healthcare workers

[OPINION] A memorial for fallen frontliners is not a bad thing. The timing is.

John Lee Candelaria
[OPINION] A memorial for fallen frontliners is not a bad thing. The timing is.
'Memorials are sites of conscience'

The government hopes to unveil a memorial wall to honor the sacrifices of fallen medical frontliners, according to National Task Force Against COVID-19 chief implementer Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. The memorial wall, to be located at the Libingan ng mga Bayani in Taguig City, is being fast-tracked, with Sec. Galvez committing a minimum of a little over a month and, at most, three months until completion.

Our fallen frontliners deserve all the possible honors for the sacrifice they make. A memorial is one way to remind the people that there were people who gave up their lives so that others may continue enjoying theirs. Indeed, memorials for historical events and figures are plenty in the country. They are often created to commemorate a war or an event that led to the loss of many human lives. Some of our memorial walls have been borne from events like these, such as the one honoring World War II soldiers in Capas National Shrine, Tarlac, or the one in Bantayog ng mga Bayani in Quezon City dedicated to the victims of martial law and the Marcos dictatorship. 

Many would be quick to dismiss a memorial wall as a hunk of stone, but memorials and memorialization, or the process that creates them, serve several vital purposes in society today.

Memorialization encompasses all kinds of activities and engagements designed to ensure that what happened in the past is committed to the memory of the present, so that what happened before will not happen again. Memorials enable the people to reflect on the heroic sacrifices of the fallen while also educating the youth about important events that make up the country’s history. Memorials are sites of conscience. This is why many school trips usually include a visit to a memorial or a shrine. 

In many post-conflict societies, memorialization serves a transitional justice function. It is used to honor human rights abuse victims or reconcile tensions between groups within a society so that they can move forward toward a shared future. 

Memorials also benefit the victims’ families, as memorialization is viewed as symbolic reparations to begin the process of healing. A memorial is a place to grieve their lost loved ones, a place to make sense of what seems incomprehensible, such as the untimely death of soldiers in active duty.

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It is no wonder that the idea of a memorial wall for fallen medical workers was floated around, as the pandemic has already been likened to a war. Even the term “frontliners” is a word derived from war language.

The idea of a COVID-19 memorial wall is also not unique. In May, the Quiapo Church created a memorial wall where families and friends of those who succumbed to the virus may write their names so that the church can pray over them during the Masses. We also see the same memorialization happen internationally. In the United Kingdom, a guerilla act of memorialization started early this year, when the relatives of those who died during the pandemic started drawing red hearts on a stretch of a wall facing the Thames. Memorial sites are also rising in other places; many are grassroots-based, while others are government-sponsored.

In the Philippines, a memorial wall for our fallen frontliners is not a bad thing. The problem is the timing. The memorial wall was announced when medical workers are protesting to receive the benefits they rightfully deserve. Healthcare workers have suffered numerous indignities due to the government’s failures. The timely release of their meager hazard pay and special risk allowance is the least that the government can do to assuage the feelings of our frontliners.

The memorial is also not welcome news when there have been multiple allegations of corruption in the Department of Health, stemming from the irregularities detected by the Commission on Audit. Billions have been spent for pandemic supplies at exorbitant prices from dubious firms without public bidding. President Duterte himself defended that it was to expedite the procurement process of desperately needed supplies, yet the government cannot seem to do the same for the healthcare workers’ benefits.

Ultimately, the memorial was announced when COVID-19 cases are at an all-time high. The Philippines was also recently declared the world’s second-worst country in COVID resiliency. At a time when our frontliners are still down in the trenches and fighting, the government’s planned memorial wall is like fitting a headstone to the grave of a person who is still alive and fighting.

[OPINION] A memorial for fallen frontliners is not a bad thing. The timing is.

A memorial wall is not a bad thing. Plenty will rise to honor the victims of the pandemic globally. These sites will be places where people can find solace and start the healing process. But as the battle to contain the contagion rages and as more issues regarding the government’s handling of the pandemic come to the fore, constructing a memorial wall reveals the government’s priorities: that it would rather honor the dead than those still alive fighting the pandemic. –

John Lee Candelaria is a PhD candidate at Hiroshima University, Japan. He graduated with BA and MA History degrees from the University of the Philippines Diliman, and hosts PODKAS, a podcast on Philippine history, politics, and society.