SEVERAL lawmakers from Eastern Visayas on Thursday, June 18, 2020, blamed the government’s “Hatid Probinsya” program for the increasing number of coronavirus infections in the region.

In a joint statement, the Eastern Visayan lawmakers expressed alarm over the surge in coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) cases in Samar and Leyte islands.

“Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in our country last January, Eastern Visayas has been fortunate to be spared from the devastating impact of the novel coronavirus for the next two months,” the lawmakers said.

The first case, a traveler from Manila, was recorded last March 23 in Cataman, Northern Samar.

“The patient arrived in Catarman on March 4, after residing in San Juan, Metro Manila for about two months,” the statement read.

In the last four days, they said the number of cases increased at an “alarming rate.”

As of June 14, Department of Health (DOH) Regional Director Minerva Molon said the number of confirmed cases in Eastern Visayas has increased to 200.

“The most recent record of 68 cases was the highest reported in Eastern Visayas since March 23,” they said.

The lawmakers suspect that the rapid increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in Eastern Visayas is because of the “Hatid Probinsya” program which seeks to help 13,000 locally stranded individuals in Luzon who wish to return to their hometowns in Visayas and Mindanao.

“Official records show that the rapid increase in the number of Covid-19 cases was observed shortly after the national government implemented its Hatid Probinsya program,” the lawmakers said.

“Most of those who tested positive were returning residents, who were previously locally stranded in Metro Manila for days. Some were overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who also got stranded in Metro Manila after returning from work abroad,” they added.

In their statement, the lawmakers said that while they welcome the return of the stranded individuals, it is still the government’s duty to ensure that they are free from Covid-19.

“We welcome our returning kabugtu-an and kaigsoonan to Samar and Leyte with open arms. We share their grief and agony in getting stranded away from their loved ones in these difficult times. They deserve the warm embrace of their families and their communities,” the lawmakers said.

“However, we firmly believe that it is the duty of government to ensure that these constituents of ours are free from coronavirus infection and other disease before they are allowed to rejoin their family members,” they added.

The statement was signed by House Majority Leader and Leyte 1st District Rep. Martin Romualdez, Tingog party-list Rep. Yedda Marie Romualdez, Northern Samar 1st District Rep. Paul Ruiz Daza, Leyte 2nd District Rep. Lolita Javier, Northern Samar 2nd District Rep. Jose Ong Jr., Leyte 3rd District Rep. Vicente S.E. Veloso III., Western Samar 1st District Rep. Edgar Mary Sarmiento, Leyte 4th District Rep. Lucy Torres-Gomez, Western Samar 2nd District Rep. Sharee Ann Tan, Leyte 5th District Rep. Carl Nicolas Cari, Eastern Samar Lone District Rep. Maria Fe Abunda, Southern Leyte Lone District Rep. Roger Mercado, and Biliran Lone District Rep. Gerardo Espina Jr. (SunStar Philippines)