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Demeaned and devalued

Health care workers are at the end of their rope and just about ready to drop. President Duterte gave his people 10 days to pay up but it’s uncertain if Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and other responsible officials actually understand their dire straits or are merely considering the optics and trying to stave off the threatened strike that will push the health system nearer to collapse.

Striking health care workers are uncommon in these parts. Pockets of protest may erupt, but unless they quit and decamp for hospitable shores, these workhorses do not leave their posts altogether even if they have long been burdened by wages grossly incompatible to their daily toil—an equation that the pandemic has made worse and, if it were not so tragic, truly laughable. The recent online invitation to registered nurses to apply for a salary of P13,000 a month was swiftly taken down, so bitter was the backlash. It showed exactly how these pillars of the health system are demeaned and devalued in a nation where no funds can be found for them but the President promises scads of money to blow on the election campaign of his pet candidates.

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But it looks like they have had enough—and who’s to blame them? Apart from Monday’s walkouts, mass protest actions are planned nationwide by organized groups on Sept. 1 if the special risk allowance (SRA) and other benefits are not released. “We need to do the countdown to let the government know that we are vigilant,” Jocelyn Andamo, the mild-mannered secretary general of Filipino Nurses United, said last week in explaining their stance—a long time in coming and powered by determination and desperation. By now, it should be clear to even those playing blind: Their demand is just and reasonable and these allowances are due them by law (although the law disadvantages those not “directly” caring for COVID-19 patients).

Yet: “Let’s put caring for the patients first,” Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire was heard saying in her customary singsong in the course of claiming that the Department of Health was doing all it could but that limitations posed by the pandemic, along with paperwork and other bureaucratic requirements, were getting in the way. The guilt card is an old ploy used to becloud realities; in fact, the protesting health care workers have been caring for patients since Day One. (Vergeire appears to have lost the initial cred. It’s easy to see how this came about in someone so constantly thrust onto the hot seat and having to justify the unjustifiable.)

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In essence, the DOH is playing for time, as though it had not squandered time and other things besides in the most depraved way: among other things, neglecting to judiciously spend billions of pesos in COVID-19 response funds in 2020—funds that should have gone to nurses and other health care workers bent under a workload doubled, tripled, by the pandemic.

Consider how long they’ve been waiting. Andamo says the delay in the release of the SRA goes back to September-December 2020 for a number among their ranks. It’s unacceptable to her that the pandemic is being foisted as the reason for the government’s inability to fulfill its obligations to health care workers and ensure the good health of all Filipinos. She reminds the government that health care workers have been at the frontlines longer than others in the fight against the pandemic, and are the most vulnerable and therefore the most qualified in receiving not only the SRA but also the allowances for food, accommodations, and transport, and even life insurance and hazard pay.

It was also in August last year when exhausted members of the medical community sought a “time-out,” pleading that they be given leeway to rest and recharge and, at the same time, that the government turns its attention to their concerns for “transportation safety, workplace safety, … self-protection and social amelioration.”

The weary observer may recall that the President, angered by the petitions posted online by medical societies and health care professionals, berated them for their supposed “call to revolution” and threatened to match it with force. Memorably, addressing those who aired financial concerns, he said they should join the police force: “Magpulis kayo.”

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TAGS: Commentary, DOH fund deficiencies, Francisco Duque III, health workers' protest vs DOH, Rosario A. Garcellano
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