#FEATURE | Behind the Mask: What Our Frontliners Face

By Bel de las Llagas and Makki Samonte*

“What defines a frontliner”. Art by Bel de las Llagas.

Risking their lives day by day, having to treat those who have tested positive for the virus, all the while having to endure endless hours of work — this is what a frontliner does.

Ever since the first case of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) had been confirmed in the Philippines last January 30, extreme measures such as the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) were set in place in order to prevent people from going outside as much as possible.

The government’s response.

Non-essential establishments and businesses were temporarily closed during the pandemic to prevent workers from exposing themselves to the virus. We were told to observe proper hygienic practices such as washing hands more often to thoroughly stop the spreading of germs and bacteria.

Hospitals and medical centers were advised to help prevent more infection cases. As a response to being understaffed, the Department of Health (DOH) also had to call for volunteer doctors, nurses, nurse assistants, and hospital orderlies. These volunteers are to man three hospitals that were named as referral centers for COVID-19 patients. They are promised a P500 pay for eight-hour shifts on 14 consecutive days.

According to Wage Order No. NCR-22, the daily minimum wage for an individual ranges from 500 to 537 pesos. However, as signed by President Rodrigo Duterte last March 23, public health workers are now given an additional 500 pesos for each day they physically report for work. This is also known as “hazard pay” for medical frontliners.

This wouldn’t have been done if it weren’t for the masses who demanded that they get better salaries. According to Publicus Asia, who surveyed 1,000 Metro Manila residents, 97.6% of the respondents agreed that medical frontliners should be given additional pay and better benefits.

NCR COVID-19 Survey: 97.6% want better pay for medical frontliners. Source: Publicus Asia

The masses weren’t the only ones opposed to the salary the DOH gave. Many healthcare workers spoke about it, as well.

In an interview, Dr. Ronnie Baticulon, who works in the Philippine General Hospital, said, “I don’t know which is more appalling: that the DOH did not consult any healthcare workers before putting this out, or if they did, that nobody objected.” (Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News)

Along with the hazard pay, the Senate approved Senate Bill №1418 last March 24, which states that a P100,000 compensation will be given to healthcare workers who will get infected with COVID-19. Additionally, there will be a P1 million compensation to families of workers who may die from the virus.

In our current situation, there is still no cure for COVID-19, and once we do find a cure, it will take a long time before everyone can be treated. Since frontliners are doing so much in these trying times, it is unfair for them to receive compensation only when they are infected with the disease. This compensation can at most provide a hospital room, if they can still find one amid the full hospitals.

Rather than giving these compensations for when a healthcare worker contracts the disease, the government should instead give frontliners better salaries and invest in more equipment.

“We can’t see any relevance in allotting [a] P14-billion budget for tourism out of P27.1B of COVID Response budget, while our health workers and patients suffered the most,” remarked The Alliance of Health Workers (AHW) National President Robert Mendoza in a statement (Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News).

Aira Tadeja, a frontliner (an ICU nurse of the Lung Center of the Philippines) and family friend of Dana Orig (Batch 2022), was then asked about how well our frontliners were treated. “Accomodation and supplements are not the only things we need,” said Tadeja. “Sadly our other needs are heard, but not met. [Things] like additional manpower and most importantly, a monthly swab testing. But we are all still hopeful that the management will soon look into these requests and implement them.”

The shortage of equipment.

As the number of cases grows every day, the battles our frontliners face require more gear in order to carry out their duties properly. With the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), there is a higher risk of health workers contracting the disease. Not only that, but there are also shortages on things such as face masks, face shields, and gloves. Because of this, our health workers have to improvise and make their own equipment in order to continue working.

Medical frontliners of St. Jude Family Hospital Los Baños using plastic and garbage bags as PPE. Photo by Tes Depano (Facebook).

“I think [that] the solution starts with the government,” said Amanda Perez (Batch 2022), whose parents are both doctors and frontliners. “A lot of people are risking their lives out there right now, including healthcare professionals that are young medical residents and mature, immunocompromised older doctors and neither are safe.”

When asked about what can be improved regarding the conditions of our health care workers, Perez added, “The government needs to help more with supplies [such as protective gear, and testing equipment] and proper compensation. They must also effectively enforce an orderly lockdown that will flatten the curve and keep civilians safe, by providing them their needs like food and water.”

With this risk, not only are the health workers in danger but the patients they handle too.

Contrary to popular belief, the budget for the DOH was actually increased by 2.91 billion pesos. The National Expenditure Program, also known as “the President’s budget,” initially proposed a budget of P88.26 billion for the DOH, a P9.39 billion decrease from its budget in 2019. However, since it received an unpleasant response from the public and other lawmakers, it was eventually increased in the approved 2020 national budget.

Even though the budget for the DOH was increased, it doesn’t feel like it has changed things. It even seems like things got worse. In our present time, when we’re experiencing a pandemic that is infecting more and more people, the budget should be used more than ever. Proper equipment should be bought. Facilities should be enhanced. And above all that, frontliners should be paid more.

Long and understaffed shifts.

The lack of equipment leads to another problem. Health workers have to face long and understaffed shifts due to fellow doctors and nurses having to go through quarantine themselves after being exposed to patients who tested positive for the virus. This adds more to their workload as they have to divide more work between fewer people.

According to the Department of Health (DOH), there have been more than 1000 health care workers who have been COVID-positive. Among them are 422 doctors, 386 nurses, 30 medical technologists, 21 radiologic technologists, 51 nursing assistants, and 152 other employees of health facilities and barangay health workers (Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News).

Additionally, Dr. Rustico Jimenez, president of Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines (PHAP), mentioned that the current doctor-to-patient ratio stands at 1 to 40,000. This is far from the ideal 1 to 10,000 ratio that is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). With the circumstances our health workers are dealing with right now, we can only expect the ratio to become bigger.

So what happens when the number of health workers has gone down to zero? The answer is simple. We lose our only hope in fighting this disease. After all, we can’t fight illnesses with just money or power. The skills and proficiency of our frontliners are also important in stopping this pandemic.

The fight doesn’t stop there.

Even with all these challenges presented, frontliners still face battles even outside of work. Aside from having to endure long hours of work, frontliners have to undergo situations where they are slandered or discriminated against.

In Iloilo city, there have been social media posts that staff members were being discriminated against in their own homes. “We didn’t expect this to happen,” said Doctor Felix Ray Villa, chief executive officer of Medical City (Iloilo), in a Rappler interview.

“We’ve had around 50 staff members report back to us saying that after heading home, they weren’t allowed entry into their boarding house, they were barred from their barangays. They even had a difficult time going home because of the transportation situation, and on top of that, not allowed to enter their own homes,” Villa added.

A concerned Grade 10 PSHS student* was then asked their opinion regarding the unfair treatment frontliners had to face due to public fear.

“I think that it doesn’t help that there is a lack of information and a lot of misinformation about the virus,” said the student. “It creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and drives people to do anything just to feel safe and secure, and sometimes the result of that is the eviction of the very people working to create that environment.”

Sadly, this isn’t the only kind of discrimination our frontliners have experienced.

Healthcare worker Ritchie Estabillo from Sultan Kudarat was on his way to St. Louis Hospital when five men noticed his hospital uniform and proceeded to splash him in the face with bleach. The assault may possibly result in him having permanent eye damage.

A similar experience happened to a male nurse in Cebu City, who was splashed with chlorine by two men. Fortunately, he did not suffer any serious damage.

“[Our frontliners are struggling] a lot,” said Tadeja. “[It’s] not just physical, but [it’s] also mental and emotional struggles. To top it off, some people even discriminate [against] us and treat us as if we ourselves are infected.”

Due to these past incidences of discrimination and assault, the government has taken action and has warned the public against such practices. According to the Anti COVID-19 Discrimination Ordinance of 2020, which was passed on April 3, any form of discrimination against healthcare workers, COVID-19 cases (whether it be recovered or undergoing treatment), along with people under monitoring (PUM) or people under investigation (PUI) is prohibited and can result in a fine of 5,000 pesos.

Medical healthcare workers are discriminated against for doing such dangerous work that can possibly expose others to the virus. Rather than being appreciated, they are distrusted. People become too wary of them and disregard the things they endure to treat others. What the people only seem to see is the danger that comes along with their jobs.

The danger they experience, though, is just the tip of the iceberg.

What people don’t seem to see is the countless hours health workers spend, rotating shifts to make up for being understaffed. What they don’t see is the hours spent away from family, not even having the privilege to see them at times, either in fear of risking them or because there is nobody available to take their shift. What they don’t see is the struggles of finding a ride home after a long day’s work — only to walk all the way home because of the lack of transportation. What they don’t see is how late frontliners get home, only to wake up early to go to work with little to no rest.

“I think that the frontliners are the only ones who can battle this pandemic head-on [in order to] flatten the curve,” added Perez. “They are risking their own safety and health for the duty to care for others. While a lot of us are inside, they have to meet the crisis face to face and do their jobs.”

Frontliners are people who play a big role in fighting this pandemic. If it were not for them, the situation with COVID-19 would have turned out far worse. This is why we shouldn’t undermine the efforts of our public health workers. Our frontliners don’t deserve any discrimination for the hard work they do, especially as it is a heavy responsibility they carry out for the sake of the country.

“They’re very essential in this fight because they keep the pandemic under control,” said Sophia Manalo (Batch 2022), whose aunt and uncle (a barangay captain and a city councillor, respectively) are also frontliners. “Doctors, researchers, and the like treat the COVID-19 patients or try to find a cure while security personnel help prevent the virus from spreading. Without them, the situation in the Philippines would be worse than it is now.”

From the struggles of being understaffed, the lack of proper equipment in order to carry out their duties, and the discrimination because due to the misinformed, frontliners have to face so many battles in the pandemic. Moreover, the recognition they get is nowhere near what they deserve, may it be from the government or from the public.

As we celebrate Labor Day, we should show our support and assist our frontliners all the more so. Applauding and posting about them on social media is not enough. More labor policies should be added for the benefit for our healthcare workers. Salaries should be raised. Equipment should be improved.

The more we do for our frontliners, the more we help in fighting this pandemic and for their rights.

*These students have asked for anonymity, therefore any names used are not their real names.

To help and support our frontliners, please visit and donate via the links below:

--

--

--

The official English-language publication of the Philippine Science High School–Main Campus.

Recommended from Medium

READ/DOWNLOAD#[ Never Bet Against Occam: Mast Cell Activation Disease and the Modern Epidemics of…

Should Your Chiropractor Adjust Your Neck?

A skeleton with bony fingers on his chin in a questioning pose.

Heat Stroke – Definition, Causes, and Prevention.

Decoding the ABCs of Fertility

This new automatic pill dispenser will make adherence to medication big.

Heidi Nafman Onda: I Survived Cancer and Here Is How I Did It

Inside the Shadow Clinics

Meet Dr. Sharon K. Greene, Smart Girl Epidemiologist

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
The Science Scholar

The Science Scholar

The official English publication of the Philippine Science High School–Main Campus. Views are representative of the entire paper.

More from Medium

Immobility, Loneliness & Negative Feedback Loops

Why we are sad and why Italian people are the saddest: the fault in our education

Demythifying Self-Improvement: Reflecting on the religion of the future

Do you belong to the House of Gluttony?