By ANNE MARXZE D. UMIL
MANILA – “Sinasabi nila sa social media kami daw ang bida, pero sa totoong buhay hindi naman.” (On social media, they are saying that we are the heroes but they don’t treat us as such in real life.)
This is the sentiment of nurse Ulysses Arcilla, 49, about how they are being treated by the Duterte administration as the country faces the pandemic.
Arcilla said that for two years, health care workers who are in the front line of the COVID-19 response have not been treated fairly. Their benefits, if not denied, are incomplete and meager even as they are overworked. Due to their dire conditions, some of their colleagues are forced to leave the profession, leaving those left behind overwhelmed with work.
Health workers did not take this sitting down and made their voices heard. They took their call for mass hiring of health workers with permanent positions and the release of meals, accommodation and transportation (MAT) benefits, among others into the street.
The campaign asserting their rights and welfare won for them some of their much-deserved benefits, and led to the expansion and consolidation of their unions and organizations.
Attacks on health care workers
Voicing out their legitimate calls also made them vulnerable to red-tagging.
The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) has called health organizations, particularly the Alliance of Health Workers (AHW), as enemies of the state and front organizations of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
Jao Clumia, president of the St. Luke’s Medical Center Employees Association, was not spared from the harassment of state agents.
Clumia and some members of their union joined a series of protests outside the Department of Health (DOH) calling for the release of the private and public health workers’ benefits. He was also often interviewed by the media regarding the plight of private health workers as well as the non-release of their benefits, which were supposedly provided by the government such as the MAT and the special risk allowance.
It was sometime in July 2021 when he was threatened by a man he believed to be a state agent. “This man said that they admire our courage, that he was once an activist but then his colleagues left him behind. In our conversation, he was telling me to stop from speaking out. He was threatening me. I know their only purpose is to silence me,” he said.
But for Clumia, harassment is not new. “I have been receiving death threats since 2015. I will not back down whatever they do. But of course I also take precautions,” he said in an interview with Bulatlat.
Clumia also said there are also other health workers in private hospitals, particularly those who are often interviewed in the media, who reported instances of being tailed by unidentified men.
“Kung sino yung nagsasalita yun yung pinupuntirya nila,” he said. (They target those who are speaking out.)
Health care workers too are not spared from violence.
Under President Duterte, there are reportedly seven deaths of doctors. The most recent is the killing of 62-year old Dr. Raul Winston Andutan on Dec. 2, 2021 in Cagayan De Oro City.
He was a urologist and was the medical director of Maria Reyna-Xavier University Hospital when he was killed.
Dr. Delen Dela Paz of Health Action for Human Rights said in a webinar, Dec. 8 of last year, that Andutan has been serving not only in his hometown in Cagayan De Oro but also in the nearby communities.
Doctors who were killed were mostly from the regions and were serving ipoor communities. For one, 31-year old Dr. Dreyfus Perlas, who was killed on March 1, 2017 was a volunteer of the Department of Health’s Doctors-to-the-Barrios program.
Dr. Sajid “Jaja” Sinolinding, killed in April 2017, was an ophthalmologist in Cotabato City. He was reportedly known for his volunteer work in treating cataract patients for free. He also initiated medical missions in Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.
Dr. Mary Rose Sancelan and her husband Edwin was killed on Dec. 15, 2020 in Guihulngan City, Negros Oriental. Sancelan was the city health officer and head of the city’s Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Before the murder of the couple, Sancelan was tagged as a spokesperson of the New People’s Army in Central Negros. She was also included in a hit list by anti-communist vigilante group.
The killings of health care workers in the rural areas also has a great impact on community health work, said Dela Paz. She said that in 2020, community-based health programs (CBHPs) reported that one of the mountain clinics in Guihulngan City, Negros Oriental was forcibly opened by soldiers. The said clinic provides free health services such as consultation and first aid in the farming communities of Guihulngan.
In Cagayan De Oro, soldiers went to the house of a community-based health program staff and demanded for her whereabouts.
“These incidents sow fear among the community health workers as well as residents,” she said.
Dela Paz said that these attacks on health care workers also affect the delivery of services to the people.
“In the end, the people, especially the poor, are the ones who experience the largest set-back. When the government threatens, harasses and hunts down health workers, the delivery of services is hampered,” she said.
“The very few health workers and professionals working in the countrysides can either choose to stay risking their lives or choose to practice in the cities or abroad,” she added.
Despite these attacks, health care workers continue to voice out their grievances to the government.
AHW President Robert Mendoza said there are health care workers who are not members of the union or hospitals with no unions who are reaching out to their organization.
“We are vilified but on the ground, the health workers knew that it’s all lies,” Mendoza told Bulatlat.
They also filed a complaint before the Commission of Human Rights after NTF-ELCAC Spokesperson Lorraine Badoy red tagged AHW in a series of social media posts.
In May last year, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III defended the health workers. Duque said in his statement that, “It is not enough that we thank our HCWs for their bravery during this pandemic, we have to protect them too. The DOH calls on the public and other government agencies to stand up for our health care workers and protect them against any form of discrimination, intimidation, and violence.”
Mendoza said the red-tagging was halted after Duque issued this statement.
Some AHW-affiliated unions in public hospitals also defeated management-backed unions in a certification election.
The recent win is the San Lazaro Hospital Employees Association (SLHEA), which, for the past 10 years was affiliated with the Unyon ng mga Kawani ng Kagawaran ng Kalusugan Sentral (UKKKS) – a pro-management union under the Department of Health. The SLHEA-AHW won the elections last year.
But for the past 10 years, Arcilla, also president of the SLHEA, said AHW members worked more as a union than the UKKKS.
“Employees still reach out to us when they have problems with the management and we help them if needed. We are also consistent with our campaign for the welfare of health care workers unlike the past union that never attended a protest,” Arcilla said in an interview with Bulatlat.
Arcilla also said that when the pandemic came, they fought for the 12-hours shift of nurses instead of a longer work hour, shuttle for health workers who are living far from the hospital, quarters for those who chose not to go home after shift and food for those who are working in the COVID ward.
These were all heeded by the management, he said.
As for the red-tagging of the AHW, Arcilla said he is no longer affected by it as it has been happening even before Duterte.
“The health workers know that there is no truth to that. On the ground, they know what we are doing, who we are and that our efforts are all for the welfare of the health workers as well as the people,” he said.
Meanwhile, Clumia said they continue to organize their fellow private hospital employees and last year they were able to form Private Health Care Workers Association of the Philippines (PHWAP). There are currently 11 PHWAP in the National Capital Region and one in Calamba, Laguna.
“We need to organize our ranks because the truth is, there are many employees in the private hospitals that are not aware of their rights,” Clumia said.
Both Clumia and Arcilla encourage their fellow health care workers to continue to speak out for their rights and not be intimidated by the government’s efforts to silence its critics.
“We should not stop even if the enemies try to silence us. We are fighting not just for ourselves, but for others as well. If we will not speak we only let them win,” Arcilla said.
Clumia also reiterated, “We are the backbone of the society. If people get sick, who will take care of them if we are all sick and tired and cannot do work? Let us make our voices louder so that we will be heard.”