February 1, 2023

The mayors of Baguio and the towns of La Trinidad, Tuba, Sablan, and Tublay, Benguet have resolved issues surrounding the decision to regulate entry of residents of said towns to the Summer Capital, but the matter left scars far deeper than what the policy intended to address.

Hours after a staff of Mayor Benjamin Magalong announced that only those who have important matters to attend to will be allowed in Baguio for the next two weeks beginning Nov. 21, affected residents of outlying towns took to the social media complaining about the border control policy.

Issues raised were the inconvenience and cost of obtaining a “medical certificate,” and lack of time for affected residents to process the documents needed prior to entering Baguio.

The uproar was fueled when some officials of Benguet have denied they were informed of the policy. The Municipal Inter-Agency Task Force, the sangguniang bayan of La Trinidad, the sangguniang panlalawigan of Benguet, and Benguet caretaker Eric Yap also issued resolutions and statements urging Magalong to withdraw the border regulation.

Those who understood why Magalong of Baguio needed to regulate access defended the move but these were not enough to convince those affected that this is part of the efforts to mitigate spread of the Covid-19 virus.

The debate soon centered on name calling, some challenged the constitutionality of his order, some called for Magalong’s ouster, some said Baguio was turning its back on its neighbors, and some said he was discriminating the Igorots.

City Administrator Bonifacio dela Peña said the need to regulate access was properly explained to the representatives of the mayors and subsequently to the mayors themselves in their third meeting.

He said they at City Hall were caught by surprise in the ensuing public uproar for they thought the matter has been disseminated to their constituents.

Last Nov. 25, in separate meetings with department heads and the city council, Magalong presented data of Covid-19 cases in the LISTT and why he was aggressively pushing for expanded testing at said towns.

Citing the positivity rates of the BLISTT, Magalong said data shows that some outlying towns of Benguet had positivity rates above five percent – beyond the standard set by the World Health Organization.

A positivity rate is the percentage of people who test positive out of all of the tests done.

Based on the report of the Public Information Office, Itogon had the highest positivity rate at 12.1 percent (648 out of 5,346) followed by Tuba at 11.2 percent (358 out of 3,189), Baguio at 4.5 percent (2,821 out of 62,676), La Trinidad at 3.8 percent (571 out of 15,165), Tublay at 2.9 percent (17 out of 588) and Sablan at 2.7 percent (27 out of 1,002).

Magalong, also the country’s contact tracing czar said when Baguio implemented border control measures during the surge in cases in Itogon, the town’s positivity rate decreased.

Magalong said expanding border control measures to other towns, continuing expanded testing, and aggressive contact tracing could help lower cases and prevent transmission.

“My only reason is to protect not only Baguio but also the LISTT and the rest of Cordillera. Kung nagawa kong tulungan ang ibang region, dito pa kaya? Unfortunately, people do not see it that way,” Magalong said during the management committee meeting with city department heads morning of Nov. 24.

Itogon Mayor Victorio Palangdan has acknowledged that Baguio’s assistance helped the town manage its Covid-19 cases.

“The border control is for a limited time only; it is not against the law; it was not issued based on his whim or caprice. The people of Benguet should understand that this is being done because there is a pandemic,” Palangdan said during the city’s executive-legislative meeting, Wednesday afternoon. 

Tublay and Sablan were included in the border restriction because of their proximity to La Trinidad and Baguio.

Magalong said he chose to keep quiet despite the attacks but decided to explain to the department heads and the city council when comments already centered on insults.

“Pinapalabas pa ngayon na Magalong versus Igorots. Sobra na,” Magalong said, recalling his years of service as a military and police official assigned in the Cordillera.

“I risked my life protecting the Cordillera. I risked my career and my ambition to protect the SAF 44. I risked my life in 1986 (during the People Power Revolution), but did you ever hear me say something against them?” Magalong said.

Magalong said the decisions he makes regarding Baguio’s Covid-19 response always included the LISTT.

“When we found out that many of our index cases emanated from Benguet, did I come up with a pronouncement? We did not blame Benguet. We helped them,” Magalong said during the man-com meeting. 

He said the thousands of test kits, virus transport media, and truckloads of personal protective equipment he solicited were shared to LISTT and Kapangan. It was also Baguio that ferried positive cases of Itogon to an isolation facility based in Baguio, and the city’s contact tracing team assisted in contact tracing and data collection.

He said when officials of Benguet raised their concern about the lack of isolation facilities, he called Department of Public Works and Highways Sec. Mark Villar to prioritize the province for the construction of modular isolation centers. He also called an official of the Department of Education so that the Puguis Elementary School may be used as an isolation area.

In the close-door meeting of the local chief executives and National Economic Development Authority Regional Director Milagros Rimando late Wednesday afternoon, Magalong, chosen as spokesperson of the BLISTT mayors, said these issues and misunderstandings were ventilated and resolved, and adjustments have been made to lessen the inconvenience of affected residents.

He also acknowledged that when it comes to making major decisions, it should be the LCEs that should meet, instead of their representatives.

He said the LCEs agreed that the border control is necessary to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Tublay Mayor Armando Lauro said there were lessons learned from the incident. Palangdan on the other hand, appealed to the people of Benguet to “stop the social media war.” – Rimaliza A. Opiña