Filipino nurses wade uncertainty as Marcos takes reins

During the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gayzelle de Jesus would wrap herself in personal protective equipment (PPE) for seven days straight, inside the cramped confines of the Philippine General Hospital (PGH), tending to patients who caught the virus at a time when little was known about its nature.

She said that at the time, the government barely supported nurses like her, recalling how then-President Rodrigo Duterte installed military men in his anti-COVID task force instead of medical experts. Even contact tracing, Gayzelle said, which other countries prioritized in their COVID response, was not given enough attention.

Gayzelle staked her future on the results of the 2022 national elections, hoping a good leader would take the reins of the pandemic-stricken country. But Gayzelle was let down when Ferdinand Marcos Jr., child of dictator Ferdinand Sr., topped the presidential elections and took office on June 30.

“In denial ako noon,” she said, downcast. “Meron akong disbelief. Nakakadismaya na pinili ng majority ‘yung ganoong klase ng pinuno. Hanggang ngayon, parang wala pa ring plano [para sa healthcare].”

As of posting, Marcos is yet to name a Department of Health chief that would take over the nation’s policies on the pandemic and the stake of those who work to protect the country against it. In the meantime, Health undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire was named officer-in-charge.

Gayzelle is only one of at least 20,000 Filipino nurses who will continue to contend with an uncertain future after an uncertain six years under Duterte, as open wounds from the pandemic may be healed or stretched out even further.

Those wounds are the results of an intensive struggle against COVID, which first came to the Philippines in March 2020. It has since claimed over 60,000 lives and infected nearly 3.7 million Filipinos.

Before COVID, Gayzelle worked at a pediatric rehabilitation section. When cases surged and the demand for health services rose, Gayzelle was assigned to the anti-COVID taskforce of PGH, the nation’s premier COVID treatment facility.

Anne Torres, a nurse of over four years at a private hospital in Bulacan, said that while she was deployed in an area far from the COVID frontlines, she could still feel the weariness of her colleagues.

“Naka-protective equipment pa rin kami buong araw, kahit ‘di naman kami kasama doon sa emergency. Nakakapagod, sobra,” she recalled. “‘Yan ang madalas hindi nasasabi sa mga report — ‘yung pagod na binibira naming nurses sa dami ng mga cases noong time na ‘yun.”

At the time, Anne would spend six days a week in a dormitory room she rented, away from the warmth of family at home. While it was a difficult position to be in, she said it was a necessary sacrifice as she feared bringing the virus to her loved ones.

“At that time, binibigyan naman kami ng mga PPE at mask. Pero siyempre, kung maraming tao, mahirap matugunan lahat,” she said.

For Anne, Duterte’s government did everything it could against the virus that affected the world indiscriminately.

She added that the health crisis left a permanent scar on her physical and mental health. At the start, Anne worked through the pandemic while looking forward to when the nation would fully recover. But now, she said that victory seems very unlikely.

“Tumataas ‘yung cases, sabi ko ‘ito na naman tayo,’” she said. “Pero tingin ko naman ginawa naman lahat ng makakakaya, sadyang ganun lang talaga.”

When the campaign season started early this year, presidential candidates flaunted their prospective COVID agenda. Anne said she found hope in Marcos’ broad call for unity, which was exactly what the nation needed at a time of political divide, further pulled apart by COVID.

While over 30 million Filipinos voted for Marcos in the May 9 elections and rallied under his flag of unity, many hold the memory of the brutal regime that his father implanted in the country.

On top of the senior Marcos’ bloody dictatorship, critics also hold issues with his family’s lavish lifestyle. As written in the 1976 book “The Conjugal Dictatorship,” Marcos’ mother, Imelda, once ordered a plane to turn back mid-flight as she forgot to buy cheese in Rome.

Still, former President Duterte assured that Marcos would live a “simple life.” The candidate himself aimed at a zero poverty rate during his campaign season, but shifted to a “9% or single-digit” rate during his debut State of the Nation Address. In both instances, he did not elaborate how.

In interviews, Marcos said he would load a higher budget for medical research when elected, adding that he would ’overhaul’ the healthcare system following cases of missing funds from PhilHealth, the state’s insurance provider.

“Sana maging totoo ‘yun,” Anne hoped. “Pero kasi, naisip ko rin, lahat naman ganyan ‘yung sinabi eh. ‘Di ko maisip kung ano mangyayari, pero tiwala ako sa kanya.”

To the tune of applause from his supermajority Congress, Marcos said in his SONA that he would place clinics and rural health units that would be visited by nurses, doctors, midwives and medical technicians twice a week so patients won’t need to travel far.

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Marcos also vowed to “exert all efforts to improve the welfare of our doctors, our nurses, and other medical frontliners.”

Gayzelle, however, said she never heard Marcos say these promises as she stopped watching the news about his presidential bid during the election period.

She said she voted for Marcos’ rival in the presidential race, former Vice President Leni Robredo, despite many workmates in the COVID ward vying for the late dictator’s son. 

Gayzelle propped up Filipino Nurses for Leni-Kiko, which was among the many volunteer groups spawned in the campaign of Robredo and her running mate, former Sen. Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan. When Robredo was hoisting mammoth political rallies nationwide, their organization offered medical services to attendees.

During her term as vice president, Robredo bared plans for those tending to COVID patients. On a COVID blueprint that she revealed in October 2020, she planned to double the government’s spending on healthcare and increase hospital beds nationwide to bring the nation’s figure closer to other Southeast Asian countries.

She also intended to hire more healthcare professionals in public hospitals and reorganize their COVID shifts.

While Gayzelle saw a good future in Robredo’s hands, she felt the opposite when her bet lost the presidential race.

Even Anne admitted that Robredo showed compassion for nurses. However, she still voted for Marcos saying, “I think Sir Marcos could do it better.”

“Sabi naman ni Marcos, ipa-prioritize niya ‘yung nurses,” she said. “Kahit tiwala naman ako kay Marcos, mahirap pa rin eh. ‘Di ko talaga alam ano mangyayari.”

After the spectacle of the country’s first national election during a pandemic, one marked with turmoil both online and on the ground, Anne and her fellow nurses returned to the cycle of long work hours, in exchange for low pay.

“Pagkatapos ng eleksyon, balik trabaho agad. ‘Yun ang reality. Saglit lang, may bagong pangulo ka na. Pero kami, magtatagal pa kami sa ospital,” she said.

Medical volunteer groups like Filipino Nurses for Leni-Kiko would also continue with their community-based volunteer work, Gayzelle said. Members would set out to facilitate Sunday schools for children, while others would continue regular medical missions.

“Hindi pwedeng hindi kikilos, hindi pwedeng hindi labanan ang fake news, ang propaganda,” Gayzelle said.

With Marcos already seated as president, Gayzelle holds onto her commitment to her service to keep going.

“Di ko na lang iisipin na nagse-serve ako para sa kanya (Marcos). Kasi ang pinaglilingkuran ko naman, mga Pilipino, hindi siya,” she said.

Anne also felt the same towards the nursing profession. She said it was this service that kept her going during the height of the health crisis.

“Nakakawala ng pagod ‘yung mapapasalamatan ka ng pasyente, tapos makikita mo na bumabababa naman ‘yung number [of cases],” she said.

Still, Gayzelle is considering moving abroad for greener pastures. While America is one of her options, it is a fearful destination for her and her kids, as she was just reeling from the news of the death of 19 children who were killed in a Texas shooting.

“Kapag pupunta ako sa US, baka merong mamamaril,” she said. “Mas cino-consider ko na lang ‘yung UK kasi mas okay ‘yung culture, mas mababait ‘yung mga tao.”  

Gayzelle hopes, however, that not all nurses and healthcare professionals would entertain thoughts of leaving the country like she would.

“Kung aalis ‘yung mga experienced na katulad ko, paano ‘yung mga maiiwanan? Baka mas lalo mahirapan ang Pilipinas,” she worried.

As an uncertain future under another Marcos’ rule materializes before the nation’s eyes, the pull on Gayzelle to leave the nation for her family’s sake becomes stronger. 

She said she could not fathom herself returning to the COVID ward, back to wearing her PPE for hours, serving day-in and day-out, and paying her taxes to government leaders “just so they could buy cheese abroad.”

An earlier version of this article was submitted to J111 (Feature Writing) class under Prof. Ivy Lisa-Mendoza.