MANILA — Some 60 lawyers, doctors and other health workers marched from the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) to the Department of Justice (DOJ) in Padre Faura in Manila, Tuesday morning to demand an end to red-tagging and attacks among their ranks.
“Kami pong mga doktor, nagsisilbi. And we are dedicated to saving lives. And yet, ang aming pong buhay ay palaging at risk during this time, dahil gusto lang naman namin na bigyan kami ng kaluwagan na kami ay gumanap sa aming duties bilang doctors to save lives and to take care of our patients without the fear of having us red-tagged,” Dr. Magdalena Barcelon of the Community Medicine Practitioners and Advocates Association (COMPASS) said.
Barcelon noted that for the past six years, seven doctors and one health worker have died, part of the 427 human rights defenders and service providers killed after allegedly being red-tagged.
“Gusto lang naman po namin na makapagsilbi sa mga mamamayan. So it’s really a tragic irony that we, physicians, doctors, dedicated to helping patients and saving lives are, in doing that, in fear of our lives,” she said.
Clutching a cane, Barcelon joined members of the Health Alliance for Democracy and Alliance for Health Workers, among other groups, who held a short protest action at the DOJ.
“Ang atin pong Department of Justice. nagsasabing ang kanilang mission ay efficient, effective and equitable administration of justice. And sila po ang ating mandated na primary law agency. Kaya’t sila po dapat ang tasked with investigation, prosecution and punishment of offenders. So ano po sa ngayon sana ang ginagawa ng Department of Justice hinggil dito sa mga pinatay na mga doktor?” she asked.
One doctor allegedly killed after being red-tagged is Dr. Mary Rose Sancelan, who was shot dead with her husband in Negros in December 2020 by unidentified gunmen.
The police linked her to communist rebels before and after the killing.
For Barcelon, Sancelan's case highlights the problem of lack of public health doctors in communities.
Sancelan, she said, was sent to medical school by priests due to the lack of doctors in their area.
She eventually became a city health officer, leading her community’s efforts against COVID-19, only to be red-tagged and killed.
“Hindi po namin masisisi yung aming mga kasamahan na mas gugustuhin na mangibang-bansa at sila ay ligtas na makapag-practice ng kanilang profession,” Barcelon said.
“Talagang nahihirapan kami na maghikayat ng mga government physicians at mga doktor, mga nurses,” she added.
She cited DOH data showing that the Philippines had 40,000 doctors in 2017, but had gone down to 28,000 in 2021, with some in private practice.
“Kulang-kulang lang po ng 16,000 ang ating mga doktor na nasa public service. Kaya bawat isang doktor, halos pitong libo na mamamayan ang kaniyang inaalagaan,” she said.
“Kaya isipin po natin na sa bawat doktor na namamatay, pinagkakaitan ng serbisyo ang halos pitong libong mamamayan. Sa ibang mga lugar, umaabot sa 1:35,000 residents ang ating ratio ng doktor sa populasyon,” she added.
MAD SUPPORTS EFFORTS VS RED-TAGGING
The Movement Against Disinformation (MAD), a group of more than 50 lawyers headed by former Ateneo School of Government Dean Tony La Viña, expressed support for health workers.
“Red-tagging poses an imminent danger to the lives, liberty and safety of the health workers. Unassailably, ‘red-tagging’ is one of the most vicious and insidious forms of disinformation,” it said in a statement.
In April this year, MAD represented AHW officers and members in filing a criminal complaint with the Office of the Ombudsman and an administrative complaint before the Professional Regulation Commission against a former undersecretary of the Presidential Communications Operations Office.
“MAD stands ready to continue assisting the healthcare workers in resisting any attempt to 'red-tag' them, and in defending their right to seek redress of their legitimate grievances and to peaceably assemble,” it said.
NOT JUST RED-TAGGING
But it is not just red-tagging that concerns health workers who took part in the protest action at the DOJ.
Registered nurse Cristy Donguines, president of the Jose Reyes Memorial Medical Center Employees Union-Alliance of Health Workers, lamented also the apparent lack of concern for their welfare.
“Kulang na ang staff sa ospital. Sagad-sagad na duty namin. Quality care pa rin ba naibibigay namin sa ating mga pasyente? Hindi na. Sagad na pagod namin. Wasak na katawan namin. Hindi na kami nakakatulog, 'di na nakakapagpahinga,” she said.
“Naririnig ba kami ng gobyerno? Naririnig ba hinaing namin? Sa palagay n'yo ba, pakikinggan kami?” she asked the crowd and pushed back at the heavy police presence.
Donguines spoke also about a P900-million budget cut in the proposed budget of the PGH for 2023.
“Since ang PGH ay ang pinakamalaking hospital dito sa Pilipinas na talagang takbuhan siya ng mga pasyenteng nangangailangan, tapos babawasan mo pa, tatapyasan mo pa siya nang napakalaking budget, ano na lang po ang ibibigay nating serbisyo, na sinasabi nating quality care para sa mga pasyente na nangangailangan? Na alam naman po natin na ito lang ang tanging hospital na matatakbuhan ng mga mahihirap na walang pera at kapus-palad na talagang sagad na sagad na, wala na ngang ipapakain sa kanilang mga kamag-anak, sa mga mahal sa buhay. Tapos, wala pa silang matatakbuhang hospital na libre para sa kanilang mga kalusugan,” she said.
“Kami na po ang nag-aalay ng buhay namin, kami pa po ang nire-redtag. Kami pa po ang pilit na sinasakal. Kami pa po ang pilit na winawalanghiya at binabalewala ng gobyerno natin,” she added.
All throughout the pandemic, health care workers have raised delayed and insufficient pay and benefits as ongoing concerns, and opposed a deployment ban, later a deployment cap, preventing health workers from leaving the country to seek better opportunities outside the country.
Then incoming National Security Adviser (NSA) Dr. Clarita Carlos said in June said she hopes the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) would stop red-tagging people and instead focus on actually helping people on the ground.
According to the retired University of the Philippines political science professor, labelling people and identifying them as "terrorists" do not solve the problem.
"Why are you ID-ing [identifying] people as if you are concluding already? Stop this red-tagging," she said.
Department of Health officer-in-charge Maria Rosario Vergeire said last month that providing the benefits of health workers is among her priorities.