Who cares about the carers?

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa - The Philippine Star

Too many numbers, too much opinion, too much talk.

The US election coverage is missing the people that politics is supposed to be about. People like you and me. It’s a dispiriting experience to watch and hear the rhetoric from candidates and their proxies metaphorically and literally elbowing each other out of the way.

It’s difficult to remember after just a few minutes of channel surfing the 24-hour television news channels and “doom-scrolling” on social media that the numbers from Pennsylvania, Georgia and Nevada represent votes that in turn represent people. It’s also worth remembering that the COVID-19 numbers from the USA are also mounting and setting records with more than 123,000 new infections a day. It’s getting worse again in the UK too, and the government has ordered another lockdown.

My sense of perspective was restored by listening to people who help make the politicians look good but don’t get recognized nearly enough.

George Bermudez, a Filipino nurse who’s lived in the UK for about 10 years is also a co-founder of www.filipinouknurse.com. He’s known as “Manong George” because of his vlog on You Tube, in which he tells nurses’ real life stories as a way of providing accurate information and advice. His efforts are part of a wave of activism to support nurses and other healthcare workers that’s gained new momentum since the pandemic outbreak. There’s a lot to do.

At least 57 Filipina/o healthcare workers are reported to have died from COVID-19 in the UK, about a fifth of the total deaths in the NHS, disproportionate to the 1-2 percent of Filipinos working in the NHS. It’s a similar situation in the US where Filipinos comprise just 4 percent – about 150,000 – of all registered nurses in the US, but Filipino nurses make up nearly a third – over 30 percent – of all reported nurse deaths from COVID-19.

Despite the highlight on Philippine healthcare workers over the past few months, the jury is still out on whether it will make any difference to the outcomes. The helpline answered by Tagalog speakers that was supposed to have been provided by the NHS had to be fixed because when Bermudez called the number, the people who answered weren’t even aware that there was supposed to be such a service. Just this week, Emma Vianzon, another Filipina nurse in Northern Ireland who had survived a brain aneurysm and kidney transplant, died after being infected with the coronavirus she just couldn’t fight.

“Manong George, puwede ba akong tumakas?” another nurse asked Bermudez during the first wave of the disease. He said she was overwhelmed by a sense of vulnerability and sense that, if she was to die, she would rather be with her family than be stuck in the UK on her own. She is one of many thousands. Bermudez was told that since 2017, 50 nurses have arrived in the UK each week from the Philippines, and there will certainly be even more. It’s estimated there are 40,000 more jobs that need to be filled, with the COVID pandemic coinciding with a generation of British-born nurses retiring as well as the attrition from exhausting and poorly-compensated work.

There’s a profound conundrum facing Filipino/a migrant nurses that not only involves their work, but also their families, communities and even identity. It affects healthcare in societies wherever in the world there are Philippine nurses, so it’s crucial that they too get involved in the conversations around the wellbeing of Philippine healthcare workers that are taking place.

“Here’s the beauty of being a Filipino nurse: we’re resiient, we’re downright hard-working and take things head on,” Bermudez told me as he described his own experience when he first arrived in the UK in 2009. It was a struggle, he was bullied himself and in the course of one shift he was ready to quit. It was, he said, the kind of shift you’d rather forget but you can’t forget for your whole life. A British nurse asked him what was wrong, and he will never forget her reply when he told her he was ready to walk out. “George,” she said, “the world would be a worse place without you as a nurse. You have to remember you’re a Filipino nurse, you’re the world’s best, that’s why we love you here.”

“We’re maybe bred to survive and be the best,” continued Bermudez. “We’re irreplaceable and maybe that’s why 30 percent of the world’s nurses are Filipinos. We don’t back down. We’re the product of a cycle. I myself am an OFW (overseas Filipino worker) because an OFW uncle helped me and now I’m sending money back home and if they can, they’ll be going out as well. There’s that cycle and so there’s an ingrained responsibility for each and every nurse, not only to their patients but to their family. That’s just us.”

It is well-known that Filipino/as’ sense of duty and responsibility mean they are willing to work long hours to send and save money for their families. They, and we, take pride in it and gain recognition, praise and honors for it, such as the British Empire Medal recently awarded to Minerva Klepasz for her services to nursing during COVID-19. The thing is that when managers in healthcare systems under immense pressure understand this about Filipino/a workers, this quality may be top of mind as they try to fill gaps on their rosters. In these dangerous times as COVID-19 tears its way around the world, as the Filipinos/as take on extra shifts (sometimes without adequate protection and despite their own underlying health concerns) they are risking their lives in the process. Societies around the world are losing the very healthcare workers they desperately need and they are disproportionately from the Philippines. The very qualities that reward overseas Filipino/a nurses and healthcare workers and make them uniquely magnificent, are the same qualities that put their lives at risk.

“I’m just hoping that with the plight of the Filipino nurses being highlighted over the past three months, there should be a bit more understanding on how and why we work, and how we can both help each other,” Bermudez says, “because if we get sick who mans the hospital wards?”

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