Amid reports of a record-high spike in COVID-19 cases reported daily and hospitals reaching full capacity, the country’s medical community called on the government to reimpose enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) in Metro Manila for hospitals to address urgent concerns and refine pandemic control strategies.
In a letter addressed to President Rodrigo Duterte, National Taskforce for COVID-19 chief Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. and Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Francisco Duque III, the Philippine College of Physicians alongside 80 medical societies noted that hospitals around the country are facing problems with isolation and contact tracing and lack of transportation and workplace safety.
“Our health-care workers are falling ill as they take care of patients, responding to the call of duty while battling the fear and anxiety COVID-19 brings. Our health-care workers are burnt out with the seemingly endless number of patients trooping to our hospitals for emergency care and admission,” their letter read.
Underpaid and overwhelmed
Even before the spike in the number of cases, the country’s healthcare system has already dealt with a number of issues. The early days of the pandemic have seen several hospitals nationwide struggling with the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as gloves, medical masks, respirators, goggles, face shields, gowns and aprons.
To ensure that they are able to treat patients while minimizing the risk of contracting COVID-19 themselves, staff members have resorted to purchasing their own PPEs and wearing their masks for the entirety of their shifts, while hospitals in Metro Manila have opened up calls for donations.
Despite the heightened risk of contracting COVID-19, healthcare workers have to take on longer shifts to be able to attend to the growing number of patients. Due to understaffing in hospitals around the country, nurses have to cater to as many as 12 patients in COVID-19 wards. While this may be the standard for regular patient wards, this shouldn’t be the case for COVID wards since the virus is communicable.
A statement released by the Filipino Nurses Union (FNU) revealed that healthcare workers in San Lazaro Hospital are also subjected to unfair working conditions. Aside from a lack of staffing and PPE, they are not provided with stress debriefing, sufficient accommodation and transportation.
FNU’s Cebu City chapter also expressed concern over the hundreds of nurses not showing up at work or threatening to resign over the steadily increasing workload and low salary. In the middle of all this, healthcare workers have also had to minimize their interaction with their loved ones for fear of transmitting the virus to them and faced discrimination from their communities.
Year of healthcare workers?
On July 10, President Rodrigo Duterte signed Proclamation No. 976 which declared 2020 as the “Year of Filipino Health Workers,” as a way of highlighting the contributions of medical workers as they continue to curb the spread of the virus in the country.
“There is a need to commemorate the immeasurable acts of heroism and selfless compassion of nurses, midwives and all health workers, and give due honor to those who sacrificed their lives in the line of service, especially during this extraordinary time,” the proclamation read.
Despite this, government officials were some of the first to dismiss the frontliners’ calls for the opportunity to recuperate and better working conditions. In an interview with radio station DWIZ on Aug. 1, Senator Cynthia Villar expressed how she felt that there was no need to revert to stricter lockdown measures and instead advised frontline workers to simply work harder. “Pagbutihin nila trabaho nila,” she said in her interview.
The senator later clarified that this remark was directed to the government, the DOH and PhilHealth. Transcripts of her interview, however, show that she also advised medical frontliners to work harder.
While President Duterte approved the call to place Metro Manila under stricter quarantine protocols, he also accused the medical community of demeaning the government and dared them to start a revolution.
“Do not try to demean the government. You’re not actually criticizing. You demean my government, your own government,” Duterte said. “Then you threaten a revolution. This is our country. You want us to destroy it? Start it now.”
Although a whole year was dedicated to recognizing their efforts, the officials’ response only shows us that they have a long way to go in terms of truly doing right by our country’s frontline workers. These workers don’t need empty words of praise or officials asking them to work harder, they need the government’s support in the form of policies that help them respond to the crisis in an efficient way.
Instead of accusing healthcare providers of staging revolutions, the government should be taking more steps to improve working conditions and provide better salaries to further improve our country’s healthcare system and ultimately improve the way we respond to the pandemic.
Header photo by Niño Jesus Orbeta for the Philippine Daily Inquirer
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Writer: ANGELA PATRICIA SUACILLO