OPINION: The Filipino health worker as hero in crisis 2
Members of the Alliance of Health Workers hold a noise barrage and ‘die-in’ protest in front of the Department of Health headquarters in Manila last July 2021. Photo by Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

OPINION: The Filipino health worker and the pain of being a present day hero

Being surrounded by so much emotional and physical pain could be so heartbreaking. Death literally stares at them in the face.
Evelyn O. Katigbak | Aug 30 2021


My #Tita instinct told me that this does not refer to the noun or verb pertaining to a song. And so an instant online search on its meaning yielded “Awww, masakit (painful)!” Hence, Awit!

It amused me for a moment. And then it disturbed me.

The word “masakit” led to mental images of doctors, nurses, and health workers. They are the ones to whom we go when something is masakit or painful. We rely on them to help and guide us into healing. Health workers as life savers have never been fittingly emphasized in our generation until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020.

healthcare workers
Members of the Alliance of Health Workers hold a noise barrage and ‘die-in’ protest in front of the Department of Health headquarters in Manila on June 22, 2021. Photo by Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

As of this writing, the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) latest tally records 4,470,969 global deaths due to COVID-19, while the Philippines’ Department of Health (DOH) tallies 33,109 reported deaths. For doctors, nurses, and the rest of the health workers, being surrounded by so much emotional and physical pain could be so heartbreaking. Death literally stares at them in the face.

Health workers recently protesting on the streets is disturbing. Had they been treated with dignity by giving them their due benefits, they certainly would not have left their posts. The protests were to demand the release of the legally mandated – not to mention, morally expected – “special risk allowances” (SRA) and other benefits due them. 

The highest number of “new COVID-19 cases” thus far recorded by the DOH was 19,441 (data released on August 28). To most people already anxious because of the recent surge in cases, the number was alarming. And remember, for every COVID-19 patient, there is a corresponding attending doctor, nurse, and health worker. These health workers likewise face the threat of exposure to the deadly virus. Alarming, indeed.

Filipino healthcare workers protest
Health workers from the National Kidney and Transplant Institute protest in front of the hospital in Quezon City on Monday, National Heroes Day, calling the health department to release long owed COVID-19 benefits. Photo by Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

The deprivation of benefits – coupled with the daily stretching of their sacrifices in hospitals, especially because of the increasing cases – not only brought health workers to the streets, but also on social media if only to air their frustrations, even rage at this current contemptible health care governance in the country. Each personal story of how they felt their sacrifices were not valued by this administration is heartbreaking. Awit!

At the onset of the pandemic in 2020, our health workers were honored as heroes. The public cheered them on in various ways – all simple, but definitely creative. The most popular of which were dance choreographies to the tune of the “Fight Song.” The song, first released in 2015, became an apt motivational song in 2020 dedicated for hero health workers who rendered selfless service as COVID-19 wreaked havoc in the country and the rest of the world.

The song’s lyrics became a catchy “anthem” for those who fought not only the virus in their patients, but also their own worries for their safety.

While it was a simple, old song, perhaps it brought a bit of joy and helped soothe the masakit (painful) in our health workers.

This is the second year that we remember to honor the heroism of health care workers this National Heroes Day.

In August 1896, Andres Bonifacio, under the banner of the Katipunan (Kataas-taasan Kagalang-galang na Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan) started a revolution against Spanish authorities. It was a revolution that eventually led to the Philippines’ independence from Spain in 1898. In today’s generation, it is recognized and celebrated as the first anticolonial revolution in Asia.

Filipino healthcare workers
Health workers from the Philippine Orthopedic Center stage a protest in Quezon City on June 21, 2021, lambasting the Department of Health over the reported non-release of funds for meal, accommodation, and transportation benefits under the Bayanihan Law 2. Photo by Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News

Members of the Katipunan were also busy doing their regular day jobs or daily routine at that time. But they left their posts when it was needed to go out to the streets. They made their individual voices and strength count in the collective fight against the oppressors. This is the same story that resonates with our health workers today. While they fight COVID-19, they fight the oppressive system. This is why we honor them as our modern day heroes.

Interestingly, the Philippines’ first national anthem, the one which Bonifacio commissioned for the Katipunan, likewise fits as “anthem” for our hero health workers. The anthem not only celebrates freedom, but also, among others, the pursuit of excellence:

Marangal na Dalit ng Katagalugan

“Mabuhay, Mabuhay yaong kalayaan, kalayaan

At pasulungin ang puri’t kabanalan

Kastila’y mailing ng Katagalugan

At ngayo’y ipagwagi ang kahusayan”

[Evelyn O. Katigbak is a doctoral student of Communication at the College of Mass Communication, University of the Philippines Diliman.]