‘Lagi kaming nagmamakaawa’
Sorsogon Gov. Francis “Chiz” Escudero dropped a mini-bombshell last week, when he blasted the Department of Health for the shoddy treatment of nurses hired for the unenviable task of fighting COVID-19 on the medical frontlines.
In a tweet, Escudero lamented that of the 11 nurses that the DOH “gave” Sorsogon to augment its anti-COVID 19 efforts, two got their salary for two months only after working for five months, while nine did not get any salary after working for over a month. Thus, of the 11 that the DOH had deployed to Sorsogon, only one has heroically chosen to stay on. “No one got any benefits in violation of their contract,” said Escudero.
After all these months, and the hue and cry of the public against the mistreatment of overworked, underpaid, demoralized, vulnerable frontliners and the corresponding promises by health authorities to rectify the situation—and still the situation remains this bad?
When it came under stinging criticism for its bungling of the early response to the COVID-19 crisis, the DOH repeatedly vowed to step up and justify the seemingly unshakable faith of President Duterte in the competence of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III. After eight months, the public has every right to expect that Duque’s department has finally gotten its act together.
And yet, following Escudero’s disclosure came the bewildering revelation that close to 17,000 health workers have yet to receive the benefits promised them. The reason? “There is no more funding,” said Sen. Pia Cayetano, who sponsored the DOH’s proposed 2021 budget in the plenary deliberations.
Under Administrative Order No. 26 issued in March, health workers are entitled to a P3,000 hazard pay for every month of duty during the enhanced community quarantine, plus a COVID-19 special risk allowance under AO 28, which was issued back in April as the government scrambled to hire enough health workers to battle the rapidly spreading outbreak.
“Matatapos na po ang taon at matatapos na po ang aming kontrata, ay still delayed pa rin po ang sahod namin,” nurse Anna lamented in a TV interview. “Halos umaabot na po ng more than two months po, may time po na umabot din po ng three months. Lagi po kaming nagmamakaawa para po sa aming sahod, ‘yung stress po. Pagod ka sa duty, pati po ‘yung sahod mo kakaba-kaba ka.”
How could the DOH have bungled the elementary task of ensuring sufficient funding and sustenance for its ground troops?
As Cayetano noted, the government had disbursed P842 million for the hazard pay of 86,348 medical frontliners, but there was not enough carved out of the Bayanihan to Heal As One Act, the first COVID-19 aid package, for the remaining 16,764. A separate allocation of an estimated P108 million is needed but that will take months, if it comes at all.
But, in fact, the DOH has funds at its disposal. As of Oct. 9, the department has an unobligated budget of about P70 billion, some 55 percent of its P158.7-billion allotment from its current and continuing appropriations.
The opposition bloc in the Senate is also pushing to realign the P19 billion set aside for anti-insurgency efforts to bankroll the country’s COVID-19 response efforts. Surely, compensating medical frontliners should take precedence over any far less pressing matter at this time, when the country continues to grapple with the second-highest COVID-19 caseload in Southeast Asia at over 400,000, and infections still on the rise at about 2,000 a day.
The Philippine General Hospital, for example, designated by the DOH on March 23, 2020, as a COVID-19 referral center, should get the over P49 million in funds it needs to pay its people, a fund request that was turned down by the DBM.
The PGH health workers had to stage a rally last week to press for the release of their benefits. “It has been six months of waiting! Our health workers are already feeling the fatigue from this prolonged pandemic. Delaying further our benefits will demoralize us more. How long do we need to endure?” asked All UP Workers Union-Manila president Karen Mae Faurillo.
No wonder thousands of nurses are making a beeline for jobs abroad, and have welcomed the partial lifting of the ban on overseas deployment. As nurse Kristy Reyes said, it is the government itself that is making them want to leave for jobs in other countries, where they get not only better pay but also better protection and recognition. (“Pinipili po namin na manilbihan dito sa Pilipinas pero mismong gobyerno na rin po ngayon ‘yong nagbibigay sa amin ng dahilan para umalis po kami.”)
If the Duterte administration can afford to lavish millions on a fake white sand beach and millions more on cash gifts to the police force, then it should, and must, pay health workers what is theirs by right.
The Inquirer Foundation supports our healthcare frontliners and is still accepting cash donations to be deposited at Banco de Oro (BDO) current account #007960018860 or donate through PayMaya using this link .
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