Chronic lack of nurses


Give us our dues: Health workers staging a protest to ask the government for hazard pay and benefits outside the Department of Health office in Manila. — AFP

Exhausted nurses here are struggling to care for patients as colleagues contract Covid-19 or quit a profession that was dangerously understaffed even before the pandemic.

The country is enduring a record rise in infections, fuelled by the Delta variant, with the health department reporting a nursing shortfall of more than 100,000 – forcing those left to work long hours for little pay on often precarious short-term contracts.

“They are tired and burned out,” nursing director Lourdes Banaga said.

“At the start of the pandemic we had almost 200 nurses,” said Banaga, director for nursing services at the Lipa Medix Medical Center in Batangas province.

“By September that will reduce to 63.”

Official figures show 75,000 nurses are working in public and private Philippine hospitals but roughly 109,000 more are needed.

The pandemic has exacerbated a pre-existing lack of nurses, said Maristela Abenojar, president of Filipino Nurses United – a situation she describes as “ironic” in one of the world’s biggest exporters of healthcare workers.

The “chronic understaffing” is down to inadequate salaries, she said.

An entry-level nurse in a public hospital can earn 33,575 pesos (RM2,800) per month, official data show. But Abenojar said most were on short-term contracts, earning 22,000 pesos (RM1,830) with no benefits such as hazard pay.

Meanwhile, those in the private sector were making as little as 8,000 pesos (RM666).

And many have had enough: About 40% of private hospital nurses have resigned since the start of the pandemic, according to the Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines.

More than 5,000 nurses have been given the green light to go abroad this year after a Covid-19 ban was replaced with a cap to ensure enough nurses were available in the Philippines.

It hasn’t worked.

“We can’t get additional nurses, we can’t compel them to apply,” said Jose Rene de Grano of the private hospitals association.

In recent weeks, health workers have protested over unpaid benefits, including a coronavirus special risk allowance. Abenojar said many were still waiting.

President Rodrigo Duterte has asked for patience while the government tries to come up with the money.

“Many of our nurses are sick and in quarantine,” medical director Melbril Alonte said.

“We feel exhausted... but we always keep in mind that we have to help our people because... no one else will.” — AFP

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