Misuse of COVID funds alleged as Filipino health workers protest

Protesters demand resignation of Duterte’s health secretary as another former adviser warns the Philippines may soon become epicentre of the pandemic.

Allegations of misuse of COVID-19 funds have emerged in the Philippines, prompting anger among healthcare workers, who protested in the Philippine capital to demand the release of unpaid benefits as they battle another surge in cases due to the Delta variant.

Protesters wearing protective medical gear gathered on Wednesday at the Department of Health (DOH) and held placards demanding their risk allowances, hazard pay and the resignation of Health Secretary Francisco Duque.

Duque has repeatedly resisted calls for his resignation, insisting that he still has the trust of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The Philippines passed the two million mark in coronavirus cases on Wednesday, almost a quarter of those recorded in August alone.

Medical staff are overwhelmed and 103 new fatalities were reported on Wednesday, adding to the more than 33,000 COVID-19 deaths.

“It is sad that many of us have died, many of us became sick, and many have resigned or opted to retire early, yet we are still kneeling before the DOH to give us our benefits,” Robert Mendoza, president of the Alliance of Health Workers, said from the back of a pick-up truck.

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization’s representative in the country had announced that the Delta variant is now the dominant case in the Philippines.

“Certainly. With these kind of numbers, we are in community transmission of the Delta variant,” Dr Rabindra Abeyasinghe said in a media briefing.

Despite the record-breaking surge in recent days, President Duterte defended his administration’s pandemic response.

He gave health and budget ministries 10 days from August 21 to pay health workers, following nurses’ threats to resign and unions’ warnings of strikes, but more than 100,000 of them have yet to receive their benefits.

“The government promised it will give the benefits today but up to now, it has not. I pity us because we are the ones begging,” said nurse Nico Oba.

Duterte has also stood by Health Secretary Duque during repeated calls for his resignation, the latest after state auditors flagged “deficiencies” in more than $1bn in COVID-19 spending.

Government auditors earlier found that the government purchased overpriced masks and personal protective equipment for the healthcare workers, who are at the frontline of treating COVID-19 patients.

The audit report also revealed that the health department failed to distribute billions of pesos in funds intended for healthcare workers.

On Wednesday, opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros alleged that executives of the company that won the contract to buy the overpriced equipment have criminal records and arrest warrants in Taiwan. Those individuals were also linked to a Chinese national close to President Duterte.

‘More time needed’

Duque on Wednesday told the Reuters news agency the government was working on the release of benefits but appealed for more time.

But on Thursday, he admitted during a Congressional hearing that there is no additional budget in 2022 for special risk allowance for healthcare workers. He also said that there is no definite allocation for the purchase of additional vaccines next year, as the money will be funded by foreign loans and availability of excess government revenue, which is still not assured.

The Philippine Nurses Association held its own protest virtually to demand better working conditions and more staff at hospitals, nearly a third of which have reached “critical levels” of more than 85 percent occupancy, according to government data.

Like elsewhere in Southeast Asia, where vaccination rates are low, the highly transmissible Delta variant has seen deaths climb and cases soar, with a daily record 22,366 cases in the Philippines on Monday.

In an interview with a Manila-based TV channel, Dr Tony Leachon, a former adviser to Duterte on the COVID-19 response, warned the Philippines may soon be the epicentre of the pandemic in Southeast Asia.

He said the Philippines is now in “a perfect storm” given the rising number of cases, still-low vaccination rate and poor contact tracing system, weighed down further by a Congressional investigation on the alleged misuse of COVID-19 funds.

“The healthcare system will soon collapse if we will not be able to control,” he told ABS-CBN.

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters

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