Coronavirus: Filipino front-line workers pay ultimate price in UK

Leilani Medel was 23 when she left her hometown near the northern city of Santiago in the Philippines for the United Kingdom.

The only girl of three siblings, she was the first in her family of farmers to receive higher education. She enrolled in nursing school, knowing it would open up opportunities to work abroad.

The Philippines is the world’s largest supplier of nurses, producing more graduates every year than it is able to employ.

Its government actively encourages migration and its economy benefits from high remittances.

Approximately 18,500 Filipino nationals work in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), the third-largest group after Britons and Indians.

Among migrant communities in the NHS – about 18 percent out of 1.2 to 1.5 million staff, coronavirus is taking a heavy toll on the Filipino community.

Out of more than 100 healthcare workers who have died after contracting the virus in the UK, at least 25 have been from the Philippines, according to Kanlungan, an umbrella organisation for Filipino community support groups across the country. That includes health and social care workers, and hospital staff.

When Leilani began showing COVID-19 symptoms in late March, she kept it from her family.

“She didn’t want us to worry,” said her younger brother Noel Osoteo, speaking to Al Jazeera by phone from the Philippines. “Especially my father. She was my father’s girl, his favourite.”

Marissa Medenilla, Leilani’s aunt, spoke to her on March 26. By then, Leilani, her husband and their 14-year-old daughter Angeline had all fallen ill.

“She told me her breathing was painful. I said I know because I experienced that as well,” said Marissa, a care worker in Bristol.

A few days later, on April 1, Leilani was admitted to intensive care.

She died on April 11.

Angeline was assigned to a foster family while her father, who was recently extubated, recovers.

Concerns over protective gear

Leilani was one when her aunt Marissa moved to the UK to work in care.

They met again as adults when Leilani migrated in 2002.

After a year, Leilani returned to the Philippines for her wedding, but came back to the UK without her husband to work in a care home.

It took the couple at least two years before they could live together in the UK, where they settled in Bridgend, Wales.

“She would send an allowance to the family every month,” said Noel, her younger brother. “I don’t think her husband knew.”

Leilani would visit Marissa in Bristol whenever she had a couple of days off. Even that, at times, was difficult.

“We are workaholics,” said Marissa. “She always worked, nights most of the time, so that she could look after her [daughter] during the day.”

Marissa believes that working hard and a lack of protective equipment could be why Filipino nurses appear particularly vulnerable.

“I ordered some masks for myself, so I [would] always bring mine,” said Marissa, an agency care worker. “At the beginning, we weren’t allowed to wear masks. [Management] said it would frighten the people we look after.”

The standard personal protective equipment (PPE) for care workers is now a surgical mask and plastic gown, but amid a global shortage, care homes tend to be left behind.

Marissa fell ill in late February and recovered.

A study published in late April by the Health and Social Care journal confirmed concerns raised in recent weeks that ethnic minorities working for the NHS are disproportionately affected.

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