One too often gets the feeling, and I’ve occasionally written about it, that our so-called public servants in government can be such experts in constantly finding ways to make life more difficult for us Filipinos. Filipino nurses, now hailed overseas as heroes and profusely thanked in countries they serve in, are yet another group badly mistreated by their own government, especially at this time that they are literally forced to offer their very lives, and for so little at that.Early in the ongoing pandemic crisis, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) suddenly prohibited health workers from leaving the country, spanning repairmen of medical and hospital equipment, nurses, pharmacists, physicians, molecular biologists, and more. The single biggest group affected was nurses, of whom there are an estimated 500,000 in the country, with about 38,000 added annually.
With the ban, the POEA aimed to “prioritize human resource allocation” in the country’s health care system. At first blush, it sounds like a good thing—until one realizes that it is yet another shotgun solution to a problem needing rifle-focused ones. And like other shotgun solutions in various contexts that our government seems to have favored even long before the COVID-19 crisis, the collateral damage hardly justifies whatever good achieved. Worse, there seems to be no well-thought out and coherent government approach to make the most of the precipitate ban. The Department of Health (DOH) offered an emergency volunteer program that would pay nurses P500 per day for two weeks of service alternating with two weeks of quarantine, plus food, lodging, and transport allowance—only to be criticized by nursing groups as adding insult to injury.
The DOH later relented and announced that it was “studying the prospects of increasing health workers’ pay.” Not surprisingly, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III was quoted in a press briefing to have lamented how only 25 had applied for the DOH program out of 1,000 nurses immediately stopped from leaving to work abroad—in what sounded like criticism for their lack of love for our country. He reportedly went on: “I appeal to the sense of nationalism, to the sense of patriotism of every health care worker, we are still in war. We are in World War C and we need to work together to win.” It could be an inspiring call to service and sacrifice, if not for recent news on how billions of pesos in PhilHealth funds may have gone into the wrong pockets.
Meanwhile, among those nurses stopped from leaving for abroad are people who already had contracts with overseas hospitals, but whose contracts did not make it to the March 8 cutoff date set as a compromise by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases. Many nurses who had simply been on vacation from their regular jobs abroad were stranded by what started as a blanket ban.
No less than Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. called it out to be a violation of Filipinos’ constitutional right to travel and contractual right to work where their work is needed. Curiously, the IATF set the cutoff date at March 8, even as the first lockdown was announced on March 12. Still, there are nurses like Jerrick Gomez, whose contract was approved (unluckily for him) on March 12. He had come home after working four years in Saudi Arabia as a company nurse to renew his passport and get his UK visa, until the ban stopped him from leaving for his new and better job.
I need not detail how overworked and underpaid Filipino nurses are in their own country, when they easily receive five or more times as much working overseas. To bar them from doing so now rubs salt on a long festering wound, and needlessly adds to the hardship already being felt by the unprecedented millions of Filipinos laid idle by the pandemic crisis.
Secretary Locsin tweeted of more than 400,000 unemployed or misemployed nursing graduates. So why let the labor department deprive a few thousand nurses with ready jobs waiting abroad of the chance to improve their families’ lives, and help strengthen our overall economy, as nurses have done all these past years?