[OPINION] An OFW’s letter to President Duterte on the deployment ban

'Military enlistment is not best done at the brink of a war, and neither is the massive employment of nurses during a pandemic'

Dear Mr. President,  

This open letter asks you to reconsider the deployment ban of overseas health care workers. If you were not a listening leader, we would not bother writing this letter. But we are cognizant that amid this difficult time and your heavy job, you will hear my plea and that of my fellow nurses. One proof is the amendment already made by the IATF on the ban guidelines released last April 13. (READ: ‘Underpaid, overworked, unappreciated’: PH deployment ban scars nurses during pandemic)

We will not anchor our reasons on the legalities of the ban currently put in place. We simply can’t. We are a group of individuals who have relatively little background on the law. None of us is a veteran in legal debates. Even if we can, arguendo, we know we’re on the losing side because you have with you champions in the legal profession. 

First of all, we feel grateful for your intent to protect Filipino nurses from the health risk posed by COVID-19. It is a kind of risk no one hopes to be exposed to. However, I believe no one understands the danger better than health care workers. If we are honest, this is not the first time we have faced perils in the health care setting. Illness and death are just some of the day-to-day enemies that threaten our well-being. Amid these daily threats, regardless of unpleasant organizational climates and treatment, nurses have not failed to do their duty to which they have taken an oath – to care for the sick. 

Back then, our complaints about the injustices we faced – low salary rates and exceedingly imbalanced nurse-patient ratios, among others – were not heard enough, to the point that we had to bring our concerns to the Legislative Branch. It is therefore no surprise why nurses have gained a reputation as migrant Filipinos. To some extent, this has become their legacy not only for the Philippines, but for the entire world. (READ: Filipino nurses: The world’s frontliners vs the coronavirus)

In the past, we sent soldiers abroad to fight for our allies, despite the fact that we were under threat of war on our own soil. The difference is that soldiers are at the disposal of the government. Nurses, being private individuals themselves, the ones who are not tied to employers in our country, are not.

Sure, if it seems right to ban nurses who have already entered into a mutual agreement with a foreign employer regardless of the date, then it would also seem right to recall our nurses from the battlefield this time, to take them out of BPO industries where they are known to pool and have them wait as “backup” support, or perhaps to call out to all other Filipino nurses abroad and repatriate them just in case the war keeps going.

But I submit that this isn’t right.

These nurses who want to lift their families out of poverty have been singled out. This pandemic will not be gone soon. How long will they have to wait? Three or 4 months? Maybe a year or so? By then, their visas, documents, and exams have already expired, and they have to undergo the painstaking processes to get them again – not to mention that they no longer have the financial capacity, as nearly all of them have already resigned from their jobs in the hopes of getting deployed.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. True. But a pandemic, like a war, is a threat that is never gone. Military enlistment is not best done at the brink of a war, and neither is the massive employment of nurses during a pandemic. Prevention is better than cure, says the old adage. It can be remembered that before we reached this point, there were not enough efforts to attract nurses to work in our country, because the popular belief was that the supply was great, that there was nothing to worry about.

Furthermore, there have not been government programs that financially support those who pursue nursing degrees, unlike other courses that have DOST and DOH support. It is the budding nurse’s families who have to toil hard for them to graduate. Then after graduation, the kind of job that awaits them in our country does not help pay the bills. As a result, they move to industries such as BPO, where they are sufficiently compensated. (READ: Low pay, high risk: The reality of nurses in the Philippines)

Had it not been for the pandemic, our nurses here would not have been seen as more valuable.

The move seeking the employment of nurses under the DOH program as a response to COVID-19 sounds acceptable, but it binds us to a 3-month contract. By the time our employers overseas are ready to receive us and by the time the ban is lifted, we would have to first complete our 3-month obligation in the country. This is also why we are not persuaded to stay.

Data suggests that the Philippines has surpassed other countries in terms of death tolls among health care workers. It seems that neither the situation here nor overseas can make us feel safe. But soldiers and nurses alike know what they had signed up for. At least, once abroad, we can send our families financial support to help them get by during the pandemic. – Rappler.com

Bruce Rhick Estillote, a graduate of Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology, is a registered nurse who previously worked in a community in Iligan City under CGMI, a Christian organization that reaches out to poor local communities nationwide. He is also an alumnus of Philippine Youth Leadership Programme (PYLP), a leadership development exchange that offers secondary students and adult mentors training in the United States.