Marks from our masks (Second of two parts)

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa - The Philippine Star

Londoners will be out and about a little more this week with the first relaxation of restrictions since the devastating second wave of COVID-19 swept the nation before Christmas. The news is that more than 30 million people have now received their first vaccine dose and people are now allowed to meet in groups of up to six or as two households and outdoor team sports are reopening.

In Manila, however, it’s practically an opposite situation, with the announcement of another lockdown for the this week that will restrict the lives of more than 24 million people. It’s difficult to understand how just a week of restrictions can possibly turn the tide of surging new infections threatening to overwhelm the health care system.

Having listened to the Filipino-British nurses speak about how their lives have come under severe strain because of the pandemic, the situations in both London and Manila are not as dissimilar as they seem. The threat remains very real and whatever measures are in place, COVID-19 is still a clear and present danger. These women and men turn up day in and day out, to care for COVID-infected patients when the rest of the population is told to stay home. They are like soldiers who have to run in to face the fire, while everyone else runs away.

At the online health and wellbeing forum convened by the Filipino Nurses Association UK (FNA-UK), nurses from all over the country spoke about the extraordinary pressure they’ve faced for the past year. RJ Avila, a charge nurse in a stroke unit, said that around 15 of his colleagues had either left the unit or the National Health Service for good; around 60 percent got infected with COVID. “The thing about us Filipinos is that we’re really strong,” he remarked. He agreed with other nurses who’d said at times they were too busy to cry. “As senior nurses we’re trying to uplift the staff, and sometimes it gets to a point where it’s too difficult for us to carry the load,” Avila said, but that this was a good opportunity to share the experiences.

Organizer Susi Lagrata, herself a nurse and national secretary of FNA, said she decided to keep the forum open because she wanted nurses’ families to be able to participate because they are affected too. “Sometimes we forget about them whenever we leave our work. They also have an emotional burden and they’re anxious whether we will be safe when we come home, how physically and emotionally drained we will be when we come home. I also thought to share it to our loved ones in the Philippines who I know are worried about us here in the UK, because they only hear in the news or the horrors of the death and cases. I thought maybe it will give them comfort to know that there is a community, that although their loved ones may be alone here or you know they may be separated physically, but there’s sort of a surrogate family that hopefully will give them comfort.”

The benefit of the forum isn’t just in the mutual support that nurses can draw from; it’s also a way for the wider world to realize that Filipino nurses are now willing to talk about what they suffered during the pandemic. “By doing so, hopefully our employers and policymakers will be able to get this and will start increasing health and wellbeing sessions and programs for not just Filipino nurses, but all health care workers. On the ground, it’s not just physical fatigue, it’s now emotional, psychological and mental fatigue. There will be a lot of reckoning and I think now we need to start looking at the wellbeing of our staff because it was a whole year of horror and emotional torture.”

One nurse who told one of the most moving accounts of caring for COVID patients is Mayflor Bernal, a ward manager who hails from Lupao in Nueva Ecija. She arrived in the UK in 2001. As respiratory unit manager she was right at the center of pandemic response at the hospital where she works. She is also responsible for hiring hundreds of Filipino nurses to the UK as an overseas nurse recruitment officer for her trust. Bernal remembered sitting with a patient, begging her to hold on until her husband could arrive. “I sat there next to her and kept speaking to her, reassuring her that her husband is coming. Even if I knew that she was already gone, I refused to accept it and kept on telling her that he is coming soon.”

“I hated myself for being a nurse. I hated the feeling of being exposed at work, and I am even more scared to have my husband or my sons near me or cuddle me for fear I will infect them,” shared another nurse, Sharon de Vera, a senior staff nurse. “I’ve cried after every shift, in the toilet and in the staff changing room. It really affected me mentally and emotionally. I lost loads of friends, relatives, colleagues, batch mates,” shared De Vera, who has been an ICU nurse for 29 years: 10 years in the Philippines, 19 in UK. Now based in Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England, her sharing was one of the most emotional. “I was really scared that I would one day go to work and never come home,” she said.

The full extent of the debt we all owe to the nurses in our midst is still being assessed. The government here is being severely criticized for only offering nurses a 1 percent pay rise this year, because it’s less than inflation – it’s effectively a pay cut. At least within our own community of Filipinos in the UK there is real recognition of nurses’ and health care workers’ contribution and gratitude for each other. Every day is an act of bravery, kindness and fortitude, sacrificing their own health and time to keep other people safe and healthy.

We know a lot more about the virus than we did a year ago when the first lockdown was declared. We know how to do our part to keep them safe: we must do everything not to catch or spread the virus ourselves, nor spread bad information that endangers them. We must match their courage.

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