Finally! The Philippine government realised the worth of nurses in the country. It took a pandemic and a public health emergency to recognise their contribution in the society. And because they felt the need for health workers, nurses, along with other health professionals were banned to leave the country and work abroad. Is it really a recognition or deprivation of their liberty to choose where they want to work? Are they being imprisoned and held captive so they can prove their sense of nationalism and set aside their dreams?
For years and up until now, Filipino nurses are underpaid, overworked and stretched thin to cover understaffed shifts.16 hours shifts? 1:20 patient ratio? 1 day off in a week? No problem, no complaints. They carried on, worked harder and continued to deliver the best possible care to their patients. But as with any adult dealing with life complexities, they also want to have a better life for themselves and their families. And let’s face it, bills after bills, Filipino nurses are always strapped for cash due to low salary. The only way they can sustain their necessities and lifestyle is to work abroad. Being well compensated, better working conditions, career growth and opportunities and living a life with less financial worries-- Who wouldn’t grab the lucrative perks that other countries offer?
With the deployment ban in place, the “Prisonurse” term was coined by the nurses pleading for total lifting of the ban. Four “Prisonurses” (Sheila, Kei, Peter and Michael), bound to work in the United Kingdom, revealed their frustration and disbelief in restraining them to leave the country in response to the rising demand for nurses due to the pandemic.
Nurses and other healthcare workers who don’t have POEA certificates and verified employment contracts BEFORE March 8 are NOT ALLOWED to leave the country until the Duterte administration terminates the ban. The government is adamant that the ban was implemented to protect them from countries that have been hit hard by Covid-19.
President Rodrigo Duterte expressed in his press conference, “I do not want you to go there and come back here in a coffin.” However, all other professionals were allowed to work outside the country except health professionals. This made Peter wonder, “So the CPA or engineers are Covid-risk free because they were allowed to work abroad?” He added, “Each nurse has a story to tell. Oftentimes, companies and politicians think that nurses are just part of statistics.”
With the UK having more than 2000 Covid related deaths reported, should they be really worried to work there? Michael asserted, "For me it’s a misconception that it’s scarier in the UK. Yes, I know that Covid-19 is scary and that there were reports that nurses in the UK do not have enough PPEs. Pero paano na lang dito sa Pilipinas?" Sheila added that there were only four N95 masks provided for the frontliners for a three month period whilst on duty.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque urged nurses to apply for jobs that the Department of Health released to augment the number of frontline workers. But the interviewed nurses affirmed that it was still difficult to find a job despite the so-called “emergency hiring for nurses” being implemented. Peter exclaimed, “You don’t want us to go but you don’t have anything for us here… so let us go.”
The “Prisonurse” group were supported by various organisations and politicians such as Philippine Nurses Association, Bayan Muna, Filipino Nurses United and DFA Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. Despite disagreeing with the government’s action to pandemic, they are aware of the reasoning behind the ban and comprehend that it will be a long battle whilst the Covid-19 is still around. Michael explained with empathy. “We understand that it will not be easy to get what we want as we know where the government is coming from. Many doctors and nurses resign due to fatigue and fear, hence, they need more workforce and would be unethical to totally lift the ban. But I hope they will also understand our side that we needed to provide for our families too.”
The controversial question is: Was there really a shortage of nurses in the Philippines? According to the POEA’s annual migration report of healthcare workers, around 200,000 to 240,000 nurses are unemployed or misemployed. This shows that there is a considerable number of inactive nurses who chose not to practice the profession.
Shiela disappointedly uttered, “Around 1,200 nurses are affected by the deployment ban compared to more than 200K displaced and unemployed nurses. Siguro naman dun sa 200K na yun eh hindi lahat fresh graduates or kakapasa pa lang ng board exam. Meron dyan skilled but they probably opted to stay home. Eh kasi nga naman pagod lang makukuha nila kung magtatrabaho sila sa ospital where they are not fairly and justly compensated. Yung working conditions ng nurses dito ay napakapangit. I have experienced a shift with 100 patients and only 3 nurses on duty. Pitong taon din ako nawalay sa mga anak ko and if I have a choice I would rather work here and be with my kids rather than see them once a year. Who wants to miss their child’s birthdays and graduation. But sadly, di kami respetado dito.”
Michael added, “There is no shortage. It’s just that the nursing profession is not taken care of by the society in general. I’m not blaming any group or the government. Yun bang parang mag-abroad ka na lang.” The Philippines had been a key exporter of nurses abroad which include but not limited to USA, UK, Middle East, Europe and Singapore. It seemed like going abroad as a nurse is the norm after graduating and gaining a few years of experience.
Kei, a nurse working in Saudi Arabia, left her job in January 2020 as she expected to be deployed in the United Kingdom by May. But because of the government’s movement to ban nurses from migrating, she had to stay in the Philippines unemployed. She affirmed, “The difference is we can feed our families. If you live in the Philippines, sometimes a nurse’s salary is not even enough for himself/herself.”
Government officials and other Filipino citizens insist that it is the medical professionals’ ‘heroic duty’ to serve the country in this trying time. Philippines’ COVID-19 policy chief implementer Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. said, “We have to preserve them to serve our country. This is the heroic duty as doctors and nurses – to serve our country, to serve our people, to serve our humanity,”
Whilst patriotism is a trait that can be traced back from our ancestors, Filipinos are also known to be family oriented. And these nurses that are begging to lift the ban are just thinking of their families’ welfare first so they can provide financial support. Kei added, “We became nurses with our own or our parent’s money, we worked so hard only to be serving in a country who doesn’t appreciate us, nurses. That is very heartbreaking for me too.”
The Philippine government’s action to ban health workers from migrating is part of protecting public health amidst the pandemic. The initial reaction is to keep the health workforce in order to prepare for the surge of Covid cases that may overwhelm the health system. However, they may also ponder on possibilities that may attract inactive nurses to join the register again and let the others choose where they want to practise whatever reason they may have.
Better working conditions, just compensation, respect and appreciation are just some of the things that may motivate a nurse to work and continually provide his/her expertise. As the general public became aware of the value of nurses in the country, one would hope that the society wouldn’t revert back to how they’ve treated them over the years. Holding them to choose freely where opportunity and livelihood exist, will just amplify the frustration of being a nurse in the Philippines. Just like you and me, all they wanted is to have a better life for them and their families.