COVID-19 GLOBAL PANDEMIC VIRTUAL FORUM:INFORMATIVE AND ACTION ORIENTED
Held on September 5, 2020, from 3.00-5.00 pm and co-sponsored by LINGAP-Canada and the UP Alumni Association of Edmonton, the panelists were Chibu Lagman, Lucenia Ortiz, Noreen Berks, and Toh Swee-Hin (S.H.Toh).
The COVID-19 global pandemic has resulted in millions of deaths and illness, severe economic disruptions, massive unemployment, global recession, rising hunger and poverty, and suspension of “normal” schooling. Despite quarantines and other measures, millions of Filipinos have lost their jobs, businesses are shut down, poor families are suffering even more, and many thousands of OFWs have been displaced.
This VIRTUAL FORUM was an opportunity for participants to express solidarity and support for the Filipino people, the government and nongovernment institutions and agencies to overcome COVID-19 and to build a healthy, compassionate, and sustainable future for ALL Filipinos.
The Forum started with a situationer by Chibu Lagman on the outbreak of COVID-19 in the Philippines, various policies and programs of the Government to address the pandemic and resolve the crisis. At the start of the year, Philippine health authorities were already aware that a virus was circulating in the region but did not think it was serious enough to initiate preventive measures. By the last week of January, the first cases recorded were Chinese tourists from Wuhan, China. One tourist died on Feb 2, 2020, the first recorded fatality from COVID-19 outside China. The Philippines, only then temporarily barred non-Filipino travelers arriving from mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau. In February, the government kept reassuring the general public that the government was prepared to meet any eventuality. Health authorities echoed Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s claim that they had things under control and, there was no need to panic and that the virus would eventually die “a natural death”.
However, as Chibu pointed out, by early March, the pandemic could no longer be ignored as the number of reported cases rose. The President convened the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) to handle the government’s response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). The President issued Proclamation 922 on March 8, declaring a state of national emergency. From March 17th and later extended to the end of April, Luzon was placed under an enhanced community quarantine, under which public transport was suspended, and entry and exit from the NCR was not allowed. Checkpoints were manned by soldiers and the PNP enforced the travel restrictions; a curfew from 8 PM to 5 AM was imposed. Passes were issued by LGUs to heads of households allowing them to leave their houses to buy groceries and/or medicine.
On March 24, President Duterte signed into law the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act to mandate the nation’s management of the pandemic, including measures such as providing additional hospital equipment, PPEs, quarantine facilities, testing, compensation insurance for health workers, and financial assistance to low income households. Emergency cash aid of 5000-8000 pesos for 2 months were allotted to beneficiaries by LGUs. Chibu noted that some low-income families reported that they have not been successful in receiving the aid. LGUs have also distributed emergency food supplies. A number of mayors were praised for being more efficient and effective in addressing the pandemic.
Chibu noted the voices of concerns that have been raised by some political and civic leaders and affected citizens about the conduct of the lockdown or quarantine during especially the ECQ which was enforced by the military and the PNP. Thousands of violators have been charged, causing more hardship to families. Households experienced more hunger with loss of jobs. Testing and contract tracing have not been done on a mass scale due to lack of resources and health personnel. In early August, the testing czar General Magolong, Mayor of Baguio City, expressed frustration over the inadequate tracing done by some LGUs.
In the meantime, the number of cases continued to grow exponentially. The hospitals in the NCR have been strained to capacity. Chibu cited the recent appeal of organizations of health workers speaking as one to the President to impose a two-week return to MECQ from the General Community Quarantine in order to allow them to rest and give them time to recalibrate the strategies to meet the pandemic. After this MECQ was approved, case numbers have declined [3821. Sept 9, 2020], though it is not yet certain the curve has flattened. In his Fifth State of the Nation address (July 26. 2020), the President acknowledged the difficulties in ramping up testing capacity and in emergency aid distribution. President Duterte said he had asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help Manila get priority access to a made-in-China vaccine against the COVIID-19 coronavirus. Face-to-face schooling will also not resume until a vaccine is available. Chibu concluded his report saying that the Philippines still face many health, economic, and social challenges in overcoming the Covid-19 pandemic crisis.
Lucenia Ortiz followed by reporting and analyzing the challenges faced by healthcare workers in the Philippines. Since the COVID pandemic started, the news have shown images of nurses, doctors and other health care workers struggling to cope with COVID 19 in hospitals and testing centers. She noted that though Filipino healthcare workers are hailed as superheroes in the fight against COVID, they bear a much greater risk of exposure to COVID-19. In June there were 3,000+ infected cases among health care workers and 33 fatalities. Several public hospitals, including San Lazaro Hospital, Philippine General Hospital, Jose R. Reyes Memorial Medical Center, National Kidney and Transplant Institute, Philippine Heart Center, Amang Rodriguez Memorial Medical Center, and Rizal Medical Center reported lack of PPE and supplies such as surgical masks, hand sanitizers, gloves, surgical and lab gowns. A TFC news report even showed some nurses wearing garbage bags as their PPE. Nurses reported being harassed when they go home because people in their barangay thought they would bring the virus to their community.
Overworked and fatigued in responding to the unabated rise in COVID cases, 80 groups representing 80,000 doctors and a million nurses this August asked the government for a “time out” and warned of a collapse of the healthcare system from soaring infections without tighter controls. (Philippine Inquirer, August, 2020). The Government responded by agreeing to revert Metro Manila to the Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ) status. Lucenia further clarified that the COVID pandemic has illuminated the weaknesses of the Philippine health care system in terms of how it has treated its front-line workers. Before the pandemic, nurses and doctors already worked with low salaries, poor working conditions and outdated health-care technologies. Before COVID, the entry level salary of a registered nurse (RN) in the Philippines is P22,500 per month or CDN 608.00.
There is a promise that this entry level will be raised to P32,000 in January 2021. While welcomed, it also created another issue because those who are already receiving this amount will not have an increase but their salary grade will actually be moved down to an entry level salary grade. In March 2020, due to public outrage, the Dept. of Health agreed to raise the compensation of volunteer healthcare workers which would be only 500 PHP (USD10) daily allowance, free accommodation, and free food.
Besides lack of appropriate compensation, DOLE cited several other factors affecting the welfare of healthcare professionals in the country, including long and irregular duty hours, workload, high stress levels with the shortage of personnel, and strenuous travel involved in terms of shuttling patients between hospitals and clinics. Lucenia noted it is not surprising that the Philippines is a top exporter of health care workers overseas. Annually, the Philippines loses approximately 13,000 healthcare workers who go abroad to work creating a domestic shortage of 290,000 annually. The COVID 19 pandemic has amplified the existing problems of shortage of healthcare workers that resulted in overworked, overburdened underpaid healthcare workers essential to stem the tide of COVID in Philippine hospitals.
In her conclusion, Lucenia appealed “if we truly care for our healthcare workers surviving and serving patients in this pandemic, we must move beyond short-term actions and address lasting solutions that will fundamentally change their working conditions and encourage many to care for Filipinos in our own country”.
Noreen Berkes followed with her report on how Covid-19 has led to the unemployment of Filipino OFWS. She cited data that an estimated 8M to 10M Filipinos are working and living overseas, comprising about 3.5M documented workers, 3.8M permanent migrant workers; and 1.55M undocumented or illegal workers. One in every 10 Filipino families include an OFW member. Considered the modern-day heroes of the Philippines, OFWs constitute a major economic lifeline not only for their families but also for their community and the entire country. Their annual remittances contribute about 10% of the country’s GDP, amounting to $33.5B in 2019 but expected to decrease by about $6M due to the global pandemic. Noreen quoted DOLE statistics estimating that by December 2020, over 600,000 OFWs will be displaced in the Middle East, Europe, North America and Asia, a figure which could increase to 800,000 by June 2021 and 1 million by end of 2021. The OFWs lost their jobs, or were unable to work because of the lockdown, or were infected by the virus. Over 10,000 cases have been reported and nearly 800 have died.
Of these displaced OFWs, some 140,000 have already been repatriated. Others, mostly working and living in Europe and North America, have chosen to stay put for a variety of reasons, hoping to be recalled or to find work elsewhere, once the crisis is over.
Despite the best efforts and intentions of the DFA and OWWA, the repatriation process did not proceed as smoothly or seamlessly as expected. Noreen mentioned problems such as flight delays, travel bans and strict health protocols, delayed release of swab testing results, mandatory 14-day quarantine at designated or accredited accommodation, and reluctance of some LGUs (local governments) to accept returning OFWs for fear of spreading the coronavirus. Some spent almost a month in quarantine due to these delays. All these difficulties have caused high level of frustration and anxiety on OFWs.
As Noreen further noted, the impact of COVID-19 on OFWs has been severe, including cut-off of funds to poor families, depleting savings, lack of local employment, and obstacles to early overseas re-deployment. With an estimated 600,000 OFWS losing or likely to lose their jobs by the end of 2020, the important lifeline for many poor families will be cut. Remittances that once allowed families to build bigger houses and send their children to better schools and higher education have stopped. Many are now finding themselves without savings, with no foreseeable income and competing with the locals for rare or non-existent jobs. The crisis, if it continues unresolved, could force honest workers to look somewhere unconventional or even “shady” sources to meet their basic needs of food and shelter, and to address growing debts.
At the moment it appears that the country is banking on other host/receiving countries to re-open their economies and ease restrictions on travel and border entries, with the hope that the demand for temporary foreign workers will resurge and redeployment could resume. Meanwhile, the Department of Labor and Employment, Department of Foreign Affairs, OWWA, and POEA are working together to come up with programs to assist the repatriated OFWS –from retraining and retooling programs, to bank business loans to assisting qualified OFWS start their own business. Noreen noted that economic policy advisers are making recommendations on the re-integration of OFWS into the local workforce while addressing the inevitable catastrophe of a much reduced income from remittances.
She also pointed out the importance of recognizing the need for psychosocial support and funding for affected OFWs faced by financial stress, family reunions after long periods of absences of spouses and parents, and feelings of inadequacy over the inability to continuing providing for the family. Hence, analysts are warning of increased domestic discord and violence, depression, despair, and even suicides. Noreen concluded that there is a need to mitigate, intervene and help alleviate pandemic-induced emotional distress. Funding allocations for current and future relief should include mental health, and should make supports obtainable and sustainable.
The last panelist, Toh Swee-Hin (S.H.Toh), began by noting that almost all nations have been affected by the COVID-19 global pandemic. Some eight months after the official outbreak, a number of countries have been acknowledged for their greater success in addressing the pandemic through controlling and preventing the spread and reducing the death toll. As Swee-Hin asked, “can we learn some lessons from these early success stories”? Vietnam, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, New Zealand, and Cuba were highlighted as exemplars in his reflections. In addition, while acknowledging that the strategies employed by these exemplars are not exactly the same, there are some common features or factors which have been influential in controlling the pandemic, namely:
Early assertive Governmental action: A common factor in Governmental response to the pandemic was the early, assertive actions to control the spread of the virus. These actions included closing borders to international travellers, especially initially from China and later other countries. A rapid and systematic system of prevention, testing, tracing and isolation or quarantine was put in place. Especially in the Asian examples, face masks were quickly worn by their population, well before the delayed advice from WHO and other public health authorities. In Taiwan, by December 2019, as soon as news emerged from Wuhan, of a new infectious disease, a medical team boarded planes to check passengers arriving from China as soon they landed, thereby ensuring that likely infected passengers would not freely disembark and start spreading the virus in the community. Soon after the first case was detected in Vietnam, some 10,000 people in one location were quarantined. New Zealand implemented a strict lockdown nation-wide for several months until the spread was contained. Despite the difference in per capita income, all the exemplars were assisted by the existence of an accessible and efficient public health care system.
Well coordinated national and local policies, leadership and management: The success stories demonstrated the vital role and authority played by public health, medical and scientific experts and professionals (e.g., Centres for Disease Control and related agencies). Moreover, the previous health emergencies (e.g., SARS, avian flu, MERS, HIV-AIDs) gave those societies valuable experiences in responding quickly and effectively to pandemics. Importantly, political leaders in the highest levels relied on the advice and recommendations of their health experts and medical specialists to make strategic policies and measures. Swee-Hin noted that the Governments also established a strong coordinated national response that closely linked to local health sites, and ensured a rapid local and equitable sourcing of affordable PPEs, face masks, and sanitizers.
The success stories also engaged in effective testing, contact tracing and quarantine policies and measures. In many cases, locally manufactured rapid test kits were produced and used. South Korea undertook mass testing, using many drive-in centres and walk-in clinics. Thailand had a network of 1 million village health workers to trace, to check and support the basic needs of affected people. Cuba’s medical students were tasked to check on and support COVID-9 cases. Quarantine facilities and services were also usually provided free. Smartphone apps were often used to quickly trace and monitor infected people
Government- Citizens relationships: Swee-Hin commented that in these exemplars, the relationships between Government and citizens from the beginning of the outbreak were built on mutual trust and respect. Panic, fear, and the use of threats and force were avoided. Health and political leaders gave regular transparent information, while social media tools were widely used. Citizens were called upon to be responsible and cooperate in behavior that help reduce the spread of the virus. Frontline health workers were hailed as heroes and supported with adequate PPEs, accommodation, and basic needs.
In his concluding reflection, Swee-Hin briefly focused on the challenges all countries face not only health-wise but also in economic and social consequences. As other panelists have emphasized, the shutdown of the national economy and global economy have created massive unemployment locally and among OFWs. Hence steps are also urgently needed to address other problems such as economic support for marginalized communities severely affected by the pandemic, reducing the digital divide so students from low-income families can access online learning, ensuring that aid from other countries effectively reach the poor, and preventing the increase of domestic and gender-based violence during a pandemic.
The open forum, after the panel presentations, provided an opportunity for the participants to dialogue on the many concerns raised by panelists. One issue and suggestion for action related to the question of aid from other countries to the Philippines to help address the pandemic. It was clarified that like many other industrialized or Global North countries and international agencies (e.g., UNDP, UNICEF, World Bank), Canada has provided official assistance of about $44 million for some 120,000 N95 facemasks and other PPEs for health workers and several millions for the Sexual Health and Empowerment project in cooperation with the large International NGO, OXFAM. Participants were encouraged to lobby the Canadian Government to give more direct aid to Filipino NGOs active in serving marginalized communities. Several participants representing Filipino-Albertan associations expressed their commitment to organize fund-raising campaigns for COVID-19 relief projects, akin to the previous efforts to help Filipinos affected by Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda) and the 2019 Taal Volcano eruption. A panellist mentioned that only one Canadian city (New Westminster, BC) is twinned with one city in the Philippines (Quezon City). Perhaps cities in Alberta can be encouraged to “twin” with Philippine cities and from such twinning, solidarity projects can be developed, including those for addressing COVID-19.
In response of queries about the role of LGUs in resolving the crisis, the panellists noted that the distribution of food and cash aid to low-income families by LGUs differed in effectiveness depending on the LGU leadership and capacities. It was also reiterated that both the national plans and local implementation of COVID-19 policies, such as the Bayanihan Heal as One Act, have to be systematically coordinated. The issue of OFWs in Canada was also discussed, since the pandemic has caused unemployment and hardships among them, including diminished remittances to assist their families back in the Philippines. There is a need for Canada to show more concern for the rights of these OFWs, especially the undocumented workers, given their economic and social contributions to Canadian society.
Lastly, a most gratifying affirmation of the relevance of the forum came from Dr, Robert Zuber, Director of the UN-based NGO, Global Action for the Prevention of War (GAPW). A section of his regular blog (https://gapwblog.wordpress.com/) which focused on “work” in accord with the Labour Day commemoration in the USA, is reproduced below:
“But it is also the case, as our dear friends with LINGAP Canada (https:/lingapcanada.com/) reminded us yesterday during their online event, that it is at local level where crises are most likely to be thoroughly identified and addressed, where needs are examined in whole and not in isolation, where caring is reinforced and its skills are developed, and where appreciation for the efforts and courage of others is more likely to be tangible than abstract. With its focus on the Philippines and its people, LINGAP has been able to articulate some of the most disheartening consequence of this pandemic for Filipinos – from food insecurity and suppressed remittances to overly militarized movement restrictions and the almost complete elimination of public transit options. These are consequences that, for many, make life within country less viable and threaten ties with family members abroad on whom their own sustainability often depends.
And through all of this, in the Philippines and elsewhere, are the vulnerable health and family care workers, those who are often underpaid (or unpaid altogether) and under-protected, those who seek to address the most dire cases of infection and isolation from a virus that we still don’t completely understand and from which too many on the outside refuse to protect themselves and others. Meanwhile, rates of mental illness, domestic violence and even suicide continue to rise across societies while economies face grave damage and even immanent collapse, virtually ensuring that those families most dependent on a reliable income stream will struggle mightily to find one…”
LINGAP-Canada and the UP Alumni Association of Edmonton would like to extend our thanks and appreciation to all the participants who have joined this Virtual Forum on an issue that has resulted in such great suffering and challenges for the Philippines. We hope concerned members of the Filipino-Canadian community and friends of the Philippines will be motivated by the reflections of the panelists and the dialogue with the participants to organize activities and actions that will help the Filipino people as they endeavour with resilience to find ways to move forward in responding to this global pandemic crisis.
Dr. Virginia Cawagas, Virtual Forum Moderator, Member, LINGAP-Canada
Sept. 10, 2020