'Why did we come to this?' asks senator as Philippines offers nurses for COVID-19 shots

Jamaine Punzalan, ABS CBN News

Posted at Feb 25 2021 03:07 PM

Nurse Krujane Solano wipes her sweat during her shift at the Quirino Memorial Medical Center Endoscopy Unit, which is temporarily being used as the PUI-COVID Operating Room on May 8, 2020. Gigie Cruz, ABS-CBN News/File

MANILA — The public should ask officials leading the country's COVID-19 response why the government has to offer deploying more nurses to Britain to get coronavirus vaccines, a senator said on Thursday, as the Philippine immunization drive lagged. 

Malacañang on Wednesday backed the labor department's statement that the Philippines was open to lifting the cap on health workers' overseas deployment in exchange for vaccines from Britain and Germany, which it would use to inoculate outbound workers and hundreds of thousands of Filipino repatriates. 

While Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr, who initiated the offer, are "very good people," Sen. Joel Villanueva said he disagreed with trading Filipino nurses for COVID-19 shots. 

"I don't think they are worth it na pag-usapan sa ganito. But more than anything, I think the bigger question here is bakit tayo humantong sa ganitong pagkakataon na tila baga parang you know, short of bartering our human resources for COVID vaccines," he said.

(I don't think they are worth so low that we should talk about them like this, but I think the bigger question here is why did come this, that it seems we are short of bartering our human resources for COVID vaccines.)

"Importanteng matanong natin iyan sa ating mga sarili, lalong-lalo na sa IATF (inter-agency task force on COVID-19) o doon sa mga nangangalaga nitong ating vaccination," the senator added in a televised public briefing. 

(It is important that we ask that to ourselves, especially to the IATF and those taking care of our vaccination.) 

The Philippines has not yet receive any vaccine shipment, with which it hopes to inoculate up to 70 million people or about two-thirds of its population this year. 

Video courtesy of PTV

A delay in the emergency use authorization of COVID-19 shots from China's Sinovac Biotech had pushed back their arrival initially set on Feb. 23.

The lack of an indemnity deal, which settles who should pay in case of adverse vaccine effects, delayed the arrival of 117,000 Pfizer doses through the vaccine-sharing COVAX Facility.

In the Senate's "marathon hearings" for the government's vaccination program, lawmakers never heard that an indemnification fund would be the "end-all, be-all" and "deal breaker" of the Pfizer jabs, said Villanueva. 

Congress, he said, has passed a bill creating a vaccine indemnification system. Duterte will sign the measure immediately after his office receives it, his spokesman Harry Roque said on Thursday. 

In backing the nurses-for-vaccines offer on Wednesday, Roque had said that while the Philippines has ordered enough vaccines for its adult population, "Siyempre kung mas maraming supply pa ang makukuha natin, bakit hindi?" 

(Of course, if we can get more supplies, why not?) 

"Wini-welcome din natin [ito] because more is better than less," he told reporters.

(We welcome this because more is better than less.)

The Philippines earlier relaxed a ban on deploying its health care workers overseas, but still limits the number of medical professionals leaving the country to 5,000 a year. 

The proposal to provide more Filipino nurses to Europe in exchange for COVID-19 vaccines is "insensitive and dehumanizing," said former vice president Jejomar Binay. 

"Our nurses are not commodities to be traded," Binay, also former presidential adviser on OFW affairs, said in a statement. 

Nurses are among the millions of Filipinos who work overseas, providing in excess of $30 billion a year in remittances vital to the country's economy. In 2019, almost 17,000 Filipino nurses signed overseas work contracts, government data showed.

Britain said there were 11,000 more nurses working in the National Health Service than last year. It said that while it was grateful to the 30,000 Filipinos working for the NHS, Britain did not need to trade vaccines for more.

"We have no plans for the UK to agree to a vaccine deal with the Philippines linked to further recruitment of nurses," a health ministry spokeswoman said, citing Prime Minister Boris Johnson's pledge to share spare shots later in the year.

"We have confirmed that we will share any surplus vaccines in the future - for example through the COVAX international procurement pool."

Calls to Germany's mission in Manila went unanswered.

Britain and Germany have inoculated a combined 23 million people. 

While Filipino nurses have fought to lift the deployment ban to escape poor working conditions and low pay at home, the workers-for-vaccine plan has not gone down well with some medical workers.

"We are disgusted on how nurses and health care workers are being treated by the government as commodities or export products," said Jocelyn Andamo, secretary general of the Filipino Nurses United. 

— Reports from Reuters