Public health care gets pittance from huge COVID-19 loans

Health workers from the National Center for Mental Health

“We are puzzled. Where did the huge amount of debts go? There is no transparency how the Bayanihan 1 and 2 funds had been spent.”

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With research from DAWN CECILIA PEÑA

MANILA – Where is the money?

This is the sentiment of health workers beleaguered by the government’s apparent lack of concern for their welfare.

One year into the lockdown, the country’s frontliners still have to make do with limited personal protective equipment, hospitals remain understaffed, and COVID-19 infection among health workers has not stopped.

This is how Robert Mendoza, president of the Alliance of Health Workers (AHW), described the situation on the ground.

In a phone interview with Bulatlat, Mendoza said the ailing public health care system could not possibly cope with the surge of new cases.

Mendoza lamented that public hospitals, including COVID-19 centers, have not been given adequate support, and health workers remain neglected.

Of the P785.96 billion (US$16.2 billion) total loans incurred by the Duterte administration, supposedly to combat COVID-19, less than eight percent or P55.82 billion (US$1.15 billion) is allotted for hospital equipment, medical needs and vaccination.

“We are puzzled. Where did the huge amount of debts go? There is no transparency how the Bayanihan 1 and 2 funds had been spent,” Mendoza told Bulatlat.

Mendoza could not accept that that his colleagues are dying, and many get infected due to the absence of regular mass testing among health workers. As of March 14 this year, 82 health workers have died from the virus and more than 16,000 were infected.

“Our health workers are so tired. Most of them work for 12 hours. In some hospitals, the 14-day quarantine is not observed because doctors and nurses are limited,” Mendoza said.

He said the Department of Health (DOH) has yet to fulfill its promise of hiring more health workers to deal with the pandemic.

According to the DOH, health workers and local government medical facilities will receive a monthly special risk allowance.

AHW revealed, however, that the benefits under the Bayanihan Law 2 such as meals, transportation and accommodation allowances have not been released, plus the Performance Based Bonus from 2018 to 2020.

The roll out of vaccines is also slow. As of March 17, 2021, only 14 percent of the 1.7 million health workers have received their first vaccine shot, according to the National Task Force Against COVID-19.

Citing data from the Department of Budget and Management, independent think tank IBON Foundation revealed that a total of P175.8 billion (US$3.6 billion) from Bayanihan 1 and 2 Law has yet to be spent by the Duterte administration as of March 15, 2021.

In an online interview with Bulatlat, IBON Executive Director Jose Enrique Africa pointed out that the Duterte administration has not been transparent with the spending. Several requests for information were made by the research institute but concerned government agencies refused to provide substantial data about the funds.

‘Chronically-neglected health system’

Both the AHW and the Coalition for People’s Right to Health (CPRH) lamented that since day one, the Duterte administration has no comprehensive plan to deal with COVID-19.

Community doctor and CPRH co-convenor Josh San Pedro said that vaccination is not the only response. “There should be testing, surveillance, contact tracing,” he said, citing the World Health Organization’s recommendations in curbing the spread of COVID-19.

San Pedro said that they have been calling on the government to “raise the bar for the chronically-neglected health care system.”

“The Duterte administration has not taken measures to increase the capacity of the neglected health care system,” San Pedro told Bulatlat in an online interview. “It has never been its priority.”

READ: Under a fragmented health care, Philippines is ill-equipped in combating COVID-19

The slight increase in health budget this year is far from the ideal, health advocates said.

The DOH currently ranks eighth among the line agencies in terms of highest budget, behind the Department of Interior Local Government and the Department of National Defense.

One year into the lockdown, San Pedro said, “Government response has been the same. We are not seeing efforts to strengthen the public health care system.”

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