By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – A year since the world’s longest and strictest lockdown was imposed, health workers here in the Philippines are still dying due to the dreaded virus – the latest is a unionist in a government hospital.
Jaime Agub, a 57-year-old nursing attendant at the National Kidney and Transplant Institute, succumbed to COVID-19 yesterday, March 18. His colleagues at the Alliance of Health Workers, the country’s network of health workers unions, described him as a selfless person who dedicated his life in fighting for the rights and welfare of his fellow health workers and for the people’s right to health.
His death comes amid the surge of COVID-19 cases in the Philippines and the slow roll-out of vaccines for health workers amid new virus variants, which health experts found to be more transmissible. Progressives said this is a “very bad case of déjà vu” but health workers said the situation proves to be deadly.
Government data showed that over 15,213 health workers have tested positive to the virus, of whom 273 are still considered active cases. Eighty-two have died as of March 14, 2021, Health Alliance for Democracy Chairperson Edelina de la Paz said these are unnecessary deaths.
“It has been a year of pandemic and lockdown but it seems that we are just going back to last year which was also the height of the increase in COVID-19 cases. Health workers are once again waging a fierce war to fight the unseen but contagious and deadly virus,” said Robert Mendoza, Alliance of Health Workers president.
No protection, no benefits
In a statement, Mendoza said health workers are exhausted from the long working hours due to shortage of hospital staff and overwhelmed capacity, leaving the quality of service deteriorating.
Many hospitals in the Philippine capital, the epicenter of the virus in the country, have reported being overwhelmed amid the spike of COVID-19 cases, with six out of 10 beds in their intensive care units occupied. A government health official described it as an alarming rate, revealing how this was the same situation the country was in back in July 2020.
Public health advocates pointed out that the country could be in a graver situation now, with real-time reporting of new cases these days compared to last year’s so-called fresh and late cases. In the past days, new COVID-19 cases have not gone below 4,000.
Amid this, a number of health workers either resigned and retired early not only because they feared contracting the virus, but also because their morale has further plummeted with the government’s insincerity to address their grievances and needs, said Mendoza.
Of the more than 15,000 health workers who tested positive to the virus, the Filipino Nurses United pointed out that 43 percent of them are either nurses or nursing assistants. As it stands, the nurse-patient ratio is at 1:12, when ideally this should be 1:3 and 1:1 for COVID-19 wards and severe cases, respectively, said Maristela Abenojar, Filipino Nurses United president.
Mendoza and Abenojar pointed out that much-needed benefits such as their hazard pay and provisions for meals, transportation and accommodation were not provided. Long-standing benefits from their performance-based bonuses from 2018 to 2020, too, have yet to be released to many health workers as well.
All UP Workers Manila President Karen Faurillo also pointed out that there is still a shortage of protective gear for health workers, and their access to being tested also remains limited.
“How can we serve when our rights are trampled upon?” Faurillo asked.
Health workers were also killed, harassed
Dr. Reggie Pamugas of the Health Action for Human Rights highlighted how the government’s militarist approach to the pandemic affected public health advocacy amid a pandemic, with the extrajudicial killing of at least three health workers.
In March 2020, Ma. Lourdes Tangco, a doctor, was shot dead along with Communist Party of the Philippines peace consultant Julius Giron, who was ill with acute pancreatitis, and another companion Arvie Reyes. The combined forces of the police and military raided the house where they were staying while they were asleep at 3:00 a.m. and shot them at close range.
Bacolod-based activist and community health worker Zara Alvarez was killed on Aug. 17, 2020, years after being frequently red-tagged in the Negros island. Her photos appeared in posters across the island, claiming that she was a ranking official of the CPP.
In the weeks before her killing, she joined relief operations in pandemic-hit communities, only to be questioned by village officials. She later learned that she was being tailed by suspected state agents but continued her community work nonetheless.
Alvarez was shot at least six times – two of which were fatal. Human rights group Karapatan reported that the bullet that pierced through her heart and lungs appeared to have been fired while she was already lying down.
A red-tagged doctor Mary Rose Sancelan, and husband Edwin Sancelan were killed in Dec. 15, 2020 near their home in Guihulngan City, Negros Oriental. The doctor is the city health officer and head of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID), was included in the hitlist circulated by anti-communist vigilante group Kagubak in 2019.
These killings, said Pamugas, showed the impacts of red-tagging into their work, and how this administration is much more investing in quelling dissent and the voices of activists than addressing the public health crisis. The situation, he added, may worsen after his “kill, kill, kill” order.
Angel Sison of the Philippine Medical Students’ Association said that “contact tracing” is instead being used against activists who are subjected to surveillance. While the health sector is relying on donations, he pointed out that the government’s anti-insurgency body is enjoying a P19-billion fund.
Protect health workers
Mendoza called on the government to protect understaffed and overworked health workers and to heed their demands. These are vital in helping them serve patients better.
Coalition for People’s Right to Health Co-convenor Josh San Pedro said that for the past year, the government has instead put the responsibility of protecting oneself from the virus on the individual level, instead of providing strong and coordinated response. This could have made testing centers more accessible, contract tracing and isolation no longer a weak link in the government’s pandemic response, to name a few.
As it stands, there are still 35 provinces without access to testing centers, with 160 out of the 230 located in Metro Manila and other big cities in the country.
Abenojar, for her part, called on the government to address understaffing among ranks of nurses and ensure that proper nurse-patient ratio is implemented.
Free, safest, and most efficacious vaccines to health workers and the people, said Mendoza.
He said, “Lastly, let us not allow the government authorities to abandon their primordial duty to ensure health workers’ and people’s safety and well-being. We hold the DOH and Duterte administration accountable for dealing COVID-19 response – failure and incompetence.”