Our undervalued health workers

Published July 21, 2021, 12:03 AM

by Former Vice President Jejomar C. Binay

GOVERNANCE MATTERS

Former Vice President Jejomar Binay

Irate health workers were reported as throwing tomatoes at the gate of the Department of Health (DOH) to dramatize their displeasure over the unconscionable delay in the release of their risk allowance and other benefits due them under the Bayanihan 2 Law.

The Health Secretary, however, is washing his hands on the matter, pointing the health workers in the direction of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM). This finger-pointing, however, is emblematic of the inefficiency that has dragged down the government’s response to the pandemic.

The plight of our health workers is yet another example of the disconnect between what government says and what it does, or in this case, did not do. Since last year when the pandemic struck, government officials have been extolling the sacrifices of our health workers. But while acknowledging their service and heroism, government  cannot even facilitate the release of benefits which, truth be told, are not even sufficient when weighed against the risks that our health workers face each time they don their PPEs and masks.

The pandemic has uncovered wide gaps in our public health system which successive administrations have failed to narrow substantively. Our growing population requires greater investments in public health. Diseases linked to poor nutrition and poverty have also been spreading, the result of social iniquities that persist throughout the country. Yet public investments in the construction of hospitals and clinics, upgrading medical facilities, procuring medicines, and improving the working conditions of health workers have been shown by the pandemic as woefully inadequate.

Over the past decades we have witnessed the steady exodus of health workers to more financially-rewarding destinations like the United States and Europe. Filipinos make up  a considerable number of nurses and health care workers abroad, and when the pandemic hit their host countries, our kababayan found themselves at the front lines of the battle. Several foreign governments have publicly extolled the indispensable work of Filipino nurses in providing critical care to COVID-19 patients.

We are, therefore, in a perplexing situation. We provide other countries a steady stream of nurses and other health workers, yet suffer from their absence. This was evident at the height of the pandemic last year, and during the surge in March and April this year. Not only were the number of hospital beds and oxygen tanks inadequate, but the number of nurses as well. And these are hospitals in Metro Manila where most health facilities, both public and private, are located. The imbalance in health resources is now being felt in the provinces, where the number of COVID-19 cases have already outpaced Metro Manila.

There is growing concern over the surge in cases in key cities in the Visayas and Mindanao. Some experts have even posited the grim view that the surge is caused by the Delta variant, and that government has failed to detect it because of its woefully inadequate testing capabilities. A proposal has been made to reimpose the so-called NCR Plus “bubble” in order to insulate the capital region and the four adjacent provinces –  the country’s economic centers – from the possible entry of the variant. The Health Department says it will meet to discuss the matter, but gave the assurance that government is ready. Knowing what we know about government’s definition of readiness, these words do not offer any comfort or peace of mind.

To demonstrate its supposed readiness, the DOH has ordered all private hospitals in Metro Manila to increase the number of beds so they could take in more patients. But as a spokesperson for a group of private hospitals pointed out, they can easily increase their beds, and they have already done so, but they do not have enough nurses in the event of another surge.

Sadly, government only acknowledges the value of our health workers during emergencies such as the pandemic. And yet, it cannot even do the decent thing and release their benefits on time.

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