Alvin Manalansan, Non-Resident Fellow of Stratbase ADR Institute and Convenor of CitizenWatch Philippines
Over the weekend, the Philippines counted 67,456 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 22,465 recoveries and 1,831 deaths. Of the total cases confirmed, 43,160 cases are considered as active, majority of which were identified as being in the National Capital Region (NCR).
Based on the latest trends and revised projection, experts from the University of the Philippines said that the number of infections could now reach 85,000 cases at the end of the month. This is 10,000 more cases compared to the previous projection when the President was supposed to declare a modified enhanced community quarantine in the NCR for July 16 to 30, but was appealed to remain at the stricter general community quarantine (GCQ).
The sudden increase in cases was attributed to the improved testing capacity, an increase in the number of accredited laboratories, and the relaxation of restrictions to reopen the economy. The spike in the number of cases has overwhelmed health facilities. Just last week, several hospitals in Metro Manila, both private and public, declared they were at full capacity and wouldn’t be able to accept any more infected patients.
More so, frontline health workers are overburdened. Many of them, whether doctors, nurses, medical technologists, allied medical professionals and other personnel, sacrificed their own health and safety just to perform their sworn duty. After more than four months, these personnel are now physically, socially and emotionally stressed.
Adding further insult to injury, the immediate release of benefits for the frontliners who were infected or have died was not made. Even some of the health workers who were hired on a contractual status experienced delays in receiving their hard-earned salary.
The welfare of our health workers should have been considered thoroughly and the government should prioritize addressing the issues to prevent their recurrence.
Moreover, the pandemic has affected the delivery of vital health services to different patients. With limited transport and due to the fear of acquiring the virus, the health seeking behavior of these patients, especially those who have chronic illnesses, have significantly decreased. Thus, patients with limited resources have no choice but to accept that they need to defer their regular check-ups, scheduled therapies, procedures or even surgeries. For some parents, they have intentionally delayed the scheduled vaccinations of their kids that are essential for the additional protection against diseases.
The Department of Health (DoH) has faced so many challenges and scrutiny in this pandemic crisis. Even the Secretary of Health has repeatedly been in the hot seat and even called to resign his post. Recently, the health agency was questioned due to its slow spending and lack of transparency in the emergency response. Given the initial budget of around P100 billion and additional amount of P48 billion intended for the COVID-19 response, only half was spent from January to May amidst the crisis.
Nonetheless, the experiences and lessons learned can be transformed into an opportunity to strengthen our healthcare system based on existing laws and policies. Key to this is the provision of sufficient resources and sustainable funding, specifically for the progressive implementation of the Universal Health Care (UHC) Law.
For 2021, the DoH proposed around P182 billion for its budget. Unfortunately, this is only 4.2% of the P4.3 trillion target national budget for next year. It is still lower than the World Health Organization’s recommendation of at least 5% of the total budget of a country for the implementation of health-related programs.
As the government aims to eradicate the crisis and prevent future ones, the different stakeholders should be enjoined to ensure a resilient health system for all Filipinos.
On July 27, President Duterte is set to deliver his fifth State of the Nation Address. One can simply hope that he would tackle the plans to improve the current healthcare system. It is also anticipated that landmark health laws (i.e. UHC Act, National Integrated Cancer Control Act, etc.) will be given adequate appropriation for immediate implementation. There should be no debate on their urgency to address the gaps in our healthcare system which the programs mandated in these two laws will directly address.
This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.