Senators slam gov’t ‘nurses for vaccines’ plan
MANILA, Philippines — How has this come to pass, senators demanded on Wednesday, a day after the Department of Labor and Employment (Dole) was reported to have offered to deploy thousands of nurses to Europe in exchange for COVID-19 vaccines.
The senators characterized the “nurses for vaccines” proposal as an outrage on Filipino migrant workers, who the labor department, they said, seemed to treat as commodities that could be bartered for other goods.
The deployment of Filipino migrant workers is “not a barter trade,” said Sen. Joel Villanueva, head of the Senate labor committee. “We simply do not swap people for products,” he said in a statement.
“But the big question is: How did we get to this situation? Clearly, it is out of desperation that forced otherwise good people to be more creative in finding vaccines for their country,” he said.
Villanueva strongly disagreed with the proposal, but said he had no quarrel with Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, who reportedly spoke to the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the Philippines asking for donations of COVID-19 vaccines and offering in return an exemption from the 5,000-a-year ceiling on the deployment of Filipino nurses and other health workers to jobs abroad.
But British Ambassador to the Philippines Daniel Pruce told reporters on Wednesday that his government had no plans to enter into an agreement with the Philippine government that would allow the deployment of more nurses to his country in exchange for vaccines.
“We’ve got no plans to link vaccines with those conversations around the recruitment of nurses,” Pruce said.
“You know those two strands of conversation I think continue, but as I’ve said again we have no plans to link those two issues,” he added.
A similar offer was made to Germany, Alice Visperas, the labor department’s director for international labor affairs, reported on Tuesday.
“Theirs is a [desperate] move,” Villanueva said.
Speaking at a news forum on Wednesday, the labor department’s information director, Rolly Francia, clarified that what the agency had in mind was the protection of nurses by having them vaccinated before they arrived in their destination.
“It is not the intention of the department to treat our nurses as commodities to be traded [for] vaccines,” Francia said.
“I think we should focus on the intention. They wanted our nurses but if we deploy more nurses above the limitation we have to make sure that they will be protected,” he said.
He said that in the discussion of the British request for an exemption from the limit, the department asked that they provide vaccines for the nurses and, if possible, for the hundreds of thousands of Filipino migrants who had been repatriated and wanted to work overseas again.
Villanueva said the labor department was not solely to blame for going to such lengths to secure vaccines for the Philippines, as the country had been waiting too long to get protection from COVID-19 but learning that it had been missing out on opportunities to get supplies due to government officials’ blunders in negotiations with vaccine makers and the global procurement pool COVAX.
“If the [Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases] had only done their job, the Dole would not have been forced to take such measures,” Villanueva said.
“So again, I do not question their motives but their means. They were thrown in that situation because some people dropped the ball,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon echoed Villanueva’s point, saying he, too, wondered “why we reached this point.”
“It’s a sign of desperation. Are we really this desperate?” Drilon said, adding that the policy might have been “born out of the growing exasperation over the lack of COVID-19 vaccines in the country.”
Not only is the policy wrong, according to Drilon, but it also sets a bad precedent.
“Our health-care workers are not commodities they can trade off,” he said.
‘Something is not right’
That the government has gone this far shows “something is not right” with its “coronavirus vaccine strategy,” Drilon added.
The labor department’s action illustrated the need for the government to speed up its procurement of COVID-19 vaccines, he said.
The Senate and the House of Representatives this week passed a measure to expedite the purchase and administration of COVID-19 vaccines. The bill carries an indemnification clause, the absence of which the pandemic response managers blamed for delays in the delivery of the first batch of Pfizer vaccines from COVAX.
With the bill about to be enacted into law, Drilon said “there should be no more excuses” for delays in the government’s vaccination plan.
“But I am holding my breath for the next excuse and finger pointing,” he said.
The labor department’s move also drew anger in the House of Representatives on Wednesday, with Gabriela Rep. Arlene Brosas blasting the strategy as a “desperate attempt” by the government to patch up its “incompetence in securing vaccines for the Filipino people.”
“We should not even have to negotiate this way in the bid to acquire COVID-19 vaccines. Why should it be at the risk of exporting more nurses to countries with steep cases of the deadly viral infection?” Brosas said.
Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite said the labor department’s move showed the government’s “utter desperation.”
“It’s a shame that we’ve reached this point that we are commodifying our nurses just to get our supply of vaccines,” Gaite said.
In an online news briefing, ACT Teachers Rep. France Castro said she was dismayed at the bartering of Filipino nurses for COVID-19 vaccines.
“Are we that desperate?” Castro asked.
APEC Rep. Sergio Dagooc slammed the government for the way it treated the country’s nurses and for lowering its dignity in Britain.
“There is something wrong if it’s the Philippine government [that] initiated it. I can categorically say that is wrong because we have lowered our dignity to the country where we offered it,” Dagooc said in the same briefing. —WITH REPORTS FROM NESTOR CORRALES AND DONA Z. PAZZIBUGAN
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