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Why I am Living in the Philippines to Avoid COVID-19

The idea of being stuck in a city with the highest population density in the world with COVID-19 was unappealing. Should I stay in the Philippines or go home? minutes


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About the author

Hi, I'm Marco Sison. I worked in finance for Fortune 50 companies before retiring early at 41 years old. I have been an expat for over 10 years, living in over 50 countries to show you the best ways to save, invest, and live in amazing countries outside the USA. I am a trusted resource on personal finance and overseas retirement for US News & World Reports, HuffPost, MSN Money, USA Today, ABC Network, Yahoo Finance, Association of MBAs, the iTunes documentary Seeking FIRE, and the Amazon Best-Seller- Abroad: Expats That Thrive.

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.

Checkpoints to Enforce Quarantine Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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. 

Philippines Manila Makati Skyline at Night

COVID-19 Fun Fact: Manila is the most densely populated city in the world.

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Foreigner’s Guide To Prenuptial Agreements in the Philippines- Protecting Your Money

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 the safest place 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.

Beach Living in the Philippines during Covid-19

Living in the Philippines Avoiding COVID-19

I think the city of Dumaguete is a good choice to ride things out.

  • It’s a small university town in the Philippines, about a 1.5 hour flight from Manila. Only about 120,000 people, but 4 hospitals.
  • 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 make quarantines easier to enforce.
  • The government decided on lockdowns quickly with military-level enforcement. Actions are taken with containment at the forefront rather than being political maneuvering.
  • Wearing masks in SE Asia is normal, even pre-pandemic.
  • Since I arrived in the country in late Jan, most buildings, malls, apartment complexes, etc. required temperature checks before entering.
  • Shorter supply chain than the US for local fruits and foods. I don’t have concerns about running out of food.
  • If scarcity occurs, my purchasing power is higher in a LCOL country. If sh*t went really sideways, my ability to buy solutions is higher here than the US.
  • Medical costs are MUCH cheaper here than the US.
  • Labor is inexpensive, so many businesses have people going around disinfecting surfaces all day.
  • Bum guns mean no toilet paper hoarding
  • The Philippines is known for its diving. Being underwater with your own air tank is a good social distance activity. 

 INSIDER TIP : Staying In the Philippines- For anyone looking to enter the Philippines, there are several short-term and long-stay visa options, including:

  1. A 59-day tourist visa on arrival
  2. Long-term retirement visas
  3. Even a marriage visa is an option if you find someone special here.  

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.

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About the author

Hi, That's me. I'm Marco Sison. I am a survivor of the corporate rat race. I started Nomad FIRE to show you an alternative to the stress and grind of 70-hour weeks to pay off a mortgage, student loans, and countless bills. After getting laid off in 2015, I said screw it all and retired early at 41 years old. I have traveled the last five years to over 40 countries to show you the best ways to save, invest, and live in amazing countries for 70% less cost than the US. I have been featured in: US News & World Reports, Huffington Post, MSN Money, USA Today, ABC Network, Yahoo Finance, Best Life, CW Network, Dr. Wealth, and others. [view press...]

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