The day before the Philippines topped 100,000 coronavirus cases, healthcare workers around the nation sounded off in distress: “We are waging a losing battle against COVID-19.”
In response, the government heeded the request of medical workers to reimpose a strict lockdown for two weeks in order to recuperate—but not without Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte first railing against the frontliners, and taking offense at their recommendations for better government management.
“You could be helping, but all you do is complain,” he said in a mix of Filipino and English during a late-night address on Sunday, August 2.
Duterte also referred to the public methods used by healthcare workers to get their messages across a “spectacle of agony,” adding that there was no need for thousands of people telling the government what to do.
“We are not incompetent because we are not the doctors,” he said. “You should do the soul-searching, not us.”
This, as a viral photo of two exhausted medical workers splayed on the ground at the Philippine General Hospital, made the rounds on social media. The photo, posted to Instagram by the Philippine General Hospital Medical Foundation on Sunday, showed the two healthcare workers in full PPE, emblematic of the exhaustion felt by healthcare workers around the country. The photo has garnered thousands of likes and comments from people thanking them for their sacrifices.
Louis Roderos, a registered nurse in the Philippines, told VICE News that he is “numb to the feelings” that accompany hearing the news of yet another day of high cases.
“It is sad as a nurse who is doing 100 percent, all the time, to keep up with this battle,” he said.
“We are tired. We are exhausted. But this is our noble profession. We signed up for this,” he added. “But we are also humans who get tired and can be emotional sometimes.”
On Sunday, August 2, the Philippines’ Department of Health reported 5,032 new cases, marking a record daily-high for the country. The steady increase in cases over the last several days prompted the government to reimpose a strict coronavirus lockdown in the Metro Manila, Laguna, Cavite, Rizal, and Bulacan municipalities under what has been called the “Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine,” or MECQ, until August 18.
As of Sunday, at least 35,000 coronavirus cases remain active across the country, according to the Philippines Department of Health, and the doctors’ and nurses’ capacity—and patience —continues to wear thin.
Just days prior, the Philippines College of Physicians—an organization representing thousands of healthcare professionals—penned a letter to Duterte, calling for enhanced public health capacity and tougher restrictions to ease the burden on overwhelmed healthcare workers.
“Our healthcare workers are burnt out with the seemingly endless number of patients trooping our hospitals for emergency care and admission,” Mario Panaligan, president of the Philippine College of Physicians, wrote in the July 31 letter.
The group of healthcare workers laid out in detail how it said the Philippines needed to change its approach to beating the new wave of coronavirus cases, including by imposing a stricter lockdown.
“We understand that imposing an enhanced community quarantine is a complex decision. Though health may just be one dimension, let us remember that we need healthy people to reinvigorate the economy,” Panaligan wrote.
“The health sector cannot hold the line for much longer,” he added. “Our health care workers should not bear the burden of deciding who lives and who dies.”
The Philippine HEART foundation also shared an August 2 statement of solidarity with other frontliners. “To say that the healthcare community is suffering from the COVID-19–induced fatigue syndrome is an understatement. It is toxic and is in a critical condition. It has to get a fresh shot in the arm. It has to be resuscitated,” it said.
Duterte did not take kindly to the letter, and accused the medical professionals of staging a “revolution.”
“You say revolution, then do it now. Try it. Let’s kill everyone with COVID-19,” he said.
Despite his tirade against healthcare workers, Duterte on Sunday approved the hiring of 10,000 medical professionals and introduced additional benefits, including life insurance, free accommodation, free transportation and free frequent testing, Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque told reporters.
In a statement sent to VICE News after Duterte’s comments, the Philippine College of Physicians reiterated that the frontline workers’ call is for “solidarity and support” with the health department and the government, and that it was not meant “to ignite division among us.”
The coalition of groups who penned the original letter said that they are pleased to hear the President “listens and acknowledges the plight of the whole medical community.”
But Duterte’s words appeared to have impacted the morale of at least some medical workers.
When listening to the President’s speech, nurse Roderos said that he doesn’t feel that the government has a clear understanding of the pains healthcare workers are facing.
“Why do I have that feeling? Maybe it’s just that I expect more from the government when it comes to at least uplifting our tired spirits and boosting our morale,” he said.
Still, he thinks that imposing a new lockdown on Metro Manila is a good start.
Philippine Nurses Association Cavite chapter president Nenita Panalingan told VICE News that most nurses in her municipality are working longer shifts in the day—some even more than eight hours per shift—to augment the need for manpower in hospitals.
“Because of the rising cases, there are nurses who need to purchase their own PPEs, such as masks, and face shields, since some hospitals cannot continuously provide their need for PPEs while on duty,” she said.
Edeliza Hernandez, the executive director of the Medical Action Group, said the President’s response was distressing.
“Health professionals in no way tried to demean the government,” she said.
She said that Duterte showed sensitivity to criticism from healthcare workers while misinterpreting their motives—which, to her, were an “expression of tiredness, burn out, and being overwhelmed,” rather than an act of revolution.
She did not hide her disappointment. “Personally I am angry. Our President revealed how selfish and short-sighted he is.”