in Britain 254, International Labor Organization data shows.

The Philippines – where the coronavirus death rate is one of the highest in Southeast Asia – has 65.

The April ban has stopped more than 1,000 nurses from leaving the country. Of those, only 25 have applied to work in local hospitals, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III told journalists late last month. The Department of Health did not reply to a request for an updated figure.

The government has since partially eased the restrictions, but sometimes also tightens them, so nurses are still clamoring to get out.

On the Zoom call in August, someone played a recording of the Philippine national anthem. A Catholic priest prayed and a man with a soft voice crooned a song about passing off your burdens to God.

One nurse, 34-year-old April Glory, had already spent years away from her young son and had been about to leave again when the ban kicked in. Even before the pandemic, she told Reuters separately, she was better off in a war zone in the Middle East than at home.

Soon after she arrived in Yemen in 2011, a bullet pierced the wall of her private hospital, she said. Staff moved patients to safety.

Still, she said, “we were insured, we had free lodging so my salary was intact and I could send more to my family.” Abroad, there was no need to do any work outside her job description: “You are not expected to sweep the floor.”

SIMPLE MATH

It’s mainly money that drives the Filipinos abroad.

A nurse in the United States can earn as much as $5,000 per month; in the Middle East it’s $2,000 per month, tax free. In Germany, nurses can earn up to $2,800 per month, and get language training, labor organizers, recruiters and the Philippine government’s overseas employment agency say.

Even with its emergency hiring efforts, the Philippine Department of Health is only offering nurses a starting salary of $650 per month. It says it will pay another $10 per day as COVID-19 hazard allowance.

Private nurses sometimes make just $100 per month.

“I felt that I was not earning enough,” said Glory, explaining why she left. Her son, now 11, was a year and a half old at the time. “My mother told me: Better to leave now because my child will not really remember.”

Abroad, Glory’s shifts were a standard eight hours and she only looked after one or two patients at a time in intensive care. Working in Yemen and then Saudi Arabia, she said she bought a house and a car.

Nurses have recently left faster than they are trained. Last year, 12,083 new nurses graduated in the Philippines. That same year, 16,711 signed contracts to go abroad, data from the Commission on Higher Education and the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration shows. Those renewing foreign contracts are counted separately. So far this year there have been 46,000 such renewals.

The Philippine government wasn’t able to provide figures for the total number of nurses overseas, or say which countries they are working in.

Filipinos are the biggest group of foreign nurses in the United States. In 2018, there were 348,000, an analysis of U.S. government data by Washington D.C.-based think tank Migration Policy Institute showed. Even with the pandemic, another 3,260 Filipinos have passed the U.S. nurse licensing exam this year.

A report to Britain’s House of Commons Library in May said more than 15,000 of the National Health Service nursing jobs held by foreigners went to Filipinos – nearly a third of the total and more than any other nationality. The NHS employs a further 6,600 Filipinos in other healthcare jobs.

Labor brokers say that, besides the UK and US, Filipino nurses are sought-after in Germany, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Singapore.

36-HOUR SHIFTS

Nine months into the pandemic in the Philippines, reported coronavirus infections in the Philippines have soared to around 270,000. Not all hospitals allow family members to visit, so nurses must feed and clean patients as well as giving health care, said Filipino Nurses United President Maristela Abenojar.

Some nurses are working up to 36-hour shifts because relief staff are calling in sick or not reporting for duty, she said, and sometimes nurses are issued just one set of protective gear per shift. Nurses can’t get tested regularly and if they get sick, there aren’t always hospital beds reserved for them, she said.

At least 56 healthcare workers have died in the Philippines, Department of Health data shows.

“It seems they don’t really value our contributions,” said Jordan Jugo, who works at a private hospital in the Philippines. “It hurts.” He had a contract to work in Britain, but the ban prevented him from leaving.

He said he could sometimes only eat two meals a day and could no longer support his siblings.

The Philippine Department of Health said its healthcare workers work long hours and “it is natural for them to feel tired and overwhelmed with their immense responsibilities.” It said it had arranged for “substitution teams” in some areas.

It said hospitals should provide sufficient protective gear and that healthcare workers should not go on duty without it. Healthcare workers should be prioritized for regular COVID-19 testing, it said, and the Department would ensure there are enough beds for everyone.

Health Secretary Duque has said previously that the government was appealing to the nurses’ “sense of nation, sense of people and sense of service.”

“I DON’T WANT TO BE A HERO”

Foreign countries have gone all-out to show Filipino nurses they are valued.

Saudi Arabia sent chartered planes to help them return to work, and only partly filled them so the nurses could maintain social distance.

British ambassador to the Philippines Daniel Pruce went on an 11-minute segment on Philippine television to praise the “incredible commitment and dedication” of Filipino healthcare workers in Britain.

When nurse Aileen Amoncio, 36, got trapped by a lockdown and then the travel ban during a vacation to the Philippines in March, Britain’s NHS granted her a special “COVID leave” and kept paying her, she said. The NHS said staff stuck abroad due to COVID-19 could qualify for such leave.

Amoncio got out of the Philippines in June, after the government eased the ban slightly.

Working at an NHS neurological rehabilitation hospital in the UK, she said she sympathized with the nurses back home, where she once handled as many as 80 patients on a surgical ward at a small hospital. Now she looks after no more than 10 at a time.

Not only are the pay and conditions better in Britain, she said, but she also hopes her daughter will one day be able to join her and get free treatment on the NHS. The hearing implant she needs would cost $20,000 in the Philippines.

“I’ve served my country already,” said Amoncio. “I don’t want to be a hero again. I am looking out for the future of my children.”

On the Zoom call, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III dialed in with an update: Some of those who had existing contracts could leave, he announced. Cheers went up.

Nurse Glory was one of them. She wept.

“I hope the government will not take it against us that we are leaving,” she said. “We are looking forward to helping the government with this fight in other ways. When we are able, when we’ve risen out of poverty, we will.”

Hours later, on the pavement outside the airport, she quickly hugged her son, then raced to board her flight in case the government changed its mind.

(Additional reporting by Eloisa Lopez; Edited by Matthew Tostevin and Sara Ledwith)

Philippines presidential spokesman links pardon of U.S. Marine to vaccine access

MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to pardon a United States Marine convicted of killing a transgender woman nearly six years ago may have stemmed from his desire to get access to coronavirus vaccines being developed by U.S. firms, his spokesman said on Thursday.

“His decision didn’t surprise me. Why? Because I know he is upholding the higher national interest”, Harry Roque said in a regular news briefing when asked to give his “personal take” on the president’s move.

Duterte on Monday pardoned Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton who was serving a six- to 10-year sentence for killing Jennifer Laude near a former U.S. navy base in 2014, sparking condemnation from activists who described the move as a “mockery of justice”.

Roque, who served as lawyer in the prosecution of Pemberton, had likened Laude’s killing to the “death of Philippine sovereignty”.

“I think this pardon, although this is my personal opinion, was to ensure Filipinos would benefit from a vaccine against COVID-19 should the Americans develop one,” Roque said. “I don’t see any problem with that”.

The Philippines, among a number of developing countries with large populations keen to secure a supply a COVID-19 vaccine, met with representatives of U.S. drugmaker Pfizer Inc last week.

U.S. public health officials and Pfizer said a COVID-19 vaccine could be ready for distribution in the United States as soon as next month

Duterte has pledged that the country, which has the most coronavirus infections and second largest number of COVID-19 deaths in Southeast Asia, would be “back to normal” by December, pinning his hopes on access to affordable vaccines from countries like China and Russia.

The Southeast Asian nation, which has more than 248,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, plans to buy 40 million doses worth $400 million for 20 million people, about a fifth of its 107 million population.

(Reporting by Karen Lema; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Pandemic hampers Philippines mass evacuation as typhoon hits

By Karen Lema

MANILA (Reuters) – The coronavirus pandemic is complicating Philippine efforts to move hundreds of thousands of people into evacuation centers where social distancing is hard to enforce as a strong typhoon pummeled through its eastern provinces.

Typhoon Vongfong, the first to hit the country this year, intensified after slamming into the eastern Philippines on Thursday afternoon, packing winds of 155 kilometers per hour (kph) and gusts of up to 255 kph (158 miles per hour), the state weather bureau said in a bulletin.

Provincial and city governments, many of which are already strapped for resources due to the outbreak, are grappling with logistical and space issues, with an estimated 200,000 people needed to be moved from their homes in coastal and mountainous areas because of fears of flooding and landslides.

“This is really a nightmare for us here,” Ben Evardone, governor of the Eastern Samar province, told CNN Philippines. “Our problem right now is where to squeeze our people, while making sure they practice social distancing”.

With an average of 20 typhoons every year hitting the Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,000 islands, the challenges faced by stretched-thin local governments offer a grim preview of disaster response in the time of COVID-19.

The typhoon was forecast to move northwestward and hit Luzon, the country’s largest island that includes the capital Manila, which remains on lockdown.

Images shared on social media showed the powerful typhoon bringing intense rain and violent winds in areas along its path, toppling trees, knocking out power and destroying homes.

In the town of Buhi in the province of Camarines Sur, hundreds of evacuees were given face masks before they were allowed in the evacuation centers.

Mark Anthony Nazarrea, a public information officer at Buhi, said the local government turned two more schools into temporary shelters to enable better social distancing.

There were no reported cases of the new coronavirus in Buhi, Nazarrea said, but “we want to minimize the risk”.

Classrooms that used to accommodate eight families during disasters are now housing only one to two families, he said.

The novel coronavirus has killed 790 people in the Philippines since the first local transmission was recorded in March, and infected close to 12,000.

(Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Mark Potter)

In global war on coronavirus, some fear civil rights are collateral damage

By Luke Baker, Matthew Tostevin and Devjyot Ghoshal

LONDON/BANGKOK/DELHI (Reuters) – In Armenia, journalists must by law include information from the government in their stories about COVID-19. In the Philippines, the president has told security forces that if anyone violates the lockdown they should “shoot them dead”. In Hungary, the premier can rule by decree indefinitely.

Across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas, governments have introduced states of emergency to combat the spread of the new coronavirus, imposing some of the most stringent restrictions on civil liberties since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, lawyers and human rights campaigners said.

While such experts agree extraordinary measures are needed to tackle the deadliest pandemic in a century, some are worried about an erosion of core rights, and the risk that sweeping measures will not be rolled back afterwards.

“In many ways, the virus risks replicating the reaction to Sept. 11,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, referring to the welter of security and surveillance legislation imposed around the world after the al Qaeda attacks on the United States that killed nearly 3,000 people.

“People were fearful and asked governments to protect them. Many governments took advantage of that to undermine rights in ways that far outlasted the terrorist threat,” he told Reuters.

Roth was speaking about legislation in countries including the United States, Britain and EU states which increased collection of visa and immigrant data and counter-terrorism powers.

Some measures imposed in response to a crisis can become normalised, such as longer security queues at airports as a trade-off for feeling safer flying. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, similar trade-offs may become widely acceptable around issues such as surveillance, according to some political and social commentators.

South Korea’s use of mobile phone and other data to track potential carriers of the virus and impose quarantines has been a successful strategy and is a model that could be replicated around the world to guard against pandemics, they say.

Political consultant Bruno Macaes, a former Portuguese minister, said people’s obsession with privacy had made it harder to combat threats like pandemics, when technology to trace the virus could help.

“I am more and more convinced the greatest battle of our time is against the ‘religion of privacy’. It literally could get us all killed,” he added.

EXTRAORDINARY CRISIS

As the virus has spread from China across the world, with more than 1.4 million people infected and 82,000 dead, governments have passed laws and issued executive orders.

The first priority of the measures is to protect public health and limit the spread of the disease.

“It’s quite an extraordinary crisis, and I don’t really have trouble with a government doing sensible if extraordinary things to protect people,” said Clive Stafford-Smith, a leading civil rights lawyer.

The U.S.-headquartered International Center for Not-For-Profit Law has set up a database to track legislation and how it impinges on civic freedoms and human rights.

By its count, 68 countries have so far made emergency declarations, while nine have introduced measures that affect expression, 11 have ratcheted up surveillance and a total of 72 have imposed restrictions on assembly.

EXTRAORDINARY POWERS

In Hungary for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose party dominates parliament, has been granted the right to rule by decree in order to fight the epidemic, with no time-limit on those powers and the ability to jail people for up to five years if they spread false information or hinder efforts to quell the virus.

The Hungarian government said the law empowered it to adopt only measures for “preventing, controlling and eliminating” the coronavirus. Spokesman Zolan Kovacs said nobody knew how long the pandemic would persist, but that parliament could revoke the extra powers.

In Cambodia, meanwhile, an emergency law has been drafted to give additional powers to Hun Sen, who has been in office for 35 years and has been condemned by Western countries for a crackdown on opponents, civil rights groups and the media. The law is for three months and can be extended if needed.

The Cambodian government did not respond to a request for comment. Hun Sen defended the law at a news conference this week, saying it was only required so that he could declare a state of emergency, if needed, to stop the virus and saving the economy.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former coup leader who kept power after a disputed election last year, has invoked emergency powers that allow him to return to governing by decree. The powers run to the end of the month, but also can be extended.

“The government is only using emergency power where it is necessary to contain the spread of the coronavirus,” said Thai government spokeswoman Narumon Pinyosinwat.

In the Philippines, the head of police said President Rodrigo Duterte’s order to shoot lockdown violators was a sign of his seriousness rather than indicating people would be shot.

Neither the presidential spokesman nor the cabinet secretary responded to a request for comment.

PUBLIC HEALTH

For Roth and other human rights advocates, the dangers are not only to fundamental freedoms but to public health. They say restrictions on the media could limit the dissemination of information helpful in curbing the virus’s spread, for instance.

Indian premier Narendra Modi, criticised in the media for a lack of preparedness including inadequate protective gear for health workers, has been accused by opponents of trying to muzzle the press by demanding that it get government clearance before publishing coronavirus news, a request rejected by India’s supreme court.

The Indian government did not respond to a request for comment, while the Armenian government said it had no immediate comment. Both have said they want to prevent the spread of misinformation, which could hamper efforts to control the outbreak.

Carl Dolan, head of advocacy at the Open Society European Policy Institute, warned about the tendency for some governments to keep extraordinary powers on their books long after the threat they were introduced to tackle has passed.

Dolan proposed a mandatory review of such measures at least every six months, warning otherwise of a risk of “a gradual slide into authoritarianism”.

(Additional reporting by Josh Smith in Seoul, Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh, Krisztina Than in Budapest, Nvard Hovhannisyan in Yerevan, Neil Jerome Morales in Manila, Panu Wongcha-Um in Bangkok, Linda Sieg in Tokyo, John Mair in Sydney, Ben Blanchard in Taipei, Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade and Tsvetelia Tsolova in Sofia; Editing by Pravin Char)

Philippine residents retrieve animals, belongings amid threat of volcano eruption

By Eloisa Lopez and Karen Lema

AGONCILLO, Philippines (Reuters) – Thousands of residents under orders to evacuate from a town near the Philippine volcano Taal were allowed to briefly visit homes on Friday to rescue their animals and recover some possessions, taking advantage of what appeared to be waning activity.

Daniel Reyes, mayor of the Agoncillo town inside the danger zone of the 311 meter (1,020 feet) volcano, said he allowed around 3,000 residents to check their properties and retrieve animals, clothes and other possessions.

“If I would not let them rescue their animals, their animals would die and together with them their sources of livelihood,” Reyes told Reuters.

A long line of cars, trucks, motorcycle taxis carrying pigs, dogs, television sets, gas stoves and electric fans, were seen leaving Agoncillo, among the towns blanketed in thick layers of volcanic ash.

“Our bodies are fine, but our minds and hearts are in pain”, said resident Peding Dawis, 63, while resting after taking his cows to safer areas.

Dawis said there were 200 more pigs that needed rescuing in his neighborhood.

“It’s hard to leave our homes and livelihood behind.”

More than 40,000 residents of Agoncillo have abandoned their homes since Taal, one of the Philippines’ most active and deadliest volcanoes, began spewing massive clouds of ash, steam and gas on Sunday, Reyes said.

The majority of residents are now staying with families elsewhere, but the rest are among a total of 66,000 people sheltering in evacuation centers.

SIGNS OF CALM

Taal has shown signs of calm since Thursday and Reyes said he took advantage of this window to allow residents to collect their belongings.

“Based on what I saw outside, I thought I would be doing them more good if I let them return to their homes,” Reyes said. “The help they are getting now is only momentarily”.

The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) said it observed “steady steam emission and infrequent weak explosions” from the volcano’s main crater, but it continued to record dozens of earthquakes in nearby towns.

The institute said on Friday the danger level posed by the volcano remained at 4 out of a possible 5, meaning “hazardous explosive eruption is possible within hours to days”.

“We do not base the alert level simply on what we see on the surface. We have to try to interpret what is happening below,” Renato Solidum, Phivolcs’ chief, told CNN Philippines.

“There are sometimes waning activity but the activity below is still continuing.”

The impact of the volcano on the $330 billion national economy has been a blip, despite canceled flights and a day of work lost on Sunday because of a heavy ashfall in the capital Manila, 70 km (45 miles) away.

But for some of the farmers growing pineapples, bananas and coffee nearby it has been a disaster.

Volcanic ash has caused an estimated 3.06 billion pesos ($60.17 million) worth of damage to crops, livestock and fish farms, based on the latest data from the agriculture department.

Although Taal is one of the world’s smallest active volcanoes, it can be deadly. An eruption killed more than 1,300 people in 1911.

(Additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Michael Perry)

Rumbling volcano shuts down Philippine capital

By Karen Lema and Enrico Dela Cruz

MANILA (Reuters) – Schools and businesses shut across the Philippine capital on Monday as a volcano belched clouds of ash across the city and seismologists warned an eruption could happen at any time, potentially triggering a tsunami.

Thousands of people were forced to evacuate their homes around Taal, one of the world’s smallest active volcanoes, which spewed ash for a second day from its crater in the middle of a lake about 70 km (45 miles) south of central Manila.

Residents living near the errupting Taal Volcano evacuate in Lemery, Batangas City, Philippines, January 13, 2020. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

“The speed of escalation of Taal’s volcanic activity caught us by surprise,” Maria Antonia Bornas, chief science research specialist at the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, told reporters.

“We have detected magma. It’s still deep, it hasn’t reached the surface. We still can expect a hazardous eruption any time.”

Authorities warned that an eruption could send a tsunami surging across the lake.

More than 24,000 people have been evacuated from the volcanic island and the area immediately around it – normally a popular tourist spot.

“We got scared of what could happen to us, we thought the volcano was going to erupt already,” said Marilou Baldonado, 53, who left the town of Laurel with only two sets of clothes after she saw the huge ash cloud build.

Some tourists ignored the dangers and traveled to towns close to the volcano to get a better look.

Residents living near the errupting Taal Volcano evacuate in Agoncillo, Batangas City, Philippines, January 13, 2020. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

“It’s a once in a lifetime experience for us,” Israeli tourist Benny Borenstein told Reuters as he snapped photos of Taal from a vantage point in Tagaytay City, about 32 km away.

To the southwest of the volcano, the towns of Agoncillo and Lemery were coated by a thick layer of ash, making roads impassable.

Agoncillo’s mayor, Daniel Reyes, told DZMM radio some homes and part of a building had collapsed under the weight of the fallen ash.

In nearby Talisay Batangas, Vice Governor Mark Leviste said rain had turned ash to mud and trucks were needed to evacuate more people from remote communities.

“There is no power. Even water was cut, so we are in need of potable water,” he said. “We are in need of face masks.”

SHUT DOWN

In Manila, masks sold out quickly after residents were advised to wear them if they had to go out. Some wore handkerchiefs across their faces as they breathed air tainted by the smell of sulfur.

Streets that would normally be snarled with some of the world’s worst traffic were largely empty in the city of 13 million people.

Schools and government offices were closed on official orders. The stock exchange suspended trading and many private businesses shut for the day too.

Classes in some cities in the capital will remain suspended on Tuesday, officials said.

Lightning strike in the midst of Taal volcano explosion is seen in Lipa City, Philippines January 12, 2020 in this picture obtained from social media. Cheslie Andal/via REUTERS

Flight operations at Manila’s international airport partially resumed, authorities said, after more than 500 flights were delayed or canceled on Sunday.

One flight that did land carried President Rodrigo Duterte, who was coming back from his home city of Davao in the southern Philippines. He had been unable to fly on Sunday because visibility was so low.

One of the most active volcanoes in the Philippines, Taal has erupted more than 30 times in the past five centuries, most recently in 1977. An eruption in 1911 killed 1,500 people and one in 1754 lasted for a few months.

The island has been showing signs of restiveness since early last year.

The Philippines lies on the “Ring of Fire,” a belt of volcanoes circling the Pacific Ocean that is also prone to earthquakes.

(Additional reporting by Peter Blaza; Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Stephen Coates and Andrew Heavens)

Philippines bans two U.S. senators, mulls new visa rules for Americans

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines has banned two U.S. lawmakers from visiting and will introduce tighter entry restrictions for U.S. citizens should Washington enforce sanctions over the detention of a top government critic, the president’s spokesman said on Friday.

President Rodrigo Duterte will impose a requirement on U.S. nationals to get visas should any Philippine officials involved in the incarceration of Senator Leila de Lima be denied entry to the United States, as sought by U.S. senators Richard Durbin and Patrick Leahy.

Duterte’s move comes after the U.S. Congress approved a 2020 budget that contains a provision introduced by the senators against anyone involved in holding de Lima, who was charged with drug offences in early 2017 after she led an investigation into mass killings during Duterte’s notorious anti-drugs crackdown.

“We will not sit idly if they continue to interfere with our processes as a sovereign state,” Philippine presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo told a regular news conference.

The Philippines grants visa-free entry for up to 30 days to Americans, 792,000 of whom visited in the first nine months of 2019, nearly 13% of foreign arrivals, government data showed.

The U.S. embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Panelo said travel restrictions over de Lima’s detention were nonsense because she was not wrongfully imprisoned but detained pending trial for crimes.

“The case of Senator de Lima is not one of persecution but of prosecution,” he said.

Duterte makes no secret of his disdain for the United States and what he considers its hypocrisy and interference, though he admits that most Filipinos and his military have high regard for their country’s former colonial ruler.

The United States is the Philippines biggest defense ally and its main source of Western influence. Millions of Filipinos have relatives who are U.S. citizens.

De Lima, a justice minister in a former administration, on Wednesday expressed what she described as overwhelming gratitude to the U.S. Congress for its help.

She has won numerous awards from human rights groups, who consider her a prisoner of conscience.

She has constantly spoken out against Duterte and been calling for an international investigation into his war on drugs, in which thousands of people have been killed.

Police say those killed were drug dealers who resisted arrest, but activists believe many of the killings were murders.

(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty, Robert Birsel)