In an unusual proposal the Philippines is asking the United Kingdom and Germany to provide hundreds of thousands of coronavirus vaccines in exchange for the deployment of Filipino nurses who have been in high demand globally as frontline workers during the pandemic.
The Philippines, which has been badly hit by the virus, has a steady supply of underpaid nurses and other healthcare workers who prefer to seek jobs abroad for higher wages. By one estimate, there are 2.2 million Filipinos working abroad in healthcare, education, industrial and household sectors.
What the country doesn’t have is a steady supply of vaccines. The Philippines has yet to officially inoculate one person despite having one of the worst outbreaks in Southeast Asia.
An official told reporters on Monday that Labor Secretary Secretary Silvestre Bello III requested the two countries give the Philippines 600,000 coronavirus vaccines in exchange for competent and vaccinated healthcare workers.
The country temporarily stopped the deployment of Filipino healthcare workers during the pandemic, which has caused nearly 600,000 cases and more than 12,000 deaths. The deployment restriction was gradually eased, but it was capped at 5,000 nurses per host country.
The higher supply of vaccines would apparently help inoculate nurses and over Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), allowing them to then travel abroad for employment.
“Secretary Bello requested for their government to give us vaccines especially for our OFWs,” Alice Visperas, director of international labor affairs at the Department of Labor and Employment, said.
They did not specify what jab was being requested but the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is being manufactured at BioNTech’s site in Germany and the AstraZeneca vaccine is being mass produced in the U.K.
The vaccines will be given to hundreds of thousands of Filipino migrant workers before they go out of the country, Visperas said.
But the announcement sparked outrage among nurses in the Philippines who have been long frustrated at the government’s alleged mistreatment of them through low pay and delayed salaries even in the middle of a pandemic.
“This plan from the government is frustrating and upsetting,” Jocelyn Andamo, secretary-general of Filipino Nurses United, told VICE World News. “We are appalled that the government is treating us like export products they can trade anytime they want.”
The Philippine Nurses Association cautioned the government against using the healthcare workers as bargaining chips, citing the lack of healthcare workers in the country’s own struggling healthcare system.
“We have thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of competent nurses in the Philippines, but our hospitals and healthcare facilities remain understaffed,” Melbert Reyes, president of the Philippine Nurses Association said, adding that the government must give them better wages to make them stay in the country.
The Philippines has struggled to secure vaccines for its 110 million population despite months of preparation. Pfizer vaccines were supposed to arrive in the country in the second week of February, but pharmaceutical companies required the country to pass indemnification laws first.
Public health expert Dr. Tony Leachon, who used to advise the country’s COVID-19 task force, assailed the labor department’s “quid pro quo” plan to acquire vaccines.
“Procuring vaccines should be the job of the vaccine czar through channels and through the Department of Foreign Affairs,” Leachon told VICE World News.
The labor secretary did not immediately respond to request for comment.