‘Hindi kami pinaglaban’
The Department of Health’s (DOH) report on Tuesday was much welcome: The number of fresh cases of COVID-19 had gone down to just 425, the lowest in 2021. It also marked the seventh straight day that the daily tally went below 1,000.
But as the active case count continues to decline, frontline health care workers who are fighting to keep the COVID-19 scourge at bay continue to battle aggravations on another front. They have long complained of uncaring treatment by the government in terms of the timely payment of their benefits; recently, 21 long months since the pandemic struck the Philippines, they again condemned the DOH for its “gross neglect” in upholding “health workers’ benefits and welfare in this trying time of health crisis” and bared that many of them have yet to receive the allowances due them. These include the special risk allowance; active hazard duty pay; and meal, accommodation, and transportation (MAT) benefits mandated under the Bayanihan 2 law, which had allocated some P53.48 billion for medical frontliners.
Bayanihan 2 lapsed in July this year, and the DOH claims it had already released over P14 billion worth of benefits to health care workers from Sept. 15, 2020 to June 30, 2021. However, Cristy Donguines, president of the Jose Reyes Memorial Medical Center Employees Union, insists that many of their colleagues in DOH-retained hospitals still have not received all of their benefits.
So far, according to Donguines, only 30 percent of their MAT benefits for September to December last year have been given, even after health care workers set an Aug. 31 ultimatum for their release. “Saan napunta ang pera na sinasabing bilyun-bilyon na na-i-release na? Bakit andito pa rin kami? Bakit namin kailangan maningil sa kanila kung natanggap na namin? Ginagawa naman nila kaming bobo,” said Donguines at a rally before the DOH main office.
Health workers at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), one of the top testing centers for COVID-19, likewise disputed the claims of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and RITM Director Celia Carlos that over P200 million worth of COVID-19 allowances have been released by RITM since 2020. The RITM Employees Association — a chapter of the umbrella group Alliance of Health Workers (AHW) in the hospital — said it “demand(s) the immediate release of their meal, accommodation and transportation benefit covering the period of January to June 2021 … and the immediate release of their COVID-19 benefits.”
Ernesto Bulanadi, president of the Tondo Medical Center Employees Association, meanwhile lamented how it was “very frustrating” that every year, health care workers who already have to endure the scarcity of personal protective equipment, lack of job security, and low morale among their ranks have to call the DOH’s attention to release their benefits and bonuses on time.
But in the face of the loud protestations of its workforce, the DOH appears bent on keeping to its inattentive, oblivious ways: Astoundingly, it failed to allot funds for COVID-19 benefits for health workers in the 2022 budget, according to the AHW.
“The budget shows a gross neglect to people’s health and safety in this time of worsening health crisis,” the group pointed out in a September statement. “… The Duterte government has ZERO allocation for COVID-19 benefits such as Special Risk Allowance (SRA), Actual Hazard Duty Pay (AHDP) and Meals, Accommodation, Transportation (MAT) allowance for the year 2022. In fact, the promised COVID-19 benefits in 2020 up to 2021 was not yet fully released to the health workers despite the set deadline given to DOH and Duterte government last August 31, 2021.”
This represents a “blatant disregard for the health workers’ safety, protection and well-being,” the AHW stressed. “Clearly, this government has no compassion and empathy [for] the sad plight of the health workers where in the midst of this pandemic many of them are dying and falling ill…”
To put more teeth to their fight for better working conditions and a seat in policy-making, a group of nurses representing the largest workforce in the Philippine health care system recently tried to register as a party list group. But with the Commission on Elections seemingly taking its sweet time to approve the group’s bid for accreditation, Nurses United took to the streets to march—the way their fellow workers had repeatedly done throughout the pandemic to dramatize their sector’s plight.
The looming threat posed by the new Omicron variant means that health frontliners, who are only now catching their breath as the country sees improving numbers, have to gear up once again for battle. But the lingering resentment they feel, as expressed by nursing orderly Rodel Saar in an ABS-CBN report, is perfectly understandable: “Masama ang loob ko sa DOH at sa gobyerno. Lumaban kami, pero hindi kami pinaglaban.”
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