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Editorial

P500 a day

/ 04:08 AM March 31, 2020

The Department of Health (DOH) has apologized for it, but whoever in that office thought of offering P500 a day for doctors, nurses, and other health workers who will volunteer to help fight COVID-19 should be red-faced in shame.

At this time of great peril, a clarion call for volunteerism would have been received well by patriotic and good-hearted professionals willing to brave the battle against the pandemic, in keeping with their oaths and in service to their countrymen.

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But in yet another misstep, the DOH earned withering outrage with its callous, insensitive move to unveil the scandalously pitiful amount of P500 per day as compensation for doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals who will answer the call for “health care warriors.”

According to the DOH, these volunteers will be assigned to the three COVID-19 referral hospitals and their work will “involve direct contact with COVID-19 patients.’’ They will work 8-hour shifts for 14 days straight. “Once complete, you will do a mandatory on-site quarantine for 14 days (think of it as a short holiday).”

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But, yes, the pay is P500 per day — plus a cash compensation of P100,000 should they contract COVID-19, and P1 million if they die.

For many health professionals and labor organizations, the offer, lower even than the minimum wage for workers, was an offensive manifestation of the government’s dismal regard for the welfare of the country’s medical professionals.

“Altruism has no price. But if you are going to put a tag on it, make sure it is not insulting,’’ said, Dr. Geneve Reyes, secretary-general of Health Action for Human Rights.

Dr. Ronnie Baticulon of the Philippine General Hospital called it “an insult to an already demoralized and exhausted workforce.’’

And Maristela Abenojar, national president of Filipino Nurses United, while bewailing the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontliners, also slammed the P500 daily compensation as “unjust, inconsiderate and exploitative.”

The public has every right to ask: Why are frontliners being starved of support when billions have been allocated to fight the pandemic?

Under the recently-passed Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, President Duterte was given “emergency” powers to reallocate a mammoth P275 billion in the 2019 and 2020 budgets to the campaign against COVID-19. Of this amount, P75 billion will go to health initiatives and other health services such as test kits and PPEs.

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The DOH also has a supplemental budget of P1.6 billion and contingency funds of P13 billion in the 2020 budget. Why, then, the call only for health volunteers, and, worse, the paltry pay on offer?

Local doctors and nurses face tremendous odds in this pandemic, with cases growing exponentially, hospitals getting overwhelmed, and PPEs in short supply. Already, 12 doctors have reportedly died after catching the disease while tending to infected patients — a crushingly high number for a country that, per the World Health Organization, has only 14 doctors per 10,000 people, in a population of some 105 million.

The DOH, acknowledging the public anger, has promised to restudy the compensation offer. It should consider as well Abenojar’s suggestion that, instead of calling for volunteers, the government should hire as many as 42,000 nurses, given the severe understaffing of hospitals in the last three years and, now, the growing number of medical staff forced into quarantine after having been exposed to COVID-19 cases. The total cost: P5.5 billion over three months, an amount the government can certainly afford, said Abenojar.

At about the same time the DOH made its stingy offer, the Consular Affairs of the US Department of State issued an unusual call inviting medical professionals in the Philippines and around the world to work in the United States. The global recruitment for health care workers was launched as the United States leapfrogged Italy and China to become the new epicenter of COVID-19, with at least 97,000 confirmed cases and 1,300 deaths as of last Saturday.

The embassy later clarified that it was referring only to those with “approved petitions.” But the message was clear: It will fast-track the process specifically for medical professionals it desperately needs at this time. The Philippines is in direr straits with its vulnerable populace and threadbare health care system, but, given the government’s dreadful support for its health frontliners, can anyone blame Filipino doctors and nurses who decide to decamp for the United States and other places at this critical time?

As radiologist Dr. GK Galvez Tan piercingly wrote in a Facebook post: “It’s not about the money… Most doctors would have done the job for free. If health care workers are expected to sell their lives cheaply, at least let them have the dignity of knowing that their nation was behind them, fighting for them on every front, at every level.”

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