[OPINION] Duterte’s callous disregard for health workers’ lives

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has a perverse message for health workers who have died of COVID-19 contracted in the country’s struggle against the novel coronavirus: Be grateful.

Duterte on March 31 dismissed reports of the rising number of doctors and nurses who have succumbed to the disease, stating that, “They are so lucky. They died for the country.”

“It would be an honor to die for your country, I assure you,” he added.

Duterte’s comments followed revelations on March 26 that at least 9 Philippine doctors have died of COVID-19 while working in hospital emergency rooms treating patients infected with the novel coronavirus. Hundreds of other Philippine doctors and nurses have gone into 14-day quarantine after exposure to patients who have tested positive for coronavirus.

The president’s comments are unsurprising in the context of his blatant disregard for the lives of Filipinos in his government’s ongoing war on drugs, that has resulted in the extrajudicial killings of an estimated more than 20,000 of his fellow citizens since 2016. That slaughter has prompted the  International Criminal Court to launch a preliminary examination into possible crimes against humanity linked to the anti-drug campaign. 

The Philippine Medical Association has expressed concern that, as in many countries, a national shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) has put health workers at unusually high risk of contracting COVID-19. In the face of these constraints, the professional grouping has called for restricting hospital use of PPEs to only those health workers directly treating suspected or confirmed novel coronavirus infections. 

The shortages of PPEs for health workers, particularly N95 masks, during this pandemic is an international crisis. Shortages of surgical and N95 masks and equipment rationing for health workers have become the hallmark of inadequate government preparation and responses to the crisis worldwide. Those shortages are forcing some doctors and nurses to create homemade masks of dubious efficacy.

The deaths of health workers due to inadequate supplies of PPEs are national tragedies to be mourned, not patriotic sacrifices to be celebrated. Duterte and his government should be working around the clock to secure the PPEs that Philippine medical first responders require to protect them from the “honor” of dying of COVID-19. – Rappler.com

Phelim Kine is the Director of Research & Investigations at Physicians for Human Rights and the former deputy director of Asia division at Human Rights Watch.