[OPINION] We have to support our health workers

Tristan Lugod
[OPINION] We have to support our health workers
'It’s a very dangerous game we play when resiliency is our only card'

It’s been 9 years since I last wore my nurse’s uniform. Though I left this profession a long time ago, I feel that my instincts as a nurse have somewhat remained. This is why after learning of the widespread measures implemented in response to the new coronavirus outbreak, I couldn’t help but worry about the immediate future. I worry for my personal health, my family, my friends, my job, the health workers battling the outbreak, the economy. I worry about the general state of our country, really.

The health of a person is ultimately tied to the realities of his country. I realized this the hard way when back in college I witnessed firsthand the sad state of our health system. I had my training in a number of public hospitals and signs of the harsh reality were ubiquitous: doctors and nurses with their heavy workload, inadequate compensation, low supplies, heightened occupational risk, emotional and psychological burnout. I still recall how in some parts patients could not afford basics like disposable syringes and gloves while hospitals had limited stocks. Health workers had to be creative and resourceful, keeping their hands and minds busy for ways to bridge gaps. Whatever policies in place were not enough, and both health worker and patient suffered. The pain of my patient who couldn’t buy her medicine and the fatigue of my mentors can be ultimately traced to the problems that beset our health institutions.

Now that Filipinos scramble to brace themselves against the outbreak, these memories come back to haunt me. If on any given day our public hospitals are at risk of being overwhelmed, what more if the number of patients rises to the thousands? The health system has improved in some ways over the last years. An increase in government nurses’ salary has been mandated, for instance. But such victories were hard-fought and fraught with new setbacks. New nurses are inducted every year, but many also leave for better prospects on foreign shores. Just last year, the country’s health fund for 2020 was slashed by P10 billion, which undoubtedly further burdened our already beleaguered health system. The budget cut was criticized then when the country faced outbreaks of polio, measles, and dengue. But this misstep seems glaring in light of the current outbreak. It can be argued that no one could have foretold a pandemic was imminent, but prudence dictates that skimping on public health is always a risky move.

We Filipinos are resilient. We’ve endured conflicts, plagues, and disasters throughout history. Still here we are, looking forward to tomorrow with high hopes, our resolute morale our defining trait. But as we face this challenge, one that may turn out to be our greatest in many years, can we really bank on just our resilience? Will our fighting spirit suffice? This country cannot thrive if its health system is fragile by default. Each health crisis like the one in our midst today could leave the country reeling and weaker. It’s a very dangerous game we play when resiliency is our only card. The day may come when we encounter a crisis where the odds are stacked against us and the numbers are less forgiving.

A strong and efficient health system is by no means the only key to a flourishing country. But it certainly is one of its foundations. The fact that we now look to our experts, health workers, and institutions for guidance and solutions emphasizes the crucial role they play in our lives. But how will the health system serve the people if it is weighed down?

As I write this, I do my best to allay my fears. I tell myself that there is hope and that we shall overcome. Good news helps, including the development of more affordable test kits by Filipino scientists from the University of the Philippines. But I’m also reminded of the sacrifices of our health workers and experts  – the long hours they bear, the risks they brave, the exhaustion they feel, their race against time, and it leads me to a single conclusion: things must change for our health system not just for the current outbreak but for all crises to come.

I do not pretend to know the answer to this predicament, but perhaps part of it is showing our support to our health workers. We must bear in mind that health workers’ struggle is everyone’s struggle, and we must find ways big and small to advocate for their welfare, from sincere expressions of gratitude to supporting concrete policies that improve their working conditions. The government and those in positions of power, in particular, must take the long view and prioritize the provision of essential resources. Uplifting our health workers uplifts our health system, and uplifting our health system uplifts our country. – Rappler.com

Tristan Lugod was trained as a nurse. He now works as writer and editor for a writing firm in Makati.