News Update

Filipino Healthcare workers on the US’ COVID-19 front lines

Several years ago, I produced a special TV report on the topic, “What would happen if Filipino healthcare professionals do not report for work?” The point I wanted to make was the vital role that Filipino doctors and nurses, and other healthcare professionals, play in America’s healthcare system.

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In the face of the COVID-19 epidemic, it would be heartless to even contemplate that possibility. Filipino doctors and nurses are now in the thick of the deadly struggle against the pandemic, like soldiers sent to the frontlines — and, like soldiers, some of them may not come back alive. We should all hope and pray that no harm will befall them and that they will continue the good fight, in spite of lack of rest and sleep and, worse, in spite of lack of adequate protection against the unseen foe. So many lives depend on them.

I feel personally concerned because some members of my family could be involved in the struggle. My elder sister, Dr. Evangeline Garcia, is a medical practitioner in Maryland. Because she is 84 years old, she has been advised to stay home. I should thank the Lord for that, although, knowing her, she will probably want to go to the frontlines.

I recall that during the first Iraq War, as a reserve Lt. Colonel in the US Air Force, she volunteered for active duty. Mercifully, Saddam Hussein’s forces surrendered before she could be dispatched to the battlefront. But she was actively involved in caring for trauma victims following the 9/11 attack in New York.

One of my daughters-in-law, Anne Marie, is a nurse. Born and raised in New York, she is now doing her share, attending to patients in the San Francisco Bay Area. However, her younger sister, Allison, and her mother, Sonia, who are also both nurses, reside and work in New York.

New York City, from latest reports, has become the epicenter of the pandemic in the US. As of the latest count, there were 29,158 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the city and over 52,000 in New York state. But these are the figures that have been officially reported to health authorities. Who knows how many there are who have not yet been accounted for but are — or could be — infected?

Of the confirmed cases, as of this writing, 517 have died in New York City and 728 in the state. Dreadfully, the numbers could grow exponentially tomorrow and before this column goes to press.

A January 2008 analysis of Census Bureau data indicates that, of the 215,000 Filipinos residing or working in New York, three out of 10 are nurses or healthcare professionals. Many of the rest are their spouses and children.

At Seton Hospital in Daly City, one of the largest medical facilities in Northern California, 60% of the employees are Filipino. Many of them are nurses.

According to Philippine government records, the Philippines is the largest exporter of nurses in the world. As of 2019, one-third of foreign-born nurses in the US are Filipino (that figure does not include my daughter-in-law and her sister because both are native-born New Yorkers).

Since the mid-1960s, when US immigration law favored the entry of professionals, some 160,000 Filipino nurses have joined the US healthcare system. Latest figures indicate that Filipino nurses account for 17.6% of RNs in California. The Golden State is one of the hardest-hit by the pandemic.

According to official records, as of 2016, the Philippines provided the third largest number of actively licensed foreign doctors in the US — 13,507 — next to India and the Caribbean. I also know of several Filipino doctors who had a medical practice in the Philippines but not in the US due to licensing issues. And I understand that some of these doctors have become RNs or Registered Nurses.

Also, according to records, the University of Santo Tomas College of Medicine accounts for the largest number of Filipino doctors in the US (4,545), followed by the University of the Philippines (2,044) and the University of the East (2,070). I believe my elder sister, a UST alumnus, and a first cousin, Dr. Eriberto Tanpiengco (Far Eastern University College of Medicine), were among the earliest doctors from the Philippines to join the American medical corps.

The fact is that Filipino nurses and doctors are among the largest portion of healthcare professionals in the world. This also means that many of them are on the COVID-19 global battlefronts.

Wherever the diaspora has dispatched workers from the Philippines, it is likely that a significant number are healthcare professionals. The two European countries that have reported the largest number of COVID-19 cases, Spain and Italy, also have large Filipino populations — an estimated 150,000 in Spain and 108,000 in Italy (plus undocumented Pinoys whose estimated numbers vary from 20,000 to 80,0000).

In the United Kingdom, where even Prince Charles and Prime Minister Boris Johnson have been found positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, Filipino nurses make up the largest number of foreign RNs at 10,719, according to a parliamentary report dated April 8, 2019. A 2004 report of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) indicates that the UK is the third most preferred destination for Filipino nurses, with Saudi Arabia and the US ranking first and second, respectively.

Also, according to the POEA, of the 2.3 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) officially accounted for in 2018 (excluding the undocumented), 25% are healthcare professionals. That’s a whopping 575,000 people conceivably out there on the world’s pandemic frontlines.

Needless to say, this massive drainage of healthcare professionals has resulted in a decline in the availability and quality of health services in the Philippines where the COVID-19 coronavirus has also become a major threat.

We would, understandably, wish that these healthcare professionals were in the Philippines, attending to our countrymen.

Years ago, I asked a younger brother of mine, Dr. Vic Makabenta, if he wanted to join my sister and me in the US to continue his medical practice. His response embarrassed me. He said there were more than enough doctors in America and he was needed more urgently in the Philippines (he worked as an assistant provincial health officer in Biliran sub-province until his death in his mid-40s).

But we cannot begrudge those who chose to work overseas. They have their own valid reasons, mainly economic. We should only pray for their safety as they minister to the sick and dying in the midst of the contagion.

Newsweek reported that, as of March 27, more than 50 doctors have died from COVID-19 in Italy. A BuzzFeed News report dated March 26 stated: “Healthcare workers fighting the coronavirus outbreak across the country are getting sick and dying, nurses and doctors say. And despite the fact that they’re essential to fighting the epidemic, no one in the US seems to be keeping track…

“At least 35 California healthcare workers on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak have already tested positive for COVID-19, state officials reported on Wednesday.”

Who knows how many of these heroes and heroines are Filipino? We can only pray that the numbers are few.

Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.