Alice Visperas, director for international affairs of the labor department, said in an online briefing last week that Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III had been negotiating with the UK and German governments to provide the Philippines 600,000 doses of vaccine in exchange for the deployment of Filipino health care workers to their countries. According to Visperas, the department was open to lifting the cap on deployment of nurses and other health care workers to their countries if they agreed to provide the vaccines that would be used to vaccinate departing and displaced overseas Filipino workers.
Bello himself was quoted in an ABS-CBN report as saying: “If we will send our nurses, mas mabuti siguro na na-vaccinate na sila. So maybe you might consider giving us, sharing some vaccines for, not only for our nurses but also for all our OFWs.’’
Not surprisingly, nurses’ groups and lawmakers took turns denouncing the Department of Labor and Employment’s shocking proposal.
“We are disgusted at how nurses and health care workers are being treated by the government as commodities or export products,” said Jocelyn Andamo, Filipino Nurses United secretary general.
“It made many of us nurses feel bad because we were being used as a (bargaining) chip,” added Leni Nolasco, the group’s vice president.
Sen. Joel Villanueva was just as disturbed by the proposed trade-off.: “How did we come to this? Clearly, it is out of desperation that forced otherwise good people to be more creative in finding vaccines for their country.’’
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon stressed that “Our health-care workers are not commodities they can trade off.’’ The backlash forced Bello to make a convoluted denial, name-dropping the President along the way: “Sabi ko, kung pupunta sila roon mag-aalala ka kasi ang taas ng COVID-19 cases doon sa kanila. Mas mabuti na kung bago sila pumunta doon ay na-vaccine na sila. Well, I mentioned to the President and wala namang ano, hindi naman siya nagsabi na ‘wag makiusap nang ganun so very positive din ang reaction niya.”
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque denied that claim — “The President was not informed of this proposal, as far as I know” — but also declared that Malacañang welcomed the idea, “because more is better than less.”
That the Palace saw nothing wrong with the repugnant idea, and that it took the other party, British Ambassador to the Philippines Daniel Pruce, to slam the lid on the proposal, was disturbing. Pruce flatly said his government has “no plans to link vaccines with those conversations around the recruitment of nurses.’’
Then again, the notion that nurses can be bartered for vaccine shots appears but par for the course for an administration that has lent its ear more to generals and politicians than to health experts and frontliners during this pandemic. Nurses and medical workers have borne the brunt of such official neglect and indifference, from the lack of personal protective equipment in the early days of the contagion to the appallingly low and often delayed hazard pay provided them, to the contempt leveled at the sector by the President and his subalterns when the workers dared to plead for a “timeout” of two weeks of stricter quarantine to contain the virus’ spread.
Their woes aren’t over yet, as health frontliners are also the first to be at the receiving end of the administration’s missteps and inept planning for the vaccination phase of the pandemic. Doctors at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) were up in arms last week when they found out that the vaccine set to be administered to them was the China-made vaccine Sinovac.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had earlier granted Sinovac an emergency use authorization, but also warned that the vaccine was not recommended for health frontliners because of its low efficacy rate of 50.4 percent. But, ignoring the FDA’s advice, the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group and the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases pushed for the use of Sinovac on health workers.
The dangerously contradictory directives from the government prompted the PGH doctors, the first in line to receive vaccines, to issue a statement insisting that Sinovac “should undergo appraisal by the Health Technology Assessment Council’’ before it is administered to health workers, and that its proposed use “was met by a sweeping disapproval rate of 95 percent on the initial survey done among PGH residents and fellows.’’
Yesterday, more than 90 PGH workers led by hospital director Dr. Gerardo Legaspi received the first Sinovac shots, but many more are opting to wait for other vaccine options.
Once again, with its chronic inability to be straight and transparent, the government has muddled up the situation, needlessly stoking mistrust and suspicion even among those tasked to administer the vaccine. From mishandling the pandemic response to delayed vaccine orders to alienating health frontliners, the administration’s capacity for self-inflicted wounds seems boundless.
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