Frontline health workers at home and abroad demand adequate protection for their rights, safety and well-being, decent wages and job security amidst the COVID pandemic

Organized by Migrante International, a global online forum titled “Global Pinoy Health Workers, Essential But Neglected Frontliners” served as a platform for frontline health workers from the Philippines, United States, United Kingdom, Canada and the Middle East to share the real situation of Filipino health workers at home and abroad on April 24 this year with around one hundred thirty participants and viewed by over a thousand worldwide.

Facilitating the online forum, Andrea Martinez, a health worker based in the United Kingdom opened the event with an introduction of the global situation of Filipinos affected by the COVID pandemic with the Philippines ranking first in the number of active cases in Southeast Asia alongside Indonesia. This grim situation is the result of the dismal response and utter disregard of the Duterte government for the protection, support and necessary resources that the frontline health workers need to battle the pandemic, according to her.

Filipino Nurses United (FNU) National President Ms. Maristela P. Abenojar, was the global forum’s main speaker with her presentation “Situation of Filipino Health Workers in the Philippines Amidst the Pandemic COVID-19”. In a nutshell, she described health frontliners’ situation into four types: 1) extremely exhausted physically, emotionally, and mentally, having to work long hours sometimes because no one can replace them; 2) considered heroes but neglected of their welfare and labor rights; 3) extreme demoralization aside from the fear of going to work every day and fear for the safety of their families and the patients; and 4) severely at risk because of exhaustion and for lack of protection they have become victims of COVID-19, many got sick and many died.

In her video presentation, Ms. Abenojar revealed the actual situation of a DOH-COVID referral hospital in Metro Manila last month because most hospitals were full, they needed to put up tents outside the hospitals where 12 COVID patients were intubated in one tent with only 1 nurse attending to them. She reported that as of April 24, 2021 the record of COVID cases in the Philippines has reached 989,380; 17,780 health workers including doctors, nursing assistants, medical technologists, and radiologists have been infected as of April 6; more than 5,600 nurses positive cases and 141 total deaths of health workers although this figure is underreported due to delays or inaccurate data.

Aggravating the serious situation faced by the health frontliners is the failure of the government to provide the promised financial assistance to the victims. If ever there is assistance this is so slow or delayed such as the case of one nurse who was infected twice; the financial assistance for the first time was not given until she recovered but again got infected for a second time. She had to follow up her own benefits because there was no support from the concerned government department, according to Ms. Abenojar.

Low salaries, poor working conditions, lack of government support, fake promises and demotion in the salary grade of public nurses, many health workers even hold contractual position for a long period of time. It’s even worse for private nurses who receive a meager salary of 5,000 pesos below the minimum wage law. These conditions force Filipino health workers to seek employment abroad for a better future for their families. It’s quite obvious that health welfare is the least priority of the government having allocated the lowest budget. Besides health education is commercialized and is geared towards labor export, evidence of which was a bill passed last year focused on ASEAN integration, she added.

In solidarity with Shape Up “Strengthening Public Health Care Towards a Fairer and Healthier World: A Must in our COVID-19 Response,” Ms. Abenojar stressed FNU’s six demands: 1) Strengthen public health system to provide free, quality, comprehensive tax-funded health care services unified from the barangay to the national level; 2) Implement a pro-active, efficient, compassionate, comprehensive COVID-19 response: a. Ensure comprehensive and people-centered health measures; b. Institute an efficient surveillance system – free mass testing, aggressive contact tracing, scientific, reliable and accountable health information system; c. Free vaccines to the prioritized and eligible population using public funds, utilizing national and local sources; NO to onerous loans detrimental to the national economy and recovery; d. Unhampered health services to non-COVID patients; 3) Protect health care workers and uphold their rights and welfare, both in public and private health facilities; 4) Allocate 10% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as minimum Budget for Health and COVID-19 Response; 5) Ensure sustained and comprehensive socio-economic response; and 6) Institute changes in leadership and governance by overhauling the IATF-EID and designate public health experts, social scientists, etc. and by re-orienting and re-organizing government structures for pandemic response.

Lastly, she called on overseas Filipinos to support health workers in the Philippines: 1) Organize support groups for exchange of information from the country; 2) Be health advocates; lobby for better health care; 3) Resource mobilization for fellow health workers and for vulnerable sectors.

The first reactor in the global forum was Ms. Susan Cueva, one of the founders and a trustee of the Kanlungan Filipino Consortium based in UK, working for the rights and welfare including Southeast Asian migrants. She is also development officer of UNISON one of the biggest unions with health workers as majority members. UK is the destination of majority of Filipinos who work in the health and social care center and UK has the most number of health workers among all countries in Europe, according to her. Unfortunately, with the COVID pandemic, 25% of the death in the national health service were mostly Filipinos, considered the 3rd largest ethnic group of migrants in the UK. Despite this number, shockingly only 9 nurses hold a managerial or influential post out of around 40,000 nurses including those in the social care in the whole United Kingdom.

Ms. Cueva shared the situation of the latest COVID victim who died recently, similar to the health workers in the Philippines, Joven worked for a long time in a health care home in the UK and suffered exhaustion due to long hours shift without quality rest. In addition to this, majority of the health workers are not treated well by the health service in the UK such is the case of Luisa, an activist and one of the founders of Kanlungan who died of COVID in January this year. Her daughter brought Luisa to the hospital but after 2 days the hospital told her to vacate the bed and just take care of her mother at home. It is common knowledge in the UK that Filipino health workers are used as bullets because they are assigned in high-risk areas of COVID. Many of them caught the virus of lack of PPE (personal protective equipments) provision from the national health service and if ever they are given, this does not fit them so they are not well protected. 75% of COVID deaths in the UK come from Filipinos and black community which led to the contention that there exists institutional racism discrimination.

UK health workers demand the following: eliminate hostile environment, severe discrimination, immigration fees, charges; Stop institutional racism and discrimination and to the Phil government to stop commodification exchange nurses with the vaccine, give sufficient wages and humane work, physical and mntal health, just and equitable treatment, Ms. Cueva concluded.

Jhong de la Cruz, a nurse based in Washington DC, United States was the second reactor who shared similar experiences with Philippine health workers such as severe short staffing resulting to stretched work load, no mass testing to undocumented migrants. Like the Philippine government, the states are washing their hands from responsibility to provide health care. Like in the UK, deteriorating mental and physical health for health care work force, commodification and fighting for just wages are the health care workers’ concerns in the US, according to him.

There are 512,000 Filipino immigrant nurses in the US, making up the largest share of immigrants. In September 2020 it was reported that 31% of the COVID-related deaths were Filipino nurses, Jhong reported. As to PPE (personal protective equipments) he attested that there was real shortage of masks so people had to wear cloth masks and some hospital ran out of medical gowns and they had to wear raincoats instead and in the worst cases some hospitals had to resort to use garbage bags for gowns. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, during the early days of the pandemic, the system was so overwhelmed that the government announced that it had run out of funds and supplies so the people were forced to buy their own PPEs, fighting life and limb for their own protection, he stated.

Particular to Filipino nurses, Jhong related that most of them work in ICU rooms, emergency and long term facilities so they were more exposed to COVID-19 cases compared to the white nurses. Many worked extra shifts in order to earn more so they could send more money to their families in the Philippines which means more exposure to the virus. Part of his job is reporting to the county, the district, or the state and the federal state department like the CDC about the COVID cases. The US health care system is quite fragmented; as a whole the US health care undergoes privatization, which means public health is non-existent. Overall, over-burdened, underpaid, overworked health care system, according to him.

Lastly, Jhong talked about solidarity and resistance by launching various mass actions in major cities demanding accountability and funding, mass testing, hazard pay, staffing, etc. He cited the Filipino nurses demands that they submitted to the Biden administration which included discussion with other health workers, grassroots organizations and alliances across the US. “Save the people, not corporation. Invest in public health care. End the Philippine Labor Export Policy. Implement hazard pay for all essential workers and health care workers. Ensure adequate staffing and safe work load for health workers. Raise the federal minimum wage.” These are some of their calls excluding those for the Philippine government.

Sheryl Ann Montano, a volunteer at Philippine Concerns Center and Pinay Quebec, is the third reactor from Canada. One in 20 health workers in Canada is a Filipino internationally trained nurse; and for caregivers 90% are Filipinos, many of them studied nursing in the Philippines. Language barrier is a concern in Quebec which uses French as the official language so many newly arrived nurses are de-professionalized so many end up as caregivers or in the service industry, according to her.

She said that the COVID-19 pandemic exposed how vulnerable and neglected Filipino health care workers are. The first health care worker who succumbed was a Filipina nurse in Quebec who worked as a patient care attendant. She passed away at home weeks after her retirement. There are many similar stories of health care workers in nursing homes who are not provided with proper PPEs, forced to work overtime and finally contracted COVID. Sheryl lamented that in Quebec they are not provided with N95 masks so it’s not surprising that among the first COVID patients were health care workers. During the first wave of the pandemic she personally experienced physical and mental pain when she was tasked to work in a hospital with COVID patients.

Outside the hospital, people were applauding them as heroes, according to her. But this was not what they need. They want the government to improve their working conditions, adequate PPEs, safe staffing measures, resources for their mental well being so they can provide proper care to their patients. They also call for a permanent status for all Filipino migrant health workers, caregivers. They want a better system where they are not treated as disposable workers; they are essential; they are the backbone of the health care system.

A medical practitioner in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the last reactor was Dr. Romelia Ordonio from Migrante KSA based in Riyadh. Working conditions in the KSA worsened during the pandemic; many lost their jobs and many suffer abuses from their employers, according to her. Instead of using the vaccine to help people, this is used for political purposes between the US and the KSA.

Nurses in the KSA work for 44 hours within a week, she said. They are forced to work overtime being in the frontline. Despite the lockdown, there is rise in the COVID cases among migrant workers who lived in crowded accommodation. Thousands of undocumented workers cannot avail of the vaccine and even worse they are forced to work without pay. In the Middle East, many OFWs have died from COVID but have not received financial help from the government.

Surprisingly, Dr. Romelia shared her personal account about her sentiments how her parents suffered and ill treated in the hospitals where they were admitted. Her mother was the first to get confined, was diagnosed but negative of COVID and later declared dead due to cardiac arrest two hours later. Dr. Romelia also raised concerns how her mother’s body was hidden from her sister for several hours. Then when finally the family saw her body, it was all wrapped in plastic which indicated that she died of COVID. One month later, Dr. Romelia’s father suffered a stroke and he was brought to another hospital but he was placed in a tent outside the hospital because there was no longer available bed. Unfortunately, her father just died the day before this online forum. Outraged and frustrated, Dr. Romelia wants the Duterte government to address these concerns.

In closing the global forum, Migrante International chairperson Joanna Concepcion lauded the speakers in the global forum for sharing the conditions of Filipino health care workers both at home and abroad. She expressed support from the MI for their calls which essentially are common in all regions such as: 1) mass hiring of health care workers; 2) increased wages and job security; 3) mass testing in the communities and to frontline health workers; 4) provide adequate protection like PPEs and protective equipment for health care workers; 5) adequate benefits like hazard pay and special allowances; 6) fight discrimination against health care workers in hospitals abroad; 7) stop harassments and red tagging against health workers who are the sacrificial lambs in this pandemic; and 8) strengthen the public health care system both in the Philippines and around the world because obviously privatization and neoliberal policies still rule.

“If these calls are not addressed by each host government especially for the Philippine government, they do not deserve to remain in power. Migrante International vows to broaden these calls and give support to our health workers in our country and link them to our compatriots abroad. We shall persist in our campaign to protect the rights and welfare of all health workers,” she concluded. ##