The Philippines is known for having one of the highest passing rates for healthcare worker examinations. Last June and November 2019, for instance, 12,686 examinees passed the Nursing Licensure Examination. Despite this, almost 75% of cities and municipalities around the country have an insufficient number of healthcare workers. Licensed professionals tend to migrate for potentially higher salaries and benefits, such as those in the United States and neighboring countries. 

Since the pandemic struck the Philippines, the state of the local health workforce has gotten even worse, with workers experiencing even more discrimination, mistreatment, and abuse.

The Department of Health proposed solutions to this crisis, including partnering with universities that could recommend its students to understaffed hospitals. The government even went as far as to impose a  deployment ban for Filipino healthcare workers to force their participation in the local fight against COVID-19. 

However, this ban led to protests. The nonprofit Filipino Nurses United, for instance, expressed in September 2020 that Filipino healthcare workers have the right to seek higher salaries and work abroad. In November 2020, President Duterte lifted the said ban yet allowed only 5,000 health workers to leave, which was not enough considering that 17,000 Filipino nurses had signed overseas contracts. 

Migration is seen as a way for a tenth of the Filipino working population to sustain their families in the Philippines while advancing their professional careers. This, however, has adverse effects on the people left behind in the  country, especially health workers. It has commercialized health education and stripped the country of skilled learning facilitators. The local healthcare worker-to-patient ratio can be represented as 1 nurse to 60 patients, which is insufficient, especially in rural areas, making the current health system fragile and unsustainable.

These numbers are the result of apathetic people in public office. For instance, instead of acknowledging the legitimate concerns of the health sector, the President instead says that healthcare professionals are lucky to have died serving the country.

In February 23 of this year, International Labor Affairs Bureau Director Alice Visperas suggested that the deployment ban on healthcare workers set for Britain and Germany would be lifted, but only if these workers were exchanged for vaccines. Healthcare workers were treated as mere shields in hospitals and commodities in exchange for vaccines, despite the country already loaning around P70 billion for vaccines alone.

Even the prioritization of these vaccines was unreasonable. In November 2020, Health Secretary Duque stated that healthcare workers, senior citizens, and indigent citizens would be prioritized for the vaccine. Instead, more vaccines were distributed to the armed forces in comparison.

On March 23, 2020, President Duterte signed Administrative Order No. 26, indicating that healthcare workers in private and public sectors could be granted COVID-19 hazard pay. However, this order raised several concerns. According to the Alliance of Health Workers, this hazard pay was "deceptive" due to the existing Magna Carta of Public Health Workers, which already let health workers choose between hazard pay options. It was also "divisive" because of the computation stated in the said order, which pays the employee for the number of days worked, regardless of the number of hours worked.

Lastly, the pay was unjustly distributed among public and private health  facilities. According to Senator Pia Cayetano, despite the Administrative Order being implemented, more than 16,000 employees have yet to receive their hazard pay due to the lack of funds. Although the DOH had already released P842 million for 86,348 employees, it still needed an additional P108.2 million for the remaining  16,764 workers.  

Despite a year in quarantine, not much has changed in the health sector. COVID-19 cases are continuously rising, reaching 109,018 active cases and a total of 702,856 cases as of March 26, 2021. This increase in patients occurs while hospitals in the National Capital Region (NCR) report that they can no longer admit new patients due to overcapacity.

Second Opinion PH, a group of medical professionals, demanded that the different types of community quarantines implemented should be  transformed into a “real medical quarantine.” This means that plans to help people should be enacted instead of just locking them in their homes while waiting for vaccines. A study from the University of the Philippines proved that while lockdown measures effectively minimized the spread of the virus, they are only a temporary solution.

To truly combat the virus, the Philippine government needs to listen to health professionals and scientists to establish a long-term strategy that will benefit the country, including mass testing, better contact tracing, and plans beyond the acquisition and distribution of vaccines.  

Specifically, there should be an increase in budget allotment for the healthcare sector and the salary of its workers, to compensate for the risks of infection, heavy workload, and lack of resources in hospitals.

The Philippines, among Southeast Asian countries, has the lowest minimum wage for healthcare workers at approximately P22,000, and even with an increase of P6,000 to P9,000 during the first tranche, this was not enough to cover daily expenses due to the inflation rate. The salary range of local healthcare workers should at least match other Southeast Asian countries. Legislation should be mandated for an increased monthly salary of about P62,000 – what they pay entry-level  nurses in Vietnam.

It has been over a year since the pandemic put a halt on our lives, yet we are stuck in the same place as the rest of the world moves on. Instead of neglecting healthcare workers, the government must realize that we are in dire need of a better healthcare system, improved resources, and more workers as this pandemic drags on. – Rappler.com

The authors are associates of the Samahan ng mga Kabataang Kumakalinga sa Kalusugan (SKKK), a student organization that aims to improve the country's healthcare system by highlighting the importance of its healthcare workers, especially in times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic.