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Tribal community in Philippines says no to visitors as fear of virus spreads

A tribal community in the picturesque island of Boracay in the central Philippines has decided to close its village to visitors over the new coronavirus scare.

“The decision was taken for both the safety and well-being of the Atis,” said Father Palermo Suganob, whose parish includes the tribal community.

The priest said the decision to close the community was suggested by Daughters of Charity nuns who work with the tribe at the other end of the island.

For years the tribal community has hosted visitors, many of whom come from China, to conduct “outreach programs” with villagers.

The threat from the virus has affected Boracay’s tourism and the livelihood of many of its residents, who said their earnings have dropped by almost half.

Chinese tourists, who used to be the majority of foreign visitors to Boracay, have stopped arriving after air flights from China were cancelled.

Peter Tay, liaison officer to Boracay for the Chinese Embassy in Manila, said travel restrictions would inevitably affect businesses on the island.

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From January to May 2019, at least 434,175 Chinese tourists, or 50 percent of Boracay’s 865,419 foreign visitors, arrived on the island.

At least 11 Chinese nationals who were vacationing in Boracay were earlier placed under observation to detect signs of the new coronavirus.

Loren Legarda, a member of congress representing the province of Antique, called for a ban on visitors coming from China and other countries with suspected and confirmed cases of the virus.

“This rise in new coronavirus cases is a cause for alarm, especially because our country is one of the most visited by tourists from all over the world,” said the legislator.

“We cannot let our guard down,” she said, noting that the virus had spread to more countries after the death toll in China rose to 425, with 20,000 confirmed cases as of Feb. 4. 

Authorities confirmed on Feb. 2 that a man in the Philippines had died due to the new coronavirus. It was the first death from the virus outside of China.

Arriving passengers at Manila’s international airport wear masks amid the ongoing coronavirus scare in the country. (Photo by Jire Carreon)

President Rodrigo Duterte said the government “will never hide anything” from the public regarding the spread of the virus following an “emergency meeting” with officials on Feb. 3.

“If it would cost you lives, we would not hide that,” Duterte said in a press briefing. “Everything is well in the country. There’s nothing really to be extra-scared of [regarding] that coronavirus thing,” he said. 

The president, however, said the government has not yet identified places where quarantine sites can be set up, claiming there is presently no need for them.

Duterte reiterated that the travel ban currently being enforced covers all foreign nationals who have traveled to China, Hong Kong, and Macau.

Health officials reported that they are now looking at 80 patients who may have been infected with the virus.

The World Health Organization said there is no community-wide spread of the deadly virus in the country. 

Jun N. Aguirre contributed to this report from Boracay Island.

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