Filipino nurses: pushed and pulled between countries to provide care



The Philippines are facing a horrifying reality. On top of battling the spread of the Covid-19 infection, emergency clinics are confronting another emergency. They are short of 20,000 nurses. But that's highly unlikely to happen because thousands and thousands of nurses graduate every year. In 2010, more than 35,000 graduating nurses took part in an oath-taking ceremony. The numbers went down as the years pass by. So how come that the Philippines have so many graduating nurses but is facing a shortage at the same time?

In 1941, millions of Americans joined the armed forces after the United States entered World War 2. Thousands of nurses followed to treat the soldiers that are injured in the field leading to American hospitals to start emptying out of staff. So the US Government provided millions of dollars for a "lifetime education for free" to encourage American women to enlist in a proud profession. This is known as their program "US Cadet Nurse Corps". As a result, nearly 200,000 American women became nurses for the army and civilian hospitals. 


It was short-lived though. In 1945, the war came to an end. And there was less support for nurses as the government dried up the funding for American nurses. Many nurses quit their job and hospital vacancies for nurses are increasing. That meant, America needed to find nurses to fill the gaps caused by that. 

Instead of improving the salary and working conditions to encourage American nurses to return to their jobs, the US looked into other countries to encourage people to take jobs Americans wouldn't take. They turned to foreigners visiting the country as a solution. The US hospitals started to use exchange programs for Filipino nurses because as we all know, they have already Americanized the Filipino nursing training in the Philippines. Due to this, Filipino nurses started to dominate the program. 

More than 10,000 Filipino nurses came to the US to work for a decade after the war. It isn't the real reason why Filipino nurses left their home country at that time. After centuries of colonial control and World War 2, the Philippines' economy started to stabilize. The cities are emerging and tourism is booming. But in rural areas, the wages were still low for everyone. And that pushed everyone abroad in search of opportunities. 


When they came to the US, most of the hospitals just used them as inexpensive labor. They assigned them extensive work and yet they're being paid at the minimum. After their contracts ended, many Filipino nurses returned to the Philippines. But many nurses managed to stay in the US for longer and build normal lives there. That's when Filipino communities started to form. The exchange program wasn't the end of America's hold on Filipino nurses. It was just the beginning.

The big changes happened to America in the 1960s. There are a lot of historical events and the establishment of Medicare and Mediaid happened. There are movements for Civil Rights and Women's Empowerment. American women have more opportunities to enter other professions. These events led to an increase in demand for nurses in the US. In just three years, nurse vacancies have doubled in number. One in every four nursing jobs was vacant. To again fill the shortage of nurses, the US turned to the Philippines. 

Immigration policies changed drastically in 1965. It is known to be the Immigration and Nationality Act. People from all around the globe can apply for a visa to live and work in the US. On top of that, recruitment and travel agencies started to look at Filipino nurses and encourage them to come to the US for a better future in America. So Filipino nurses began filling the gaps in the US. 


But even Filipinos back then have experienced discrimination. The American Nurse Association added licensing requirements to limit their entry to US soil. The nurses who passed those requirements came to the US but experienced discrimination and they were put in underpaid lower positions. Still, it is the phase of migration that lasted until today as it transformed the US healthcare industry.

Fast forward to the term of Ferdinand Marcos who ruled the Philippines for 21 years. In 1972, he began to rule as a dictator under Martial law. He was behind more than 3,000 extrajudicial killings and thousands of tortures. As a result of that, the Philippines' economy started to go into recession forcing the unemployment rate to skyrocket. The Philippine government started exporting workers all around the world to compensate for the unemployment rate. This pushed to a global migration of workers and it made the Philippines the largest exporter of nurses in the world. Almost 20,000 nurses leave the Philippines every year. They go to wealthy countries like Saudi Arabia, the UK, Australia, and even Germany. Most of them ended up in the US. 

Both US and the Philippine government benefited from this. Over the years, Filipino nurses have organized in the US after years and years of discrimination. They have fought for better working conditions. 


Back to the present, the pandemic has taken a toll on Filipino healthcare workers. In April 2020, as the Coronavirus spread in the Philippines and the shortage of nurses across the hospitals became a huge problem, the government temporarily halted the export of workers abroad. While it remains a good idea, more and more Filipino nurses still choose to migrate. Filipino nurses continue to stay in other countries... providing care in foreign lands. Sacrificing being with their families in the search for a better life.

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