Philippines: Country faces health and human rights crisis one year into the COVID-19 pandemic

The Philippine government must urgently address the country’s COVID-19 crisis with reports of thousands having struggled to access adequate healthcare, said Amnesty International today. Hospitals remain at risk of being overwhelmed, following a sharp surge in hospitalizations and new cases since March. 

“Over a year into the pandemic, the Philippine government’s continued failure to ensure an adequate response is a serious human rights issue,” said Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director.  “The authorities must provide healthcare without discrimination using their maximum available resources.” 

“Specific measures to protect those most affected, including health workers and those most at-risk, must be taken without further delay. Furthermore, the government must stop attacking human rights defenders and activists, a practice that only makes a dire situation worse.” 

The Philippines currently has the second highest number of new COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia, with over 116,000 reported cases at the time of writing.  Since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly 1 million people have been infected by the virus and 17,000 people have lost their lives to COVID-19.  

From the usual 2,000-3,000 reported cases since October 2020, the country’s daily tally began to surge in mid-March reaching as many as over 15,000 new cases on 3 April 2021, the highest since the pandemic began in March 2020. Daily deaths recorded in April 2021 are also the highest on record. 

Healthcare access in critical state 

Amid a renewed surge of cases of COVID-19, the mishandling of the pandemic has resulted in a critical lack of access to healthcare, which has grown especially acute in recent weeks.  

Health workers have raised the alarm about hospitals being overwhelmed owing to a lack of beds and insufficient health personnel. Workers are also experiencing unpaid benefits and lack of medical-grade personal protective equipment (PPE).  

Over the past several weeks, Metro Manila and the nearby provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal have been under stricter quarantine measures, after several hospitals reported reaching ‘critical’ occupancy rates following a surge in COVID-19 cases.  

“It is heart-breaking to see dozens of ambulances and private vehicles lining outside hospitals. Inside, there are people with COVID-19 with their families, some of them dying as they wait for medical care. Others are ferried to different medical facilities kilometres away, only to be turned away again due to lack of healthcare capacity,” Emerlynne Gil, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director said.   

Dr. Pauline Convocar, an emergency medical specialist for both public and private hospitals, described to Amnesty International the lack of a prepared health care system - which has been the case for the Philippines for decades but made worse by the pandemic. The government’s pandemic response agencies have been widely criticised for being led by military officials rather than public health experts. In addition, the 19 billion PHP (393 million USD) budget of the scandal-hit National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) has also drawn outcry for misallocation of resources. 

Health workers still at risk 

The recent surge once again highlighted the severe difficulties that health workers have faced, with very little improvement from their situation when the pandemic started a year ago. As of April 2021, at least 80 health workers in the Philippines have lost their lives due to COVID-19, according to the national Department of Health.  

“In any public health crisis, the safety and well-being of every health worker is all the more paramount,” said Emerlynne Gil. “The government must immediately provide them with adequate and sufficient protective equipment, as well as just terms and conditions so they can carry out their vital work. 

Alliance of Health Workers - a national organization representing workers from public and private hospitals, health institutions and agencies - told Amnesty International many health workers have yet to receive their legally mandated allowances. These include special risk allowance and a hazard pay, as well as allowances for food, transportation and accommodation and benefits since September 2020, as well as their annual performance-based bonus since 2018. They also expressed concern about the lack of sufficient healthcare workers, as nurses and nurse aides are placed under unmanageable pressures.  

Added challenges for those most at-risk 

Marginalised communities continue to suffer at the hands of police and face extra challenges due to COVID-19, including additional obstacles in access to healthcare and a loss of income as they were unable to work during pandemic restrictions.  

On 13 April, the Philippine National Police announced that quarantine violators would no longer be arrested, following the death of two men at the hands of police and local officials. Both men were from poor communities.  

Low-income families are exposed to greater health risks and face significant obstacles in accessing quality and affordable healthcare during the pandemic. During the most recent enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) that lasted for two weeks, local governments provided 1,000-4,000 PHP (20-80 USD) to the families in the lowest income bracket, but many complained of the slow distribution of aid.   

“All Filipinos are suffering under the pandemic, but the most marginalised are experiencing the worst impacts, said Emerlynne Gil. “Those most at-risk need access to adequate health care and financial assistance as well as protection from abuse by law enforcers during quarantine restrictions.”  

‘Red-tagging’ continues amid the pandemic 

World leaders including President Duterte have used COVID-19 to launch fresh attacks on human rights. In the midst of the pandemic, the government launched a vicious campaign of raids, arrests and killings of activists and human rights defenders who have been ‘red-tagged’ – or accused of links to ‘communist’ and ‘terrorist groups – while killings of suspected drug offenders have continued. 

In recent days, individuals and groups that set up “community pantries” in their local neighbourhoods – to provide food and other essential supplies for free to those in need – have also been accused by police and government officials of links to ‘communist’ groups, sparking outcry from the public.  

The Alliance of Health Workers has also expressed alarm at being ‘red-tagged’ by the government-created National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, after calling for increased government support and better response to the pandemic. The task force is also behind the ‘red-tagging’ of many other human rights defenders and activists that often leads to increased harassment, attacks and even killings. 

“The Duterte administration’s continued practice of ‘red-tagging’ and attacks on human rights only further exacerbates the dire situation that the country is facing,” Emerlynne Gil said.  

“We call on the President and his government to end its attacks on human rights and urgently focus efforts on mitigating the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Anything less is yet another failure of governance.”