'We have nothing to celebrate': Health workers protest as Duterte calls frontliners 'new breed of heroes'

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, August 30) — Medical frontliners — hailed by President Rodrigo Duterte as a new breed of heroes — on Monday marked National Heroes Day by staging protests over what they said was government's 'systemic neglect' and nonpayment of their benefits.

"These past two years, we have witnessed the indomitable spirit of these nameless health workers, uniformed personnel, government employees, and frontliners in essential industries who, hiding in anonymity, bravely led our battle against the COVID-19 pandemic," Duterte said in a statement on the same day.

Health workers, however, observed the national holiday by holding simultaneous protests to demand the immediate release of benefits under the Bayanihan 2 law, a call they have been making for months now.

"Despite the holiday, we have nothing to celebrate. We have always been referred to as 'modern heroes' for our hard work and dedication despite the worsening pandemic, and we are now on the streets to demand benefits for all healthcare workers," said University of Santo Tomas Hospital union president Donell Siazon.

Numerous medical frontliners have decried not receiving a single centavo from the government despite directly attending to COVID-19 patients. Earlier this month, Duterte told the Department of Health to prioritize paying their benefits and allowances "if there is enough money." 

The Department of Budget and Management eventually released over ₱311 million in funding to pay for the special risk allowance of some health workers last week.

"Ilang healthcare workers lang makakatanggap nun. Ilan kami? Ang binudgetan nila ay 20,000 healthcare workers lang. SRA lang pinaguusapan. Paano naman po 'yung sa meals, accommodation and transportation allowance?" said Jao Clumia, president of the St. Luke's Medical Center Quezon City Employees Association. There are some 1.8 million health workers in the country.

[Translation: Only a few healthcare workers will benefit from that. How many are we all in all? They only budgeted for 20,000 health workers. We're just talking about the SRA here. What about meals, accommodation and transportation allowance?]

The DOH said on Friday that it made another request for additional funds for medical frontliners not covered by the recent ₱311-million release from DBM. 

The labor unions of St. Luke's Medical Center Global City, Metropolitan General Hospital, The Medical City, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Cardinal Santos Medical Center and Calamba Medical Center also took part in the simultaneous protests.

RELATED: St. Luke's: No mass resignation among its healthcare workers 

"We are outraged at the injustice and systematic neglect inflicted upon us by the government," said Siazon.

Groups support healthcare workers, state auditors

Activist organizations also held a protest on Monday to express support not only for health workers but also state auditors, who have drawn the ire of Duterte over their audit reports.

The DOH was recently the subject of the Commission on Audit's findings, particularly on its supposed "deficiencies" in the handling of its COVID-19 response funds.

Despite drawing criticism from lawmakers and the public alike and even being the subject of multiple probes, the President has consistently sided with Duque.

Bayan Muna chairperson Neri Colmenares called for Duterte's and Duque's resignations given these supposed anomalous transactions.

Colmenares also urged the COA to look further into the government's supposed savings amid the pandemic and billions of intelligence funds under the Office of the President.

"Sa gitna ng pandemya, maraming di nakatanggap ng ayuda, may mga pera ka palang ₱200 billion na ayaw mong gastusin. Bakit? Saan mo ilalaan, President Duterte, ang ₱200 billion na 'yan?" the former lawmaker asked.

[Translation: In the middle of a pandemic wherein many haven't received cash aid, you have ₱200 billion you don't want to spend? Why? Where will you use the ₱200 billion, President Duterte?]

"Gagawin niyang pork barrel 'yan para sa eleksyon. Napakaitim ng iyong budhi kung ginawa mo 'yan," alleged the former lawmaker.

[Translation: He will use those funds for the election. If you will do that, you really have an evil conscience.]

CNN Philippines correspondents Gerg Cahiles and Crissy Dimatulac contributed to this report.