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Coronavirus: Europe needs Filipino nurses

Ana P. Santos Manila
March 26, 2020

Germany's alleged attempt to fly in Filipino nurses to provide assistance to COVID-19 patients has irked many in the Philippines. The country is facing a shortage of health workers as it tries to combat the disease.

A volunteer hands out goods in a slum area in Manila
Image: Getty Images/E. Acayan

The German news agency dpa reported last week that Berlin planned to bring in at least 75 Filipino nurses to Germany to assist in the country's fight against the novel coronavirus.

The "Hessische Krankenhausgesellschaft," an association of over 150 hospitals in the German state of Hesse, reportedly said they "received a special permit" to fly in the Filipino nurses.

A Filipino nurse in a hospital in Germany
Filipino nurses are coveted by German health authoritiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Schulte

The news sparked anger in the Philippines, which is struggling to cope with the COVID-19 cases, hampered by a weak public health system. The Southeast Asian country's Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello told DW that the move had been put on hold until further notice. "Our nurses are needed more at home," Bello said. 

Expected spike in COVID-19 cases

The Philippines has recorded over 550 coronavirus cases so far, but health experts say the number could be much higher due to limited testing facilities in the country. The virus could spread exponentially in the country in the coming weeks, they warn.

According to the online news agency Rappler, the Philippines has only conducted about 12 COVID-19 tests for every million people, falling far behind regional neighbors like Malaysia — 422 people per million — and Vietnam — 159 people per million.

Philippine authorities are bracing for a spike in coronavirus cases following a scheduled increased testing after the country procured 100,000 testing kits last Saturday.

Underpaid and undervalued

Earlier this week, private hospitals in Manila announced they couldn't take in more coronavirus patients as they had reached full capacity.

Read more: Coronavirus: How Japan keeps COVID-19 under control

The Philippine Health Department has made an urgent call for nurses to sign up as volunteers to look after COVID-19 patients. Some experts are highly critical of the Health Ministry's move.

"Asking nurses to volunteer is uncalled for. It is an example of the neglect and exploitation our nurses face," Maristela Abenojar, president of the Filipino Nurses United (FNU) association, told DW.

The average salary for nurses in a government hospital is around $250 (€228) to $350 (€319) per month. In private hospitals, it ranges from $200 to $250 per month. Last year, the Supreme Court set the minimum monthly salary for nurses in public hospitals at $600 per month. "It has not been implemented," said Abenojar.

DW visited a public health center in Manila last month and found out that only two nurses were tending to around 100 patients in the hospital's general admissions ward.

"A nurse's shift can stretch from eight hours to 16, sometimes even more. Nurses' work is also not valued in the country," said Abenojar.

Greener pastures elsewhere

Nurses in a hospital in Manila
Many nurses in the Philippines are keen to escape their dire working conditionsImage: AFP/Getty Images

Inadequate salaries and bad working conditions drive Filipino nurses to seek employment in other countries, including Europe, the Middle East and the US. In 2013, the Philippines and Germany signed an agreement that allows Filipino health workers to get an employment in Germany.

"You can't blame our nurses for leaving the county. The government needs to improve their working conditions and increase their salaries so that they can stay," said Abenojar.

Janina Santos graduated in nursing in 2009 but works as a researcher to support her family. "I can't afford to work as a nurse," she told DW.

Last week, the government approved a pay-out of $2,000 for health workers who may contract COVID-19 and $20,000 for the families of those who die from the disease.

"The government is finally recognizing the value of nurses, but what good is money when a nurse falls sick or dies?" Santos said.