The government has banned the deployment of Filipino health workers abroad, claiming they are needed to beef up a health system “under severe strain” from the novel coronavirus contagion.
But the nurses barred from returning to host countries on Thursday, April 9, are asking:
There are more than 200,000 nurses in the Philippines with no jobs, so why is the government holding back those with obligations to existing contracts?
Congress gave President Rodrigo Duterte huge powers of fiscal discretion under RA 11469 or the “Bayanihan to Heal As One Act” to manage the national response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Part of his additional powers is finding medical personnel to defeat a contagion that has infected 4,195 persons, including 221 who have died.
At least 252 health workers – 152 doctors and 63 nurses -- have contracted COVID-19, according to the Department of Health. Thousands more are under quarantine, straining capacities to treat other patients.
Yet the Duterte administration has done little to fill up the huge backlog in medical staff.
Disbursements of his P270 billion COVID-19 war chest do not include hiring to backstop a health force reeling from high attrition rates.
Four nurses, three working in the United Kingdom and one in the Middle East, warned that their jobs and families are threatened by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) resolution suspending outbound travel for health workers.
The nurses asked that their real names be kept under wraps, citing the Philippines’ “toxic” social media landscape and attacks from trolls.
All four claim the imposition of health workers’ travel suspension was undertaken with stealth, blindsiding health professionals and their employers, and even the country’s embassies abroad.
With vacation credits used up, these nurses have now joined the category of no work, no pay workers.
A succession of travel setbacks linked to the “enhanced community quarantine” that started on March 17 have already cost them between P50,000 to P200,000 in forfeitures and rebooking fees.
Emma, 29, came home in February with her husband and their London-born 1-year-old son for a vacation before completing the last year of her three-year contract.
Emma’s work contract allows her to bring dependents to the United Kingdom at her expense. She paid for her husband and son’s visa fees and travel expenses, and health insurance worth P75,656.
Since mid-March, the government’s flip-flopping policies on international flights and Middle East travel bans affecting transit points has forced Emma to scramble for plane seats.
Four different bookings have been cancelled by airlines.
It will take time to claim the refunds. With no more salary until she starts working again, Emma worries about their London housing rent and other bills.
“How long will they wait for us?” Emma wonders. “London hospitals are also suffering from too many of our colleagues getting sick or having to go into quarantine.”
Her biggest worry: “My son, who was born in the UK, can’t stay out more than 90 days or his citizenship could be in trouble.”
GAPING HOLE IN COVID-19 RESPONSE
Emme, Dina, and a third London-based nurse, Bella, question the premise of the POEA resolution, which Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III signed on April 2.
POEA resolution No. 9 (series of 2020) covers doctors, nurses, microbiologists, molecular biologists, medical technologists, clinical analysts and respiratory therapists; pharmacists, laboratory technicians, radiologic technicians, nursing assistants, medical equipment operators, supervisors of health services and personal care, and repairmen of medical hospital equipment.
They can no longer leave the Philippines until the government lifts the national health emergency and countries of destinations lift their travel bans.
The POEA order aims to make it easier for Duterte to tap new personnel for the national COVID-19 response.
But Duterte’s government has shown no interest in meeting medical manpower needs.
The health department has backtracked from its much-maligned offer of a P500/day allowance for “volunteers”. It has since pledged to offer "competitive rates." But it has made no concrete moves.
Neither the budget under the Bayanihan to Heal As One law nor two successive accomplishment reports show any hiring program.
The government stopped at offering frontliners a “special risk allowance”: a P100,000 compensation when they contract a severe infection, and P1 million family aid should a health warrior die.
It is a startling oversight. There are less than nine nurses for every 10,000 Filipinos, according to The Philippines Health System Review 2018 commissioned by the World Health Organization.
It is that same study that POEA cites for the deployment ban.
Duterte’s two reports to Congress list spending for equipment, testing kits and laboratories, new centers for patients and health workers, lots of infrastructure and tech projects, and business rescue packages.
There is none for new medical staff.
The March 30 report skips letter “m,” which is the power to expand human resources under the Bayanihan law.
His April 6 report just notes the total number of health human resources at 172,744 with 28,428 doctors and 89,254 nurses in the private and public sectors. There is no hiring goal.
The government’s “Accomplishment Tracker,” based on its deliverables under the Bayanihan Act, is also silent on manpower needs.
Dina, a nurse based in the United Kingdom and among those barred from leaving last Thursday, shared a POEA reply to her questions on the travel ban.
“The restriction is for your own safety because you will be at the high risk of exposure to COVID-19 overseas,” said the generic message.
At the same time, POEA said: “if you are willing to volunteer in the DOH Volunteer Program, we can refer you to them while waiting for the lifting of the restriction.”
“Why is the government stopping me from going back to my job on grounds of safety but inviting me to face the same risks here as ‘a volunteer’?” Dina asked.
Calea, who has five years of nursing work in Qatar, jumped ship after working for three years in a government hospital in Quezon.
“In those three years, I was paid P2,500 a month and would wait months for my salary,” she said.
“Why hasn’t anything changed?” she asked.
“This country is in lockdown. This is an emergency. There are hundreds of thousands of nurses looking for work. Why are they not hiring? Why are they picking on us?”
Although her parents are government employees, Calea helps with a sibling’s college education.
Her salary, including transportation allowance, is around P140,000 a month.
But she pays P58,000 a month for short-term personal loans, partly for education, medical and other bills of her family. She also has a P19,000 monthly mortgage on a new house.
“If the ban continues, how will I pay for these,” said Calea, who has already lost a full month’s salary.
The nurses question the lack of coherent government policy. Duterte gave two long, rambling televised talks last week but he was silent on the new travel ban signed days before his first address.
Even the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) seems to have been kept in the dark.
Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Civilian Security and Consular Concerns Brigido Dulay had to share the POEA order with Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Twitter.
“They are wrong, dead wrong, and violating the Constitution,” Locsin said.
Locsin on Saturday vowed to oppose the ban.
To most overseas workers, “deployment” denotes new hires.
Emma took no chances and contacted the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) at the Philippine Embassy in London last week.
The official reply: OFWs with contracts were exempt.
Dina also shared an email sent Friday by the London POLO.
“Yes. It is only now that we’re informed of the said practice in PH,” said the letter sent Friday. “Be assured though that your concern, along with those of other healthcare workers, have been relayed to proper authorities for their appropriate action.”
Dina and Bella, a 27-year old nurse who works in London for Britain's National Health Service, said it took hours to check-in at the Qatar Airlines counter.
“They sent an email to the final country of destination of every passenger,” Bella said. “Only when they received confirmation that we could enter were our boarding passes given.”
That didn’t spare the two nurses and at least ten others, including nurses bound for Germany, Qatar and Ireland, and a radiographer, also bound for Ireland, from offloading.
WHERE’S THE RESPECT?
Medical experts say they expect the number of infected health workers to rise once the government starts testing frontliners.
The government rushed last week to retrofit convention centers and sports arenas as quarantine and isolation centers.
Thousands of beds are now ready to accept the less seriously sick COVID-19 carriers and those still waiting for their test results.
But who is going to administer to patients in the new centers?
While the military and police forces have their medical corps, the government has not laid down concrete plans either for their COVID-19 deployment.
Emma questions the seriousness of the health department and the inter-agency task force handling the national response to the pandemic.
“It has been a month and there is no movement of personnel. In any health crisis, the first priority is hiring. That is happening in Europe and other areas around the world.”
“If the government does not want to lose the local health force to Germany, for example, why doesn’t it invest in people?”
Western countries like Germany are on a recruitment blitz for nurses from the Philippines, offering wages more than four times than those received by local supervisors, free housing, full protective gear, and swift visa approval.
US companies head-hunting for hospitals swamped with almost half a million COVID-19 cases are battling immigration red tape in a bid to bring a new wave of Filipino nurses.
Spain, which has nearly 150,000 infected patients and 14,500 deaths, is waiving additional credit requirements and language fluency standards to fast track the grant of work permits to immigrants with medical diplomas.
The POEA resolution does not mention heavy recruitment efforts by developed nations struggling with the pandemic.
But Cagayan de Oro 2nd district Rep. Rufus Rodriguez on March 30 called on Bello to “suspend the sending of nurses abroad.”
The DOH’s insistence on “volunteers” is strange.
In September 2019 it announced a budget to hire around 26,000 health workers this year.
The number represents unfilled positions in the DOH Human Resource for Health Deployment Program (HRHDP), including for 744 doctors and 19,700 nurses.
The DOH Bureau of Human Resource Development in 2017 said there were 66,769 nurses employed in the private and public sectors. Only two-thirds enjoyed regular employment status.
The DOH said it had the Budget Department’s approval to spend P9.5 billion for new hires. It also promised higher wages under a salary standardization law.
A month later, nurses won a major battle for better pay in the Supreme Court, which affirmed that they belonged to five salary grades higher than the prevailing practice. But the High Court also said they needed a new budget law to move their salaries from P22,000 to P31,000 or P33,000 a month.
There is no dearth in nurses needing employment.
Sean Herbert Velchez, a registered nurse and convenor of the #LabanNurses Movement, said around 300,000 nurses in the country are unemployed or working in other sectors to survive.
“The problem is the government is delaying the hiring and I don’t know why,” said Calea.
“Many nurses still ‘volunteer,’ working for almost nothing, to get a crack for a regular post, only to give up after waiting for years.”
“It is an honor to die for our country,” Emma pointed out. “But we do not feel valued or respected by leaders who are asking us to lay down our lives for the country.”
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.