COVID-19 and Filipino Nurses in the UK

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the incredible resilience and strength of healthcare workers on the frontlines. They have endured months of tireless work and sacrifice in order to keep their families back at home safe, as well as putting their own health on the line to care for sick patients. But almost a year into the pandemic as we celebrate these previously unsung heroes, it is just as important that we recognize the detrimental effects of COVID-19 on healthcare workers themselves, specifically Filipinos, who are being disproportionately affected by the virus in the United Kingdom.

In the United Kingdom, Filipinos make up less than 0.3% of the population, about 200,000 people. There are about 19,000 Filipinos working in the NHS, the National Health Service, out of a total of 1.28 million staff. They may be only 2% of the worker population in the NHS, but things come into perspective when they also comprise 25% of total deaths. More Filipino nurses have died of COVID-19 in the UK than the Philippines. Why is this happening?

Between March 2016 and March 2019, 4,000 Filipinos migrated to the UK to work for the NHS. Stemming from a long history of almost 400 years of Spanish colonization and later American imperialism in the Philippines, many college courses and job programs are geared towards migration to overseas employment. Filipino healthcare workers are encouraged to move to the US (the most popular destination), the UK, or Canada. Many of these workers come to these countries on a working visa, which is a big factor in their treatment in the workplace.

In an interview with Nursing Times, Francis Fernando, officer of the Filipino Nurses UK Association, said many Filipino nurses felt an “obligation” to follow instructions from their employers as immigrants on a visa, even if it meant they were put in harm’s way. When interviewed for Novara Media, Cynthia, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 after noticing non-migrant nurses were being assigned to less risky areas in the hospital, said that one of the main factors that prevented her from complaining to her manager about the trends in the workplace was her worker visa, directly tied to her employment. She knew a complaint could possibly lead to unemployment.

Cynthia was also not alone in her observation. The Philippine Nurses Association also reached out to the International Nursing Body in the early months of the pandemic in 2020 because “they were concerned that infections and deaths were higher amongst Filipino nurses.”

Howard Catton, the International Council of Nurses (ICN) chief, addressed this concern further, stating, “They were keen to tell us that Filipino nurses wanted to work in the UK, many of them felt very privileged to work in the UK and provide support to healthcare in the UK, but they are aware of the higher rates and the two issues they raised as a concern, that has been filtered back to them, is have they got PPE (personal protective equipment), and it might be that they are in higher risk environments”.

Catton went on further to discuss the very different situation that many migrant Filipino workers were going through at that point of communication with the International Nursing Body. When the association told the ICN that these migrant workers would undoubtedly come up and speak out about these grievances themselves if they truly were experiencing difficulties, Catton retorted, noting that similar hesitancy that Cynthia expressed. Migrant nurses working at such an unprecedented time may be plagued with anxiousness of their state of living during the pandemic. Catton said, “coronavirus, the protection, the support, the safety [and] the risk that that might present, is absolutely going to be a consideration [when] nurses who are migrating… make their decisions about where in the world that they might work in the future.”

This wavering statement of the migrant-worker status in the UK is a big factor in Filipinos’ hesitancy to speak up. This can put them in a vulnerable position, more at risk of contracting the virus, yet at risk of being ignored, disliked, discriminated against, or altogether unemployed if they were to speak up about their qualms. Filipino workers have gone down a long road of education to travel overseas to work in places like the NHS, and the last thing they’d ever compromise is their own job — which is reflected in their collective silence regarding the disproportionate treatment in the workplace.

This silence can also be linked to the harmful and longstanding norm of passiveness and submission in Asian groups, a characteristic of the effects of the Model Minority Myth in Asians, which may quell confidence and prevent those from speaking up in the face of adversities when they really should not be ashamed to speak out.

It is important to recognize his silence cannot generalize the Filipino population in the slightest. Filipinos have a rich history of union-organizing and striking. Their participation in the Delano Grape Strike in 1965, the emerging Filipino workers’ movement in the 1800s, and the resurgence of labor striking in the 1970s and 80s are just a few of the many demonstrations we have seen on behalf of Filipino and migrant-worker populations. But they face a very different situation in this pandemic, that they are just equally at risk, if not more, than the general population — and fighting to survive in an economically shaken period in history, it can be hard to balance living conditions and the eternal threat of the pandemic looming over their heads when at work.

The Philippine Embassy in London stated in April 2020, “no less than 20 Filipino healthcare workers [that] have perished in the UK’s fight against the COVID-19” represents “around 50% of at least 50 Filipinos – by citizenship or ethnicity – who died of the disease, including three (3) who are undocumented immigrants.” Estimates have placed about a 50% disproportionate death rate in Filipinos compared to other racial groups.

Donald Suelto, 51, died alone in his London flat of COVID-19 on April 17, 2020. It was stated he was exposed to the virus by one of his patients, working as a nurse in the UK, and didn’t have the proper equipment to protect him. His niece told of his devotion and dedication to his job as a nurse, who did not marry to support his four nieces, nephew, and 77-year-old mother back in the Philippines.

It is evident these worries have not come out of thin air. Filipino nurses are dying of COVID-19, alone, and they are not being provided with adequate resources to save lives.

Catton has pushed for the International Nursing Board to conduct surveys and research to include ethnicity to further investigate the infection and death rates of Filipinos. With global data, they will be able to analyze and deduct which aspects of the healthcare workforce need to be improved upon to ensure the safety of all workers in the NHS.

While we wait for feedback on the measures being taken to solve these problems, it is vital we acknowledge the contributions of Filipino nurses in the UK, as well as in the US, Canada, and all over the world. It is important we bring awareness to how this pandemic, and the environment it has created, has affected them on every level, physically and emotionally.

Piers Morgan of Good Morning Britain applauded Filipino workers as the “unsung heroes” of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying:

“It’s worth bearing in mind when we talk about immigrants in this country, these are the immigrants currently saving people’s lives. Coming here and actually enriching our country and doing an amazing job, so thank you to all the Filipinos who are here doing all this amazing work and to every other working in the NHS currently. I hope at the end of this, we’ll have a, perhaps a different sentiment, a different feeling about what immigration has done for this country”.


Edited by Michelle Nishidera

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