Have we forgotten our frontliners? That was a question I got from some readers in response to my previous Annotations titled “Lockdown, happy anniversary” (See March 17, 2023 issue).
As with any wars, for the pandemic was another global war, when the entire world struggled against a virus, those in the front line were killed first, or suffered more, and then forgotten.
Think of our health system. On paper and in reports, we see a country where everyone is enrolled in a single-payer healthcare system. Reality on the ground tells a different story. When the pandemic overtook the entire archipelago (save a few villages that benefited from isolation), there was the Department of Health (DOH) tasked to oversee the responses to the worldwide affliction. As with central organizations, the DOH bore the burden of making its services accessible. In many cases, DOH had a basic critical problem—how to make itself known to far-flung sites and communities. Responding to this gap, which was at the core of any modernizing approach, were the so-called rural health units.
Underpaid, understaffed and supported by an army of volunteers, these health units, which were also found in urban barangay, composed the frontliners. As with physical confrontations, they were the ones who stood their ground, hungry and ill equipped. Without them, all of us, with no fear of exaggeration, would have perished by millions overnight.
To understand the function of these volunteers in the Philippine model is to see them against the honorarium they receive, P1,000 or a bit more each month. Picture these individuals as they belonged to a family unit. In the most common scenario, these volunteers who were mostly women, had to continue their work outside beleaguered households. That time, they had the more difficult and most dangerous jobs of being there at the front—exposed, vulnerable against a disease that even the scientific community had no clear idea yet in the beginning of the pandemic. Ignorance was bliss for these beings. But that bliss would prove to be fatal to most.
Do we have a tally of volunteers who were infected with the virus during the initial surge of infections, when the virus was perceived to be most virulent? Did the government ever concern itself with the welfare of these health workers, including the volunteers?
Almost out of the woods, are we ready to reward these frontliners? To honor them not only with certificates of appreciation but also pay them for the risks they had incurred?
I have memories of these frontliners:
A few months after the pandemic, when the immediate response of local governments was to set up boundaries and checkpoints, I received messages from friends, most of them doctors and nurses. When the local government nearest them asked for volunteers, they responded. One was manning the boundary between our city and the next town. He was with other individuals whose names were familiar as they came from the same high school I attended. I was proud of them. I try to imagine what it was to be there at the outpost in the dead of night, inspecting vehicles coming into the city. Each city, each town, assumed they were the purer place, free from the dreaded virus. My response was to pray for them.
The notion of frontliners became vivid; this was our generation’s own warfront.
In Manila and other cities, names of doctors and other health workers kept cropping up online and with their names were images of votive candles. Or, around their photos were garlands of flowers and loving thoughts of remembrance. My response was of fear. Anxiety.
The affliction would come close to home. A nephew would share photos of his mother, a nurse in a rural health unit. She was wearing what was becoming familiar to us—a raincoat-like costume called PPE. Personal Protective Equipment. She was wearing a pair of boots also. Where did she get them? She was an amusing sight even as my heart went out to her—this individual who was, as with all mothers, gentle and protective of her own children. There she was, in the rain and cold, checking trucks, near midnight at the boundary between two towns, which we did not know was that important.
Gender distinction was dissipated by the pandemic. There were more women standing as sentry at the front line.
That night, I prayed even harder with a fervor I never thought I was capable of summoning from within. Protect them all. Please save them.
Abroad where our migration profile gave us links to nurses, midwives, medical technologists, and doctors—all sorts of health workers—cousins, nephews and nieces reported even more unique difficulties in groups of people who held onto their inalienable human rights and refused to wear masks. We were helpless even thinking of them. Our response was quiet resignation.
When finally the vaccines became available, the same health workers proved to be indefatigable. They were our immediate succor. Hope became tangible in their persons. The volunteers, imperfect as they were, served as our connection to the so-called “ayuda” or economic aid, before the said term became a vulgar term for extreme dependency or sycophancy.
Now, the front is quiet. The venues of distress have been vacated. The masks are still sometimes worn but the face shields now lie around, artifacts of bygone years. Gratitude is once more viewed as overrated, the frontliners and those who were brave enough, unthanked, unpaid, forgotten.