The healthcare industry has been thrust into the forefront of a health crisis that has brought even the most powerful governments to their knees: the Covid-19 respiratory disease.
Bound by an oath to heal the sick, healthcare professionals spend their days confronting a deadly and highly contagious illness while the rest of the world watches, bunkered in their homes.
In the Philippines, where Covid-19 infections have topped 3,600 and deaths have reached 163 as of April 6, health workers who are already pouring their energy in the fight against the virus must wrestle with yet another enemy: discrimination.
In the chaos of the Covid-19 crisis is born a fear that by being around healthcare personnel, one is courting contagion. Self-preservation, the most basic of instincts, takes over, and little else matters.
Consider, for instance, that on April 3, in the province of Quezon in Luzon, an ambulance driver was shot for parking his vehicle in a residential area after transporting medical personnel. The resident who put a bullet through his hand had accused him of ferrying Covid-19 patients and endangering the lives of the people in the community. Moreover, a nurse who contracted Covid-19 fears going back to his hometown in the outskirts of the economic hub of Metro Manila after his neighbours had petitioned against his return. As if this was not troubling enough, police confirmed that there had been an attempt to burn down a quarantine facility in another town 30 minutes away from his home. Lastly, on March 27, in the city of Sultan Kudarat in Mindanao, five men doused a hospital utility worker with bleach on his way to work. He nearly lost his sight. On the same day, 433 kilometers away, a motorcycle-riding tandem splattered chlorine on a nurse who was on his way home from duty in Cebu City in the Visayas. The nurse was fortunate to have only been splashed in the leg.
More insidious forms of harassment of healthcare personnel have also occurred. In Iloilo City in the Visayas as well as in Metro Manila, health workers are being evicted from their dormitories by landlords who see them as unwitting carriers of the disease. Some supermarkets refuse to let them shop. Accounts of hospital staff being refused service in eateries and prevented from using laundromats and public transport have likewise made the news.
Yet, on social media, the adulation for health workers belies their present realities. Netizens call them heroes. Pictures on Twitter and Instagram show hospital staff being sent food every day by people who want to express their gratitude to them for putting duty over self.
It is easy to appreciate the sacrifice of healthcare personnel while ensconced in a place that danger cannot reach. For those who live beside hospitals, quarantine centers or a door or two away from health personnel – for those who live in cramped houses and depressed areas where social distancing is an incomprehensible concept and diseases spread like wildfire – the fear of contagion is perhaps not as easy to shake off.
But discriminating against health workers exacts a hefty price that society can ill-afford to pay. These are the professionals who identify the infected so that the virus is contained; treat the afflicted; transport patients to treatment facilities; care for the sick when not even their closest kin can; work to find a cure or palliative for the disease; and make sure that medical facilities are thoroughly cleaned up.
They render critical and irreplaceable service in the face of the pandemic. When we fail to protect the health workers, we also hurt ourselves.
Health care personnel have the same fears as everyone else. They are not invincible. Like the rest of the population, some are immunocompromised, have underlying conditions, are over 60 years old. They can fall, and have fallen, victim to the disease. Because of a shortage in protective equipment, they are sometimes forced to do their duty in makeshift coveralls – some made from trash bags and raincoats that are taped in place – improvised face shields, do-it-yourself face masks, on a wing and a prayer.
A report from CNN Philippines states that between 16 March, when the lockdown over the Philippine island of Luzon was declared, and 31 March, 17 physicians died from Covid-19. This means that for every 10 lives claimed by Covid-19 in the country, at least one was a doctor.
Yet, every day, health workers get up to do their jobs, risks and all. Surely they are entitled to move without having to worry about their safety; eat, do their laundry, and buy their groceries in peace; and go home and rest in their own beds.
“Do not think us dirty and shun us,” a nurse who recovered from Covid-19 pleaded in a television interview. Health workers, she had to explain, clean up before entering and leaving the hospital.
The government has sent a strong signal that it does not condone the assault and discrimination of health workers. The country’s health department has denounced discriminatory acts against health workers and called for compassion for those who have responded to the needs of the country “with dedication, courage, and selflessness”.
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has directed the police to increase visibility to deter mischief aimed at health workers. He has warned people with ill intent to think twice because their lives will be in the hands of the very people they harass should they end up stricken with Covid-19.
The interagency task force that was formed to tackle the Covid-19 crisis has likewise called on the police to “apply the full might of the law” on those who hurt health workers. Discriminatory acts such as coercion, libel, slander, physical injuries, and dishonoring contractual obligations such as lease or employment contracts will be dealt with, officials said.
Following the national government’s lead, local governments are also taking steps to mitigate the risks faced by health workers in their communities.
The cities of Manila and Cebu have passed ordinances that prohibit discrimination and denial of service for people infected with Covid-19, people suspected of having contracted the disease, and health workers. Penalties include fines and imprisonment of up to six months.
“Let us not allow our fears to rob us of our humanity,” a group of barristers in Cebu said in condemning the assault against the health workers.
More must be done to make the public appreciate the importance of health workers in containing the Covid-19 crisis. Arrests need to be made. Lawsuits need to be filed. Wrongdoers should be made to face justice. Not only because health workers are getting stigmatized, but because crimes are being committed and laws are being flouted.
Covid-19 is already taking away freedoms, security, and lives. It is decimating states and economies. Decency should never be its victim.