For those of us in the health professions who are not tasked with round-the-clock care of coronavirus patients, being called a “frontliner” can be an uncomfortable thing. This is not to say that we have not all been affected by the pandemic, as evidenced by stories of ophthalmologists and urologists pulling ER shifts and running codes. Still, our experience is different from those who have been dealing with the virus on a day-to-day, face-to-face, long-shifts-in-bunny-suits basis. The best we have been able to do in support is to amplify the voices of those who are handling the worst of the crisis. Health professionals, frontliners or otherwise, have not been silent. Unfortunately, these calls for help have fallen on deaf ears. Calls for mass testing, isolation, and tracing have been met with prevarication and quibbles over the word “mass.” Calls for a clear breakdown and proof of right spending of our COVID-19 budget have gone unsatisfied. Calls by medical societies to avoid the widespread and unsupervised use of rapid COVID-19 tests were ignored. After calls for accurate data, our government’s talking heads have downplayed our COVID-19 status. Calls for accountability of officials who flaunted protocols for isolation and social distancing were also ignored. Calls for active campaigns to combat misinformation, including bits coming from the President’s mouth, have also been ignored. One recalls how, earlier this year, public and private hospitals alike depended on donations to sustain the need for personal protective equipment: In the same way, private individuals and groups have had to step in to fill these gaps.
The situation has gotten so dire that health societies felt the need to clamor for a firm, united, effective response: If the public has ever wondered what it is like in our ICUs and emergency rooms, then the hour-and-a-half-long Zoom conference on Saturday morning should have given an idea. With representatives from various societies, the conference told of increasingly severe cases, of dwindling staff as employees succumb to illness, of exhausted human and material resources. It reiterated strategies to avoid infection. Without downplaying the importance of keeping the economy afloat, it called for a “timeout” for government and health agencies to regroup.
The role of liaising between frontliners and authorities should belong to the Department of Health (DOH), as the former’s representative in the government’s pandemic response. It must be said, however, that many frontliners do not feel represented or heard by the DOH. If the health secretary were consistently listening to concerned groups and making strong, unified statements for the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases and the President to heed, why would the societies have felt it necessary to make this public call? With due respect to the hard workers at the DOH, the health care worker on the ground has not felt the support of the one agency that should be listening to feedback and representing the best that the scientific community has to offer.
The health secretary released a response saying that he “hears” health care workers and will echo our concerns. Perhaps it’s because we’ve heard such empty statements before, but such a response has not elicited optimism. Even less inspiring are the thickheaded, insensitive responses of other officials, Cynthia Villar’s “pagbutihin nila ang trabaho nila” included.
The call for a timeout is less a complaint, than a warning. After all, lockdown or not, hospitals will continue to function: The timeout is not to give health care workers a break, but to allow a realignment and regrouping. If we do not slow down the spread of the coronavirus enough for the health industry to recover, if we keep on treating our health professionals as fodder, the time might come when hospitals run out, not just of beds, but of trained workers. We used to jest among ourselves in the “sidelines” but the threat looms: If you do not want surgeons doing the work of internists or ophthalmologists doing the work of anesthesiologists, listen to the calls of health professionals who are actually at the frontlines.
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