‘Year of Filipino Health Workers’
Finally, after 18 long years, a pay increase for nurses in public hospitals and health institutions.The long-awaited piece of good news came over the weekend when Budget Secretary Wendel Avisado issued Budget Circular No. 2020-4, which raised the minimum monthly base pay of government nurses from Salary Grade (SG) 11 to SG 15. Effective immediately, the entry-level pay would be from P32,053 to P34,801 depending on the salary step, up from the previous range of P22,316 to P24,391 a month. The Department of Budget and Management (DBM) said 6,627 government nurses currently in Nurse 1 positions would benefit from the salary upgrade.
That it took nearly two decades for nurses to be given their due speaks to the injustice that politics and bureaucratic disconnect can inflict on the working class. While the salary upgrade was provided for in Section 32 of Republic Act No. 9173 or the Philippine Nursing Act of 2002, it got derailed by Executive Order No. 811 issued by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2009 setting SG 11 as the minimum pay. Last year, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of Section 32 and ruled that the Arroyo EO could not overturn the Nursing Act. The high court’s decision became executory on Dec. 13, 2019, and the DBM said P3 billion had been earmarked in the 2020 national budget to pay for the salary increase.
The announcement of the pay hike came two weeks after President Duterte issued Proclamation No. 976 declaring 2020 as the Year of Filipino Health Workers—to “commemorate,” the July 6 proclamation said, “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.”
In the seven months that COVID-19 has wreaked havoc and death in Metro Manila and other parts of the country, 34 doctors, nurses, and other health care workers have had to pay the ultimate sacrifice by dying in the line of duty. A number of them were notable doctors who succumbed in the initial months when the health system was unprepared for the contagion. To date, with more than 60,000 COVID-19 cases in the country, one in every 10 infected individuals is a health care worker.
Just last week, the Department of Health reported 157 more health care workers afflicted with the virus, bringing their number to 3,643, while 2,750 have recovered. Among the infected, 1,293 are nurses, 906 doctors, 253 nursing assistants, 155 medical technologists, 88 radiologic technologists, 62 midwives, 36 respiratory therapists, and 24 pharmacists. The rest are administrative staff, utility personnel, security guards, drivers, caregivers, and barangay health workers.
Even now, health care workers live with the daily horror of the invisible enemy and the woeful negligence of government officials and hospital administrators in providing mandatory protection for frontliners—be it protective personal equipment (PPE), hazard pay and other compensation, reasonable working hours, transportation and housing arrangements, as well as support to ensure the safety of their families. Add to that the stigma and discrimination many health care workers face in their communities.
On July 16, nurses at the San Lazaro Hospital in Manila made a silent protest by leaving their clogs and shoes by the flagpole in front of the facility to dramatize their cry for additional PPE, paid leaves, transportation, and stress debriefing. A photo of the unique protest was accompanied by the hashtag #WeAreNotRobots, a pointed commentary on the dire situation at San Lazaro, a government referral hospital for COVID-19 patients.
In a statement, the group Filipino Nurses United (FNU) said nurses and health care workers at San Lazaro are overworked and underprotected; 40 doctors, nurses, administrators, aides ,and other staff have tested positive for COVID-19. Jaymee de Guzman, a staff nurse at the hospital, told ABS-CBN they were given only one N95 mask for a 12-hour shift, and that additional N95 masks given later were not medical, but industrial-grade, which still made them at risk of the virus. In addition, the FNU cited long working hours, lack of stress debriefing, and insufficient accommodation and transportation, which made them suffer “physical, emotional and mental stress.’’
Alliance of Health Workers president Robert Mendoza noted that understaffing in public hospitals has yet to be addressed, and is a factor in the big number of exhausted, stressed-out health care workers falling prey to the virus.
The government wants to honor health care workers? More concrete and immediate measures, not platitudes and commemorations, are what’s needed to alleviate their plight and protect them as they battle the pandemic.
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