Stories from the frontline
Humanitarian workers going beyond the call of duty to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the Bangsamoro region
Children in the Bangsamoro region are among the poorest in the country and are left behind under all major indicators of development. As the number of COVID-19 cases increase in the Philippines, the humanitarian community is concerned about how the most vulnerable and disadvantaged families and children in this region will be affected by the pandemic.
At a time when communities and families are in quarantine, health workers, humanitarians and other essential workers in the region are at the forefront of the emergency response, working hard to stop the spread of the virus and provide life-saving services, supplies and information.
"The local health system is already on its knees."
“We are in a different war with COVID-19. This is not like ISIS where we can see the enemy,” said Dr. Alicia Macmac, rural health unit officer in Lumba Bayabao, Lanao del Sur.
The impact of the Marawi City siege in 2017, an armed conflict between Philippine government forces and ISIL-affiliated militants, aggravated the poverty situation in Lanao del Sur, which is the poorest province in the country. More than 17,000 Maranao people displaced by the conflict remain in temporary shelters in the province. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased their vulnerability on top of the ongoing humanitarian situation.
Dr. Macmac and other health care workers face enormous pressure to stop COVID-19 infections. As government-run hospitals face shortages of critical supplies to help contain the spread of the virus, UNICEF is providing disinfection supplies, tents, personal protective equipment, and infection prevention and control training for community health workers, sanitary engineers and inspectors.
"In these uncertain times, someone has to stand up with conviction and say 'No more!' to spreading inaccurate information about COVID-19."
One doesn't have to be a health worker to do their part in saving lives during a pandemic. Abdul Rauf Lumabao, 20, volunteers with his friends to man the checkpoint in their barangay (village) in Cotabato City. Their mission: to meticulously check the quarantine passes of everyone passing through their barangay. "This is my way of helping the government that I fully support. But I’m extremely careful. My neighbours’ well-being is crucial for the overall health of the barangay," he said.
Rauf has always been a leader in his community. At a young age, he has dedicated himself to becoming a force for change in the Bangsamoro region. Even when he's at home, Rauf helps young people in his community. To encourage discussions on COVID-19 and fight fake news, he uses U-Report, a youth engagement tool of UNICEF where young people can get and share information on relevant issues.
"Young people have to take this situation seriously. We should instead use the power of social media to challenge stigma, share positivity and make sure that messages about health tips get through. We need to inspire and drive action among the Bangsamoro youth while in home quarantine," he said.
"We will not allow COVID-19 to create inequalities between the rich and poor in Lanao del Sur."
Work doesn’t stop for Piagapo’s municipal rural health doctor Rasmia Lawi and her staff. "The introduction of new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the current situation will be more problematic for the people and the overall public health system. The national and local guidelines should be clear from the very beginning," she said.
The Marawi siege in 2017 and the polio outbreak in 2019 have left public health services reliant on humanitarian and development assistance. "Now we are having a tough time dealing with COVID-19. It’s tiring and terrifying at the same time but this is the life I’ve chosen. I’m grateful and proud of my staff doing great service for the people despite having limited protective gear and the risks to themselves. Our purpose in life actually saves lives," Dr. Lawi said.
Rural health staff travel for long hours to reach isolated communities in Piagapo to provide life-saving information, services and supplies. Staff nurse Sohaima Rascal shares: "Even in a pandemic, we keep in mind that delaying or avoiding health care services would bring more problems in the future, on top of the COVID-19 virus, particularly among children. We truly care for them as if they’re our family, too."
"I feel compelled to keep the people informed and up to date about the situation before the virus creeps in their homes and communities, and eventually affects their daily lives."
As COVID-19 cases continue to increase, municipal health workers like nurse Muhammad Faihan Meling rush to contain and address misinformation about the virus circulating in communities.
Since 2017 under the Nurse Deployment Project of the Department of Health, Meling has been providing health services in Barangay Katidtuan and other geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas. "Despite the limited number of health workers assigned in rural health areas and the COVID-19 pandemic, I carry out my duties to ensure the timely vaccination of children and regular medical check-up of residents," he said.
Providing timely and accurate information is essential in the delivery of public health services. Meling recalls the challenges he experienced in convincing parents to have their children vaccinated after news of a dengue vaccine controversy broke out, which affected public perception and acceptance of routine vaccines. "They practically shut their doors and aimed their guns on us when we came to visit them to follow up on their health check-up and children's vaccination. The community desperately needed counselling at that time," he said.
Meling's colleague Harold Ryan Hortales, a medical technologist serving 11 municipalities in Maguindanao, thinks that taking preventive actions is the most effective way to counter the misinformation. "I'm not sure what's going to happen if we had allowed rumours to envelop the whole town," he said. As early as March 2020, upon the mayor's advice, he mobilized staff to disseminate flyers about COVID-19 and conduct recorida (audio motorcades) around communities.
"We're the number one source for information regarding the risk of getting infected with the virus, as radio and connection to mobile phones are limited. That was an effective move to keep the constituents safe even at the comfort of their homes while on lockdown. Following our training on infection prevention and control and directing this information to the communities, we are more than prepared to deal with the fight against COVID-19," he said.
"The job might be dangerous but to give the people the right and accurate information is fulfilling."
As a journalist working in the BARMM Bureau of Public Information, Ais Abas-Sambolawan's task is to inform people in the Bangsamoro region of the dangers of COVID-19 and the emergency interventions of the Bangsamoro authorities on how to fight the pandemic and stop the spread of the virus.
"My role as a writer and journalist in this time of the COVID-19 crisis is crucial. Aside from working round the clock to keep people up to date with the status of COVID-19 in the Bangsamoro region and the government’s response to the virus, my life is at risk as I am exposed in the field, too," Ais said.
As a mother and wife, she is also worried about the safety of her family every time she goes home from work. Despite this, she continues to carry out her duties. "This is my way to help the Bangsamoro people. More than ever, this is the time that we should do our job well — may it be as frontliners, support staff, or ordinary citizens. Let’s do our part to fight COVID-19," she said.
"We are known as a people of resilience and persistence."
Nuriel Haron has been working for nearly a decade as a midwife in the BARMM Ministry of Health, but the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic are nothing like the ones she has dealt with before.
Nuriel works with vulnerable communities that are mostly in geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas. "They currently face an incredible challenge in their lives right now. As a public health midwife, I’m here no matter what to help them," she said.
"Despite the risks to myself and my family, I couldn’t bear seeing my people in the Bangsamoro helpless," Nuriel said. "If I don’t do my work, who will? I am an instrument to extend God’s grace through helping others in the area of health. I believe that by doing good to others, it will come back to you a hundred fold," she said.
Nuriel takes inspiration from her mother who is undergoing regular dialysis but keeps a strong mindset despite the situation. "Like my mother, the Bangsamoro people will get through this," she said.
"I'm grateful to have colleagues who are equally as excited for work and committed to helping, even risking their lives for others to be safe."
Despite the dangers of her work responding to emergencies around the Bangsamoro region, there is no room for quitting for Myrna Jo Henry. Since 2013, she has been at the forefront of every emergency response to every natural and man-made crisis in the region as a coordinator and member of the Humanitarian Emergency Action Response Team.
"I'm mindful of the dangers of my job, being the first to respond during crisis, and the last to leave. But first, I'm a mother to my son. I always take extra precautionary measures when I'm out on the field, especially now with the unseen risk of COVID-19," she said.
Together with her colleagues, Myrna has survived many high-risk emergencies in their work to provide urgent care and services to affected communities. "Together we've been there many times. More than ever, we are fortunate to be in the frontline despite the risk to our lives and our families. Not everyone has this opportunity to serve," she said.
"We should move together as one country, as one Bangsamoro. If your role is to stay at home, then please do it because you are helping the frontliners do their job easier," she said. Myrna used to work as a journalist in the Bureau of Public Information, before shifting to emergency response. "Humanitarian is in my bloodline. I am truly meant to be here, in this nature of work acknowledging the dangers that come my way," she said.
"My work brings me closer to the heart of the population in the Bangsamoro region: people young and old with heart disease, cancer or diabetes because the risk is higher for them."
Joery Amad, a nurse with the BARMM Ministry of Health, reassures her family that frontliners in the Bangsamoro region are working hard in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. "In times of uncertainty it’s a normal feeling to be scared, but don’t be," she tells her three children and grandchildren. "You don’t need to feel afraid of the rapid spread of COVID-19."
Joery has been working in public health for 25 years. Now, she is at the forefront to stop the spread of the virus in their region, especially among people with pre-existing conditions.
"I'm always mindful of safety precautions because I also care for my three grandchildren at home. This fight is mainly for them so that when they are old enough to understand what had happened in 2020, they would recognise that their Lola (grandmother) fought alongside the brave doctors, nurses, midwives and all health workers in the Bangsamoro," she said.