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The Philippines Seeks to Trade Nurses for Doses of the COVID-19 Vaccine

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The Philippines needs doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, so much so that the country has just offered to send thousands of healthcare workers, mostly nurses, overseas to work in Britain and Germany in exchange for doses of the drug. With over 70 million adults, the Philippines has yet to start its vaccination program. The country is hoping to get the ball rolling by having nurses get vaccinated in Europe before returning home, but it’s not clear if either the U.K. or Germany will take up the offer.

As for the nurses, some are begging to be sent overseas, while others feel like a political football in a game with no easy answers.

Clamoring for Shots

The Philippines is stuck between a rock and a hard place as it struggles to secure doses of the vaccine. With over 500,000 cases, the country has one of the highest infection rates in Asia.

China recently agreed to donate 600,000 doses of the Sinovac vaccine, but the shipment has been delayed. The county’s Food and Drug Administration recently decided not to give the Sinovac vaccine to healthcare workers, citing low efficacy ratings.

As cases keep climbing, the Philippines recently imposed a cap on the number of healthcare workers that can leave the country to 5,000 at a time to make sure there are enough providers in the country.

However, the country recently announced it would be willing to raise the cap if Britain and Germany agree to send over excess doses of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines.

“We are considering the request to lift the deployment cap, subject to agreement,” Alice Visperas, director of the labor ministry’s international affairs bureau, told Reuters.

In response, Britain says it’s currently not interested in the offer, even though it has ordered more than 400 million doses of the vaccine, which is four times its population. The U.K. Health Ministry said it’s focused on distributing these doses domestically, but left the door open to sharing its supply down the line.

Britain currently has the fifth-highest coronavirus death toll in the world. Health officials said they were grateful for the Filipinos working in the National Health Service, but that the U.K. doesn’t need to trade doses of the vaccine for more.

“We have no plans for the U.K. to agree a vaccine deal with the Philippines linked to further recruitment of nurses,” a health ministry spokeswoman said in response to the offer, adding that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged to share excess shots with other countries later in the year.

“We have confirmed that we will share any surplus vaccines in the future — for example through the COVAX international procurement pool,” the spokeswoman added. COVAX International is a part of the World Health Organization. Its aim is to make sure every country has access to the vaccine. Covax has raised $6 billion, but says it needs at least another $2bn (£1.4bn) to meet its target for 2021.

Reports show that calls from the Philippines to Germany went unanswered, which means the country is likely out of luck for the time being.

Germany currently has the 10th most infections globally. Both Britain and Germany have vaccinated a combined 23 million people.

Filipino Nurses Speak Out

The nurses and healthcare workers in the Philippines don’t have a lot of say over the matter.

Many providers have sought to lift the country’s self-imposed cap on the number of healthcare workers that can leave the country. Some nurses are anxious to take work overseas in exchange for better working conditions.

Government data shows that nearly 17,000 Filipino nurses signed overseas work contracts in 2019. Having nurses work overseas is also a major part of the country’s remittance program. Millions of Filipinos work overseas, contributing over $30 billion to the country’s economy.

Not everyone approves of the new offer, even if it doesn’t ultimately go through.

Jocelyn Andamo, secretary general of the Filipino Nurses United, told Reuters, “We are disgusted on how nurses and health care workers are being treated by the government as commodities or export products.”

Many countries will have to wait for doses of the vaccine to arrive, putting poorer nations at the back of the line. “Rich nations representing just 14% of the world’s population had bought up more than half (53%) of all the most promising vaccines,” The People’s Vaccine Alliance said in December.

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