ILOILO CITY, Iloilo, Philippines — The Department of Health (DOH) in Western Visayas on Monday indefinitely suspended a plan to send 40 rural doctors from the region to Cebu City to augment the city’s COVID-19 response efforts.
This followed after objections by the doctors themselves, citing lack of consultation and familiarity with the situation in Cebu, among other reasons.
In a press conference on Monday, DOH regional officials led by their director, Dr. Marlyn Convocar, said the reassignment of doctors to Cebu City had been called off until the latter’s “issues and concerns” are resolved.
DOH officials will meet with the doctors on Tuesday to discuss a “win-win” resolution, said lawyer Jan Reuell Valaquio of the health regional office.
But Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, in her online press briefing on Monday, maintained that the department “acted within the bounds of its authority” when it ordered the redeployment.
“The DOH called on doctors who will render service to the country during this time that we are in a state of public health emergency and some of them refused. While we continue this call for heroes to put the bayan (country) before the I, we are grateful for the brave and selfless health-care workers who showed up to work this morning,” she said.
The DOH had planned to send its doctors under the Doctor to the Barrios (DTTB) program in four batches from June 30 to Sept. 15.
The first batch was supposed to leave Iloilo province on Monday morning, but the trip was called off.
In a statement, DTTB Batches 36 and 37, the medical teams ordered by the DOH to Cebu, called the department’s order “abrupt” and “exploitative.”
“We, the Doctors to the Barrios Batches 36-Alab and 37-Mandala, strongly condemn this directive because the doctors were not suitably informed in writing, there was no consultation prior to the directive, no detailed guidelines and protocols to protect the doctors and because the move contradicted the very thrust of the DTTB program,” the doctors said in their statement.
It added: “The DTTBs and the local chief executives should have been represented in decision-making involving this temporary reassignment. Failing to do so makes such directives exploitative for doctors and inconsiderate for the communities that they serve. There is complete disregard to the concerns of the doctors and the local chief executives.”
They said the order that would involve deployment in private hospitals was contrary to the DTTB program’s objective to provide health care in rural communities, especially isolated and disadvantaged areas.
Dr. Magdalena Barcelon, president of the Community Medicine Practitioners and Advocates Association (Compass), said in an interview.
“If they will be pulled out of their assignments, who will take care of vulnerable communities in far-flung villages, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic? How will the communities protect themselves?”
“Why send the doctors to private hospitals? I’m sure these private hospitals can hire doctors. We have 3,500 new doctors graduating each year. They are in the urban areas where the support are. There has to be doctors in underserved communities,” Barcelon said.
She pointed out that community doctors “still have to be trained because it’s totally different from [where] they are now. If you’re familiar with the issues confronted by front-liners—with those masks on their faces, and the PPEs (personal protective equipment), they had to forgo such basic bodily needs sometimes, such as eating and going to the restroom, because of lack of PPEs.”
Vergeire, in her press briefing, noted the “recent spikes of cases in the region has led to a more Cebu-centered response.”
She, however, said “the primary intent of the Doctors to the Barrios remains. And that is to serve all people in the country.”
Compass pointed out in its statement that “we have a pool of doctors that can be mobilized for the COVID-19 response.”
“We need to ask, whatever happened to the much-touted recruitment of additional health personnel for the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act? Why not deploy these personnel who are specially designated and presumably adequately trained for the COVID-19 response?” the group said.
Dr. Sally Ticao, president of the Iloilo Association of Municipal Health Officers, said in an interview that “we are already overwhelmed by returning overseas Filipino workers and stranded persons who require isolation and monitoring.”
Mayor Rosario Mediatrix “Trixie” Fernandez of San Enrique town in Iloilo said “I believe the other mayors share my view that we cannot afford to pull out any of the doctors because of our situation.”
Iloilo City Mayor Jerry Treñas pointed out that “we are the country with the longest lockdown and yet the [COVID-19] cases continue to go up.”
“Secretary Francisco Duque is a friend … but I think it is really about time [for him] to accept responsibility and voluntarily resign for the sake of the country,” he added.
“If President Duterte finds it difficult to fire him, [Duque] should do a voluntary act so that there will be new blood in the DOH and hopefully we will be able to resolve this,” Treñas said. —WITH A REPORT FROM JOVIC YEE INQ
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