Doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel are literally putting themselves in harm’s way to protect the greater Filipino population against COVID-19. And yet, in an alarming twist, an increasing number of them, instead of being accorded the hero’s treatment they deserve, are being subjected to discrimination, harassment, and violence, mainly due to unfounded COVID-19 fears.
Last week, an ambulance driver was shot at inside a subdivision in Candelaria, Quezon. The suspect, who lived in the subdivision, said he thought the driver was transporting COVID-19 patients who may compromise the health of village residents, despite the driver’s explanation that he was transporting not patients but hospital frontliners.
Days before this, a mob ganged up on and threw bleach all over the face of a frontliner on his way to report for duty at a hospital in Tacurong City in Sultan Kudarat, while a medical technologist in Cagayan de Oro claimed that some public vehicles declined to let her board.
Also last week in Cebu, two nurses were barred from entering the condominium where they were staying after they identified themselves as nurses. It has become a common experience shared by many of their colleagues across the country; health workers have found themselves evicted from eateries in Iloilo, turned away from their dormitories in Baguio, refused transport by tricycles in Cabanatuan City and Quezon City, and so on.
Patients, too, are targeted. In a barangay in Tondo, a resident who tested positive was blocked from returning to his rented apartment. The health department’s order was for him to self-quarantine at home since he was asymptomatic, but the barangay’s residents barricaded the street and refused to let the ambulance through, despite a Manila councilor coming over to try to resolve the impasse. The patient, unable to return home to his parents who were elderly and thus at high-risk of contracting the disease, was forced to find temporary shelter in a hospital.
Sometimes, all it takes is wild suspicion, and anyone can become an object of hostility and rejection. As GMA News reported last Monday, “A supermarket security guard lost both her rented apartment and her job after she went home one day and seemed to have been running a fever.” When a thermal scan showed her temperature to be above 36 degrees Celsius, she was told to go the hospital first and have herself checked. The hospital determined she had no fever, but when she got back to her apartment, she “found that her things had been gathered and placed in a garbage bag. She could no longer get inside.” The woman had to spend the night in a waiting shed.
These are appalling and infuriating stories, showing the worst impulses that fear, panic, and ignorance can engender in ordinary people. It’s a welcome relief to hear that the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases has called on local government units to pass ordinances that will penalize acts of discrimination against COVID-19 frontliners and patients, specifically following reports that the family of a patient in Iloilo who had died of COVID-19 was being harassed, their house pelted with stones by neighbors.
“The IATF condemns these kinds of incidents and we are sternly issuing a warning that we will file cases against those who will commit acts of discrimination. I hope that the LGUs will respond by issuing an executive order or ordinance penalizing these,” said Cabinet Secretary and IATF-EID spokesperson Karlo Nograles.
LGUs across the country can take their cue from city governments that have taken a stand for health workers and patients.
The City of Manila, for example, passed on April 2 the Anti COVID-19 Discrimination Ordinance of 2020, which punishes persons who discriminate against patients infected with COVID-19 as well as health workers and emergency workers fighting the virus. Under the ordinance, it is unlawful for any person “to cause stigma, disgrace, shame, humiliation, harassment or otherwise discriminate against a person infected, under monitoring or investigation due to COVID-19, health worker or frontliner,” and imposes on violators a fine of P5,000 or imprisonment of up to six months.
The Cebu City government, meanwhile, has vowed to investigate acts of discrimination against health workers, beginning with the case of the two nurses refused entry into the condominium where they were temporarily staying.
The contagion is bad enough; the lack of humanity and compassion toward frontliners and patients makes it shamefully worse. That’s a far more lethal sickness that has to be purged forthwith.