Allegations over the government’s mismanagement of COVID-19 emergency funding have pushed embattled Filipino healthcare workers to the tipping point. Taking appropriate protective measures, protesters gathered in front of the Department of Health on September 1st to demand the release of unpaid financial compensation, as well as an increase in state funding to employ more palliative care workers. Filipino healthcare workers are chronically understaffed, underpaid, and overworked. If these issues are not addressed, the profession may soon see a mass exodus.
Filipino hospitals are reaching peak capacity, and daily COVID infections are mounting rapidly. The dominant strain of coronavirus in the Philippines is the more contagious delta variant, which is immensely challenging for the Filipino healthcare system. So far, 34.1 million vaccine doses have been administrated, and only 13.1% of its population is considered fully vaccinated. Infection rates are hitting record highs, with daily infections averaging at 16,000 – 20% higher than last week. After the Philippines saw the first COVID-related death outside of China, its total case numbers have breached two million, and out of a population of 108 million, the archipelago has recorded over 33,000 fatalities.
Frontline workers are especially at risk. “When you work in a hospital during a pandemic like COVID-19, you are exposed to the virus,” Jao Clumia, union president of St. Luke’s Medical Center, said. “It’s as if you have one foot in your grave already.”
Many hoped that the pandemic would bring important changes to the health sector. Instead, it has only intensified existing issues. According to a study conducted by information aggregator iPrice Group, Filipino healthcare salaries are dramatically lower than other professionals’ in southeast Asia. The data reveals that the mean wage for nurses in the Philippines is 57% less than in the next lowest-paying country, Vietnam. Singaporean nurses reportedly earn 480% more than Filipino nurses, at $1,000 a month and $6,500 respectively.
Although the Philippines is a leading exporter of healthcare workers, local supply is struggling to meet the pandemic’s demands. According to the Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines, approximately 40% of palliative care staff working in private hospitals resigned last year, and the delta variant is projected to only propel this. In a report with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the World Health Organization’s regional director for the western Pacific, Dr. Takeshi Kasai, cautioned the Filipino government to ensure its healthcare workers are receiving adequate support. “In some places, surges are pushing health systems dangerously close to what we call the ‘red line,’” Dr. Kasai said. If cases exceed I.C.U. capacity, he warns, hospitals will be unable to deliver critical care.
Many frontline workers see the protests in front of the Department of Health as necessary to compel a change in circumstances. “Does the government think we want to be out on the streets protesting? We would rather be at our hospitals, caring for our patients,” a frontline worker told Deutsche Welle.
The protests seem to be working. President Rodrigo Duterte has responded to concerns, ordering the health and budget ministries to remunerate medical staff what is owed. In a public address, Duterte ordered Department of Health minister Francisco Duque III to pay healthcare workers with “whatever money there is.”
“Give the benefits that nurses both in government and those outside the government are asking for,” Duterte said. “Pay the volunteers.”
The government will need to act fast to avoid becoming the virus’s new epicenter. Ensuring that vital healthcare workers receive proper support and financial compensation is the first step.
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