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Philippines faces backlash after offering to trade nurses for COVID vaccines from Britain, Germany

Nursing unions are divided over the labor department's quid-pro-quo proposal with some criticizing the government for treating them as "commodities."

Philippines faces backlash after offering to trade nurses for COVID vaccines from Britain, Germany
Cover Image Source: Getty Images/ Medical personnel wearing protective clothing at the National Kidney and Transplant Institute Hospital on May 1, 2020, in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines. (Photo by Ezra Acayan)

The Philippines this week faced fierce criticism after it appeared to treat its healthcare workers as bargaining chips. According to Reuters, a senior official said on Tuesday that the country would let thousands of its healthcare workers — mostly nurses — go to Germany and the UK for work if the two countries agree to donate COVID-19 vaccines in return. The Philippines barred nurses, doctors, and other medical workers from leaving the country to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020 but relaxed the ban in November, limiting the number of medical professionals leaving the country to 5000 a year.




Alice Visperas, director of the labor ministry’s international affairs bureau, said the country is now open to lifting the cap if Britain and Germany agreed to provide much-needed Coronavirus vaccines. "We are considering the request to lift the deployment cap, subject to agreement," she said. Nurses are among the millions of Filipinos who work overseas and responsible for bringing in over $30 billion a year in remittances that are vital to the country's economy. Meanwhile, Britain is struggling to curb its Coronavirus death toll — the sixth-highest in the world — and one of the worst economic hits from the pandemic. Germany is in a similar situation with the 10th most infections globally.




However, while Britain and Germany have vaccinated a combined 23 million people, the Philippines is yet to begin its campaign to immunize 70 million adults (two-thirds of its 108 million people.) It is expected to receive its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines this week, donated by China. Altogether, the country seeks to secure 148 million doses of vaccines. According to Quartz, Visperas said in a February 22 briefing streamed on Facebook that the vaccines it asks of Britain and Germany will be reserved for repatriated Filipino laborers who wish to return to their jobs abroad. "Many countries who hire Filipino workers expect them to be vaccinated," she explained. "There may even come a time when they won't be allowed in those countries without it."




However, nursing unions are divided over the labor department's quid-pro-quo proposal. While Filipino nurses have been fighting to lift the deployment cap to escape poor working conditions and low pay at home, some have expressed displeasure about being treated as "commodities." Jocelyn Andamo, secretary-general of the Filipino Nurses United, said: "We are disgusted on how nurses and health care workers are being treated by the government as commodities or export products. These are two separate issues. If nurses want to work abroad, it's well within their rights. Don't use them as trading pawns. If we need vaccines, the government should go through the [procurement] process."




On the other hand, a Filipino nurse who declined to be identified by name told Quartz that she's supportive of the plan. "As a practicing staff nurse in a government hospital who has experienced the full impact of this pandemic, I perceive that the government is making decisions for the people's common good," she said. "I think it's a win-win situation. Nurses who want to go abroad will get what they want, and even if the country has fewer healthcare workers, at least we'll be closer to herd immunity [because of the vaccines]."




According to CNN Philippines, following backlash for its proposal, the Department of Labor and Employment clarified on Wednesday that it did not intend to treat nurses and other healthcare workers as commodities to be traded in exchange for COVID-19 vaccines. "We just want to make sure that the nurses who will be deployed have already been vaccinated and the vaccine should come from the host country. It was not our intention to treat our nurses as commodities that we can barter with whatever material gain we may get," the agency's public information head Rolly Francia said in a statement.




Francia added that negotiations are still ongoing between Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III and British Ambassador to the Philippines Daniel Pruce. He also said that the agency might ask the UK to send more vaccines that would cover overseas Filipino workers returning to the Philippines. "Considering that the UK government is gallant and generous, it is only a request, but maybe they can add vaccines more than for the requested 5,000 nurses, to cover the OFWs who have been repatriated to the Philippines," he said. However, it is unlikely that Britain will actually go through with this arrangement.




A health ministry spokeswoman reportedly said that while Britain was grateful to the 30,000 Filipinos working for the NHS, it did not need to trade vaccines for more. "We have no plans for the UK to agree a vaccine deal with the Philippines linked to further recruitment of nurses," she said, citing Prime Minister Boris Johnson's pledge to share spare shots later in the year. "We have confirmed that we will share any surplus vaccines in the future -- for example through the COVAX international procurement pool."

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