Supporting Overseas Filipinos

Supporting Overseas Filipinos

By Jonathan Monis
Master of Project Management, University of Sydney , Class of 2018

2020 Monis Jonathan Photo.jpg

“The COVID-19 pandemic challenges us to our core. ‘Bayanihan’ becomes an important element of our survival. We begin to understand that we have to rely on our neighbours to live on. Despite this low point, we still believe that the health sector will come out strong and resilient.” 

Outbreak response is not new in the health sector. While the country was being threatened by the possible entry of the COVID-19 early this year, the Department of Health (DOH), together with the local government units, were vaccinating kids for polio. Last year, our country also experienced a series of epidemics such as dengue, polio and measles. Thus, outbreaks are not new, but we have never seen this black swan coming. Pandemic or epidemic of global scale is something our fragile health system is not ready to grasp, especially after a series of outbreak and disaster events in recent years.

The subsequent announcement of a lockdown in Metro Manila after the declaration of community transmission of COVID-19 in the country was a signal to the Department of Health to re-organise and prepare for a gargantuan task of leading the pandemic response. Selected individuals from each DOH unit were requested to work on full-time. I received an email instruction that I will be deployed to the COVID-19 Emergency Operations Center. I said yes to this once-in-a-lifetime chance to use my skills to serve our countrymen in this very crucial situation. This is also an opportunity to sharpen the public health skills.

Organising a pandemic response is certainly a complex endeavour. It reminds me of an important lesson I learned while studying in Australia. There, I was able to appreciate systems thinking and complexity science. The Master of Project Management Course has a strong linkage with the Complexity Science Department. With my curiosity, I took up some related courses on complex systems. To sum up the learning, I am always reminded of the phrase, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," which connotes synergy. Wonders happen when components of a system work harmoniously.

We, in the DOH, are just a component of the entirety of the response. In the Bureau of International Health Cooperation (BIHC), we take pride in connecting the DOH with the other agencies and the world. The Bureau ensures that our system in DOH is a working component of a greater response that transcends boundaries.

Providing a Better Picture on the Situation of the Overseas Filipinos

Being from BIHC, we specialize in international coordination and diplomacy. We mobilize resources from our international partners and coordinate with the Department of Foreign Affairs on diplomatic and consular concerns. We advocate for the inclusion of migrants as vulnerable groups through mainstreaming health and migration in the policies and programs of both government and non-government stakeholders. We have never seen the importance of the systems we put in place until this time when the pandemic hardly hit our overseas ‘kababayan’.

One of my main tasks in the response is to coordinate between the DOH and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on the surveillance of the Overseas Filipinos (OFs). There is a need to see the overall picture of our OFs, as they comprise the tenth of our population. The DOH and the DFA started this platform of data sharing and harmonization to produce a daily report on the COVID-19 situation of the OFs. The DOH gathers information through the International Health Regulations (IHR) channel, while the DFA gathers their reports from the Diplomatic Posts across the world. As of the writing, the DFA tallies 8,324 confirmed cases of COVID-19 overseas, which is one-fourth of our total local cases of 31,825. Moreover, the case fatality among Overseas Filipinos is at 6.1%, which is almost double of the local case fatality of 3.72%.

These data show that Overseas Filipinos are disproportionately affected by the COVID-19. It signifies the need for greater support. On a different note, it emphasizes the necessity of keeping our guards up, as OFs flock going home. While we make sure they go home safely, some safeguards must be in place to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

Foreign Nationals in the Philippines

Our team also monitors the situation of foreign nationals and foreign visitors with recent travel history in the Philippines. The Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, of which the Philippines is a signatory, highlights solidarity and reciprocity. It indicates foreign nationals confined in the country are taken care of so that our nationals who are affected by the COVID-19 are also provided with the necessary medical assistance. The Embassies and Consular Posts in the Philippines have to be apprised of concerning the situation of their nationals. Our team serves as the bridge between the IHR-focal points in the DOH and the DFA to ensure that the information will reach the Posts so that necessary assistance can be extended.

In this pandemic, I was able to appreciate the art of contact tracing of foreign visitors. In the early phase of the enhanced community quarantine, I joined a team tracing the itinerary of foreign visitors confirmed with COVID-19 in other countries. The situation requires you to be calm and professional to prevent creating panic. We educated the hotel and restaurant management on the quarantine protocols for the exposed staff members in particular. It was quite an experience, especially for those who spend most of the time in the office.

COVID-19 Resource Mobilisation through Development Cooperation

Our team convenes regular coordination meetings to rally support and assistance from the international health partners. To date, we mobilised around Php 14 Billion donation, grant and loan proceeds from bilateral, multilateral and international NGO partners to augment the depleting government resources for COVID-19 response.

The Philippine Health Development Cooperation Policy Framework establishes partnership mechanisms to ensure that official development assistance in the health sector is aligned with the national and local priorities and that active coordination is in place between the Department of Health and the international health partners. The review and revitalisation of the development cooperation policy framework, which later on instituted the Philippine Health Development Cooperation Policy Framework is a critical component of my Re-entry Action Plan. My learning on project governance and strategy execution in Australia was very useful in this endeavor.

Moving forward, because the pandemic response is intertwined with the other sectors’ initiatives, we will be expanding the membership in the succeeding meetings – to include other government agencies, the leagues of local government units and the civil society organisations. Going back to the systems approach, we recognise that the success of the pandemic response lies in the communication and coordination of different actors. The DOH is starting to realize that the health sector policies and programs have to consider the other sectors.

Living up to the expectations

The COVID-19 pandemic challenges us to our core. It alters our behaviours. It exposed the adaptive capacity of human beings and the tenets of solidarity. ‘Bayanihan’ becomes an important element of our survival. We begin to understand that we have to rely on our neighbours to live on. This circumstance brings out the best and the worst of us. Amid criticism, we in DOH will persevere. I’ve seen sacrifices in different forms. From the top-level management down to the rank and file employees, several people are taking extra miles. DOH relies on these sacrifices to keep the system going.

Moving forward

Despite this low point, we still believe that the health sector will come out strong and resilient. We also look forward to the time when Filipinos will have a more appreciation for their health and well-being beyond the pandemic. With wide ears and an open mind, we will continue to work hand-in-hand with diverse stakeholders - be it local or international - to ensure that everyone is informed and our efforts are synergising.