COVID-19 Hits the Philippines
Don't Worry. Don't Worry. Okay Worry.
I departed the US for the Philippines on January 29. At that point, China was the main country affected by COVID-19. In the US, people were cavalier and the general attitude was that this was a media overreaction and the only people at risk were people over 70 or those with compromised immune systems. By the time I arrived at my AirBnb in the Philippines on February 1, the first death outside of China was reported. In…wait for it…the Philippines.
As the days progressed, you could see more and more precautions taken as concern mounted in the city. Temperature checks were required before entering any buildings, offices, malls, even before entering my apartment. At the front entrance of every business, there would be bottles of hand sanitizer for people entering to use. More and more people were wearing masks while walking the streets.
Roughly 5 weeks later, the President of the Philippines announced that the island of Luzon, the most populous area of the country (~50 million people), the economic hub, and the island that includes the nation's capital would be lockdown for 30 days. Starting March 14, all domestic air travel and seaports would be closed. The army and police would be manning checkpoints to restrict land travel to only essential needs. Manila was to be quarantined. Roughly 52 Million people were told to stay at home.
The idea of being stuck in a city with the highest population density in the world was unappealing at best. We had 48 hours to find a way out of Manila. My girlfriend and I were frantically looking for solutions. Should we try and escape to a different island in the Philippines. Should we go with our original plan and head to Spain? Should we go to her home country of Austria? We had less than 48 hours to come up with a solution, before all air, land, and sea transportation in and out of the island would stop.
Do I Live in the Philippines or Does COVID-19 Send Me Home?
We scheduled a flight out of Manila the day before the city locked down. We decided to ride out the quarantine in the smaller city of Dumaguete (population 120,000). When deciding between living in the Philippines, Europe, or the US, I felt the Philippines was in the best position to ride out COVID-19.
The decision on where to go was a charged debate between me and my girlfriend. As a European, she was most comfortable with what she knew, which was the EU has universal healthcare and well-equipped hospitals maintained to EU standards. She wanted us to head to Austria. I argued that the epicenter of COVID-19 pandemic was Northern Italy, which shares a border with Southern Austria.
If the Philippines extends the COVID-19 lockdown for 30 days, would I make the same decision?
Yes. We fully expect this to last at least another month. We'll poke our head out at that point and see how the world has panned out.
"The Philippines is a country made up of over 7000 islands. Islands tend to be natural barriers to slow the spread of the disease and makes quarantines easier to enforce."
What city or country would be your primary choice to live during a COVID-19 lockdown and why?
I would still live in the Philippines for all the reasons below. Neither of us ever considered returning to the US. By this point, we were hearing reports of hording and empty store shelves. My friends in the US were buying guns and ammunition. While I had ACA coverage, her travel insurance was expiring. Three insurance companies she contacted would not cover her for any COVID-19 related expenses. Without healthcare coverage in the US, riding out the pandemic there was a non-starter.
I think the city of Dumaguete is a good choice to ride things out.
Risk tolerance and decision making during COVID-19
Sometimes, especially in personal finance and FIRE circles, we focus on the numbers: monthly expenses, savings rates, net worth, years to retirement, etc. We base our financial future on our FINANCIAL risk tolerance. The number of months in our emergency fund, Safe Withdrawal Rate percentage, asset allocation in bonds are all quantitative numbers. Impersonal. Non-emotional. Cold hard facts and data.
This story is part of the Expat Insights: Should I Stay or Go Home? The Challenges of Living Abroad During a Global Pandemic series representing decision making in a crisis. During a global pandemic, people switched emphasis to PERSONAL risk tolerance: distance to mom and dad, concerns of infecting grandma, feeling isolated and alone, the anxiety of falling ill and unable to communicate in English, fear of having food run out. Decisions were personal. Emotions ran high.
The benefits of living abroad come with trade-offs
I am an unabashed cheerleader of geoarbitrage and moving abroad. I’ve written lots of past articles on the benefits of living overseas, but these advantages come with trade-offs. I love living abroad, but it isn't always rainbows and unicorn farts. Decisions we make in life are not always about the dollars and cents. When crisis hits, when fears are high and emotions boiling over, for some people, there is no place like home.