RIZAL (UPDATE)- Rodel Saar has been working in the medical field for six years.
As a nursing orderly during the said period, he has only been earning the minimum wage. The Bayanihan to Recover as One would have been his chance to earn more for his efforts as a frontline health worker in a private hospital during the pandemic, but it fell short of his and many other health workers' expectations.
Rodel shook his head and tutted as he remembered the extent of the exposure he faced during the first months of the pandemic last year, when hospitals were filled to breaking point with COVID-19 patients.
"Pagdating pa lang sa emergency, kami ang sasalubong diyan, positive man o hindi. Hindi namin alam kung sino ang kalaban namin, umpisa pa lang. Kahit pagpapalit ng diaper, siyempre andiyan ang bacteria, pag sumuka yan. Bubuhatin, yayakapin namin iyan. Kami ang nagsasabing, 'Hingang malalim,' at 'Tatayo po tayo, kaya po ba?' Yung exposure, malapit talaga sa amin."
(We meet the patients at the emergency room, whether they are positive or not of COVID-19. We never knew what we are facing. We change their diapers, we clean them when they vomit. We help carry them. We're the ones who tell them to take a deep breath, and ask them if they can manage to stand up. We are very exposed.)
When some patients gave in to the virus, it was still Rodel who stayed with them, until the end. "We do CPR, kung ano man ang maging resulta, kami pa rin. Kami rin ang nagpapaalam sa relatives, kung ano ang gagawin namin sa mahal nila sa buhay. Kami ang nagbabalot. Hanggang sa morgue, kami ang nagdadala."
(We do CPR, and whatever the result, we're still the ones who handle it. We talk to the relatives, we tell them how we will be handling the body. We're the ones who wrap the body and take it to the morgue.)
They also become proxy family and friends, who celebrate the birthdays of patients who cannot spend it with their loved ones while still confined and in isolation.
Rodel even took on the role of a phone operator, contacting a patient's family on his personal phone with his own personal load and data, just so they might see and speak with their loved ones virtually.
He remembers fondly the joy of having COVID-19 patients recover and be sent home, the applause as medical staff gathered to send them off, and the fulfillment it brought them for a job well done.
But his eyes turn sad when he remembered, "Pero mas marami pa rin ang hindi nakakauwi noon. (More patients weren't lucky enough to be able to go home.")
At some point Rodel, began to think of the compensation they should rightfully earn for the extra effort they made during the pandemic.
"Isa ako sa mga nagpahayag ng concern ko sa management, kasi yung risk hindi biro. Humingi kami ng benefits, pinagbigyan naman, P133 a day. Yun lang yun." ("I was one of the people who asked the management to compensate for the risk we are facing. They gave us P133 [a little over $2] a day, that's it.")
But when the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act or Bayanihan 2 was enacted, it brought with it the promise of appreciation for all their hard work. "Nung napatupad yan, medyo naantig kami. Tinatawag kaming hero nun, bayani kung tawagin. Syempre ang sarap pakinggan. (We were touched when the act was proposed. We were being called heroes, it felt good.)" Rodel said.
Rodel had been working full shifts, six days a week. And when the Department of Health released guidelines on how to get qualified for the benefits, he was a shoe-in for the extra pay.
He was set to get P15,000 for the first tranche which covered three months of work. But when he was called to their office to receive the special-risk allowance, what he got was just P900.
"Pagtingin ko, 9 tapos dalawang zero. Sabi ko sa HR namin, 'Totoo ba to? Baka mali lang, baka kulang ng zero. Baka kahit P9,000.' 'Hindi, yan talaga yun.' Yung pagod ko bumalik. Imbis na mawala, bumalik, bumigat pa. Naawa ako sa sarili ko. P900? Yun lang ba yung iniligtas ko, inihatid ko pauwi, at saka yung tiniis ko na hindi ako umuwi?" Rodel shared.
(I looked at the figure of the amount I was receiving. 9, and two zeroes. I asked our human resources representative if this was the right figure. Surely, there should be another zero at the end to make it P9,000. But, no. That was it, P900. The exhaustion from the work at the COVID ward returned twice over. All the lives I worked hard to save and the time I spent on duty was worth just P900?)
For the next tranche, he got P3,000, still nowhere near half the supposed P15,000 for three months of service.
With very little to add to his monthly income, he makes ends meet by scrimping on rent. He lives with his wife and daughter in a room in his father's home in a settlement area. When he goes to work, he walks through shortcuts and alleys instead of taking a tricycle. On weekends, he takes on caregiving jobs from online postings.
Rodel began to share about the incomplete release of funds in the comments section of several posts in the Philippine Nurses Association (PNA) Facebook page. His relentless efforts seem to have paid off.
In a Senate hearing on Friday, PNA president Melbert Reyes mentioned his and his colleague's experience to Blue Ribbon Committee Chair Richard Gordon, who promptly said the committee will look into the matter.
Now, Rodel is considering working abroad. He had already begun preparing his documents and is now just waiting to get checked for his medical clearance. His destination: the Middle East.
"[Pupunta ako sa] Israel. Di ba may giyera dun? Pero malaki ang offer eh. Nakita ko parang P70,000 to P80,000 a month. May pangarap kasi kami. Sa tagal kong nagtatrabaho sa ospital, wala akong napupundar, wala akong naiipon," he said.
To him, the possibility of working amid armed conflict is not very different from the war he and his fellow health workers are battling in their own homeland. "May giyera din dito. At least, yung giyera doon, napapansin. Yung giyera dito, kagaya naming maliliit, ako na hindi naka-graduate ng four years, hindi kami ganun napapansin ng gobyerno. Kung ano lang ma-offer na trabaho, papasukin mo, kahit walang benefits, ang importante kumita ka."
(We're fighting a war here, too. People like me who have no good educational background have to accept whatever job we can find regardless of benefits, for as long as we are earning something, and the government never seems to hear our pleas.")
Leaving his family may be difficult, but for Rodel, it may be the only way for him to better provide for his family. "Kailangan ko na rin sigurong harapin ang katotohanan na wala dito yung kapalaran ko, baka sa iba. (I should probably face the truth that a better life for me and my family means working in another country, not here.)"
The joy and hope for being lauded as heroes has disappeared in him. "Sa totoo lang, masama ang loob ko sa DOH at sa gobyerno. Lumaban kami, pero hindi kami pinaglaban. Yung benefits na inaasahan mo, ilalaan mo sa pamilya mo, na makakatulong sana. Para hindi na sana kami nagsisiksikan dito. (I hold a grudge against the government, and the DOH. We fought the pandemic, but they didn't fight for us. The benefits I was hoping for to help my family never came. If it did, I would have provided them a more spacious home.")
Rodolfo Aala, a nursing assistant in Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital, shares the same sentiments.
"Sana, bigyan kami ng sahod na nakakabuhay, hindi yung sahod na kulang na kulang sa pamilya pa lang. (They should give us a livable wage. Our income now can barely cover our family's needs.)"
Last Wednesday, instead of taking a rest on his day off from work, he went from a night shift, with still no sleep, straight to the streets in front of the Department of Health to demand for their benefits.
They put a symbolic padlock at the gates to "close" what they say is a "useless" DOH, and demanded for the resignation of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.
The DOH earlier said it has already released P14 billion in funds for the COVID-19 benefits of healthcare workers. But healthcare workers at the protest say otherwise.
"Saan napunta ang pera na sinasabing bilyun bilyon na na-i-release na? Bakit andito pa rin kami? Bakit namin kailangan maningil sa kanila kung natanggap na namin? Yung 70% ng MAT (meal, accommodation, and transportation allowance), hindi pa rin binibigay. Bakit 30% pa lang ang nakukuha namin? Ginagawa naman nila kaming bobo," said nurse Cristy Donguines, president of the Jose Memorial Medical Center Employees Union-AHW.
(We would not be here demanding for it if it had already been released to us. Where are the billions they keep saying have been given? We have only gotten 30% of the meal, accommodation, and transportation allowance. They must be making fools out of us.)
The president of the Alliance of Health Workers (AHW) in an interview with ABS-CBN's TeleRadyo Thursday said affirmed this. "Nag-follow up tayo sa DOH. Meron daw silang naka-set na usap with the Office of the President, para mabigyang pondo itong hinihingi ng healthcare workers. Pero hanggang ngayon, nganga pa rin. Kaya galit na galit talaga ang mga health workers." (We have followed up with the DOH. And they said they will have a dialogue with the Office of the President regarding the matter. But there has been no follow through.)
Rodolfo said he is among the health workers who received only 30% of the total MAT allowance intended for them. He said the demonstration last Wednesday will not be their last.
"Matagal na laban ito. Hangga't hindi namin nakakamit ang benepisyo na nararapat, patuloy ang laban. Kung hahayaan mo 'to, magagaya 'to sa PhilHealth, yung mga issue na mawawala na. Kami patuloy at patuloy na ipaglalaban ang mga benepisyo namin kasi kung hahayaan, masasanay na lang sila."
(We'll keep fighting until we get the benefits we deserve. If we don't, this will be forgotten like the PhilHealth anomaly and other issues that have disappeared from the attention of the public. If we don't fight, they'll think they can get away with anything.)
On Nov. 26, the health department in a press release reported it has already disbursed P15.7 billion worth of benefits for healthcare workers.
The DOH said that P7.9 billion of the amount was allotted for the Special Risk Allowance (SRA) of 486,585 health workers covering the period of Dec. 20, 2020 to June 30, 2021. Additionally, P1.2 billion for meals, accommodation, and transportation benefits (MAT) were allotted to 103,413 health workers.
"We are continuously coordinating with local government units to fast track the disbursement of remaining SRA funds to eligible healthcare workers for the period of December 20, 2020 to June 30, 2021,'' the DOH statement quoted Usec. Leopoldo Vega to have said.
The agency clarified that the MAT benefits were "to be provided as actual transportation arrangements, accommodation, and meals in order to lessen their burden from traveling from their homes to work and vice versa."
"As these benefits were originally intended to be provided in-kind or as actual services, health facilities that were not able to disburse these amounts for such purpose, have opted to return unspent funds to the DOH before the year ended, to prevent reversion of funds to the Treasury," it said. The funds were then used by the health department to support other pandemic response requirements.
The DOH recognized though that many health workers have yet to receive their MAT benefits.
But it assured the public that they are working with the Department of Budget and Management, and the Office of the President to secure funding and appropriate authority to provide MAT retroactively.
The DOH said it is streamlining its processes to ensure the equitable and prompt distribution of benefits.
Vega through the statement also announced its support for Senate Bill 2421, or the 'Act Granting Continuing COVID-19 Benefits to Public and Private Health Workers during the Period of the COVID-19 Pandemic".
The bill seeks to grant a unified healthcare worker benefit to all private and public health workers based on risk categorization in the spirit of equity.