Saving lives on the frontline, Filipino nurses still face abuse and stigma

While undertaking life-saving work for little pay, frontline healthcare workers in the Philippines say they are still suffering from physical attacks, a lack of protective equipment and are stigmatised in their communities due to virus fears

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April 14, 2020
Saving lives on the frontline, Filipino nurses still face abuse and stigma
A medical worker wears a protective mask with her name printed on it at a hospital in San Juan City, Metro Manila on April 13. EPA-EFE/Rolex Dela Pena

Frontline healthcare workers in the Philippines are badly struggling within a strained healthcare system as they battle both rising Covid-19 infections, as well as face abuse from the community they seek to protect. 

Reigner Antiquera, president of the Philippines Alliance of Young Nurse Leaders and Advocates (AYNLA) told the Globe staff are suffering as a result of stigma surrounding the novel coronavirus, including assaults, home evictions and denial of access to basic services. 

“There are reports that nurses and other health care workers are being physically attacked and harassed and having chemicals thrown on them such as bleach and chlorine,” he said. 

When researchers discovered the Philippine’s first Covid-19 patient on March 21 in Iloilo City, some nurses and doctors came home to find they had been evicted by landlords fearful of the spread of the novel coronavirus. Some medical workers have been shunned from eateries and denied access to services such as laundry and public transportation. 

On March 27, a hospital utility worker was surrounded by five men who doused his face with bleach while he was walking to the hospital where he worked in Sultan Kudarat province’s Tacurong City, in the country’s southern region of Mindanao.

Antiquera said an ambulance driver was also violently attacked by people who believed the person being transported had Covid-19. 

He said this is the first time he has ever seen such backlash against healthcare workers, strongly condemning the discrimination. All this while working long hours for little pay – with the average monthly nurse salary in the Philippines roughly $300, and the low-end of the nurse-patient ratio 12.6 nurses per 10,000 people. In rural areas, that falls to 4.2. 

“Where is the humanity in this time of need?” Antiquera asked, describing the violence as “totally unbelievable”.

While tensions among people run high, the virus itself, and a critical lack of personal protective equipment (PPE), continues to present a clear danger to those on the frontlines.

As of writing, 20 doctors in the Philippines have died from Covid-19, with the archipelago nation having the second-highest official infection rate in Southeast Asia after Malaysia. The Philippines Health Department has recorded nearly 4,650 infections and, as of this week, almost 300 Filipinos have died of the viral disease.

Political observers have been uneasy about President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent expansion of authority through emergency orders to fight Covid-19. Since March 17, much of the Philippines has been on strict lockdown extended to April 30 to help limit the spread of the virus. Quarantine measures have shut down most of the main island of Luzon, where the capital Manila sits, affecting nearly 57 million residents.

In a recent apparent attempt at memorialising healthcare workers, Duterte said in a national address this week that it would be an honour for healthcare workers to die for their country.

If they will continue to harass our healthcare workers, more of them will quit their jobs, and our healthcare system will collapse … Once it collapses, more people will suffer

Reigner Antiquera, president of the Philippines Alliance of Young Nurse Leaders and Advocates

Medical professionals feel differently. Antiquera describes the loss of healthcare workers as preventable and “truly heartbreaking”, warning that unless they receive protective equipment “more of them may contract the disease and eventually die.” 

“I firmly believe that Covid-19-related deaths among health professionals can be prevented if the government would only provide them [with] sufficient PPE, as well as reasonable working hours,” Antiquera explained, calling for the government to be held accountable for shortcomings in addressing the outbreak. 

“The health workers must also be prioritised in testing as they are the ones who are most exposed to the virus. If they will be tested, interventions can be done immediately.”

As medical supplies dwindle, doctors and nurses in several hospitals around the country have had no option but to use household goods as makeshift PPE, risking their own lives and heightening the risk of transmission.

Medical staff at St. Jude Family Hospital in Los Baños municipality, just south of the capital Manila, used plastic bags as crude protective gear for their faces and bodies. In Palawan province, workers used Coca-Cola bottles to make improvised face shields whilst awaiting much-needed aid from the government and private sector.

According to AYNLA, the Philippines Department of Health has recently procured one million sets of PPE – each set containing items like gloves, coveralls, N95 masks, goggles, surgical masks and gowns – worth more than $35.5 million.

According to the DOH, the first 15,000 sets have already been received and are ready for distribution to different government facilities, specifically hospitals designated as Covid-19 treatment centres.

But as the number of infections rises, many fear the Philippine’s already overstretched healthcare system will break down, unable to cope with the demand for intensive care. By March 25, three large hospitals in Manila had already closed their doors to new Covid-19 patients. 

Antiquera warned that unless the government does more to prioritise “the backbone of our healthcare system”, many will be forced to either quit or risk their lives.

“If they will continue to harass our healthcare workers, more of them will quit their jobs, and our healthcare system will collapse”, he said. “Once it collapses, more people will suffer.”

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