Hailed online but avoided in neighborhood, public transport
MANILA, Philippines — They are being hailed especially on social media as modern-day heroes in the country’s fight against the coronavirus.
But stories about these same health workers having to endure discrimination from some people who fear they carry the virus that causes COVID-19 have prompted a doctor from a government hospital to appeal for more compassion and understanding for the front-liners in the national health emergency.
Dr. Percival Punzal, adult pulmonary specialist at the Philippine Heart Center (PHC), said reports about discrimination had pushed him to do a “survey” as “a private individual” through online chats with fellow hospital workers.
He did not say how many he had chatted with, but the responses he got from around the country were disheartening. He received reports from health workers as far apart as Binangonan town in Rizal province and Cagayan de Oro City, Davao City and Iloilo City.
“There are stories of other passengers leaving a jeepney because a health worker stepped in. Or Grab drivers canceling when they learn they would pick up one straight from the hospital,” Punzal said in a phone interview.
Social media accounts
Once, the PHC received a call from a resident of a private subdivision who asked why one of the hospital’s employees was still staying in their village.
Those who bear the brunt of such scornful reactions are nurses, doctors in training, and medical technicians who use public transport to and from work, Punzal said.
The doctor gathered the stories and posted them on the social media account of another doctor with an impressively large number of followers.
Similar accounts of discrimination now circulate online, such as doctors being asked by apprehensive landlords to leave their rented homes near their workplaces.
“These stories are anecdotal,” Punzal stressed.
The PHC has not filed any formal complaints against any person or public utility drivers or property owners.
“This is a plea for compassion and understanding for health workers who have sworn to take care of sick individuals,” he said. “I hope those who discriminate would also consider that while they discriminate against these workers, these people would be the same professionals who would take care of them if they get sick. They are that professional.”
“We have been called the new heroes, but we don’t aim for accolades, just treat us like human beings. I am not a front-liner but I want to help out in all ways I can,” Punzal added.
Dr. Anthony Leachon, an independent health reform advocate, said this sentiment toward health workers apparently appeared following reports about a doctor who became positive for the coronavirus after seeing a patient who did not immediately disclose her recent trip to China.
“We know how to take care of ourselves. The problem is with nondisclosure of patients of their travel history,” he said in an email interview.
Punzal stressed that all medical professionals observe strict protocols on disinfection before leaving work. “They do all the precautions,” he said.
Lack of understanding
Both doctors said fear of health professionals could also come from a lack of understanding of the nature of their work and of the procedures they strictly observe in order to keep themselves safe from the virus to prevent its spread.
Leachon said news about the lack of protective gear in hospitals could have also triggered anxiety among some people.
“Empower the people to read,” he suggested.
Still, Leachon believes more people feel “sympathy and admiration … than discrimination” for health workers.
If ever there is fear, it is more likely of doctors in “close contact” with COVID-19 patients but not all medical practitioners, he said.
“That’s why we are staying home. I’m sure there is some truth to (the stories but) we are not obviously being stigmatized,” Leachon said.
Punzal said he is grateful to hospitals and local governments that draw up solutions to help health professionals.
“Some have made travel arrangements to shuttle professionals to and from places of work. That’s a solution. I don’t know how prevalent this has become but at least there are those who do something to help. I believe the local government units can help solve this problem,” he said.
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