Heroes and scoundrels in our midst
TOWARD the end of my Mama’s life many years ago, she was in and out of hospitals because of a persistent medical condition. But through it all, no matter which hospital she was checked in, we were always so fortunate that her nurses took care of her so well. Also her doctors, of course.
Often, these nurses did everything to make Mama feel more comfortable despite her extended confinement, and if they had some extra time on their hands, they stayed a few minutes to chat with her after checking her vitals. Those who remember my Mama know she was such a firecracker and liked chatting up a lot of people, and getting to know their personal lives.
In one government hospital, Cherie (not her real name), one of the nurses who was usually on duty in the daytime, became so devoted to Mama that she even went to bat for her, talking with physicians’ executive assistants and demanding they lower their charges sent to us. Mama was already checking out that day, but Cherie told me one physician charged a fee on a certain day, when neither he nor his intern had actually peeked in to check on Mama’s condition.
That was how excellent Cherie was. Even if it may have probably been considered unprofessional on her part to challenge a patient’s medical bill, she still did it. She even wheeled out Mama in a wheelchair, despite that being an orderly’s job really, and assisted us in making sure Mama got into the car safely.
This was sometime 2012 or 2013. By now, I am sure Cherie is already working in some hospital abroad, as that was her goal. Before Mama left the hospital, I told Cherie then I wished that she did not have to leave for work abroad because, “sayang. Wala nang mag-aalaga sa mga may sakit dito kung lahat kayo umalis.” But she had shared that she had to, for her family’s sake, because her salary here in the country was so painstakingly low.
With this pandemic, we are now seeing how much our health-care system needs a defibrillator. Not only is the number of nurses inadequate, but also physicians. The need is extreme, especially in the provinces where we are now seeing an unmitigated explosion in Covid-19 Delta cases.
As far back as 2006, I already wrote about the doom that was going to visit the country’s health-care system. The demand for nurses abroad, especially in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other Western countries had grown immensely. Not only were nurses leaving, but doctors who trained to be nurses were also departing, along with radiologists, medical technicians, even pharmacists.
Then president of the Philippine Medical Association Dr. Modesto Llamas told me, “[The future is] bleak if the trend continues. In the last five years, 3,000 to 4,000 doctors left as nurses.” Most of them were doctors who were poorly paid in provincial hospitals, he noted. (See “Fears rising over RP health crisis,” Businessmirror, August 22, 2006.)
According to the Department of Labor and Employment web site, “[an] entry-level registered nurse receives a salary of P8,000 to P13,500 per month. Registered nurses hired at hospitals commonly receive an average of P9,757 per month. In the government, the average salary per month is around P13,500, while in the private sector the rate average is around P10,000 per month.”
In comparison, the DOLE continues, “overseas, the pay scale is way above local rates with the US market offering an average salary of $3,800 per month, the UK with £1,662, and Canada with $4,097 for an entry level.” That is why it distresses me whenever I read how our nurses and other medical frontliners are being deprived of their hazard pay, overtime pay, food and transportation allowances, and other special allowances promised them as they go do battle for us in this pandemic.
The poor pay among health-care workers, especially nurses, is repeatedly raised to the authorities, to no avail, it seems. In their most recent protest action, ironically on National Heroes Day just this past Monday, HCWS in many hospitals here and in the provinces again demanded for their pandemic benefits, especially in the wake of Commission on Audit’s report that Department of Health mismanaged some P67 billion in funds. Not only that, instead of paying out the special risk allowance our HCWS deserve, DOH returned some P59 billion to the National Treasury at the end of 2020.
Government has made so much fuss and declarations about our medical frontliners being our new heroes because of this pandemic. And yet this is how it treats them. We should not be surprised, of course. Just look at the way the state treats our original bagong bayani, the overseas contract workers. They are confronted with queue upon queue at the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration before they depart for jobs abroad, with the longest number of requirements that beat out those required by the local private sector, even more lines when they return home and faced with disrespect by airport personnel and other petty government functionaries asking for lagay here and there, “to smoothen the process,” so to speak.
Here in the Philippines, when they dub you as “hero,” better hide fast. You know you will be treated like sh*t.