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Heroes of the Pandemic

In the new oral history project 'Bayani,' Filipino health-care workers process trauma and share experiences.

Michelle Gamage 18 Dec 2023The Tyee

Michelle Gamage is The Tyee’s health reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

A new oral history project is documenting the personal stories of hardship and sacrifice endured by Filipino health-care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic in British Columbia.

The project is called Bayani, the Filipino word for “hero,” and is led by the non-profit Filipino BC.

The pandemic was “overall a traumatic event and people are still processing,” said RJ Aquino, chairperson for Filipino BC. “Sharing stories is one way to process that trauma.”

Aquino said some health-care workers are eager to share their stories while others are hesitant, not wanting to relive their difficult experiences. Still, the project is picking up steam as more Filipino health-care workers hear about it and reach out to be included. Around 12 people’s experiences have been documented so far, he added.

Each participant is filmed, documentary-style, by Emir Bautista, who works as a filmmaker in Canada and as a nurse in the Philippines.

So far, Bautista said, interviews have centred around health-care workers’ struggles and the pain they experienced during the pandemic.

“People call them heroes but what I saw is they’re survivors, not heroes,” he said.

The public needs to understand the toll the pandemic took on health-care workers and understand that they have to do everything they can to prevent further COVID outbreaks, he said.

It’s time for the Canadian public to care for their health-care workers the same way health-care workers cared for them, he said. That means keeping up to date on your vaccinations, masking up when attending large gatherings or crowded indoor spaces and isolating when you’re sick.

“We don’t want survivors to have to fight for their lives again,” Bautista said. “We can’t afford to have another pandemic.”

Aquino said collecting first-hand accounts from health-care workers paints a fuller picture of how the Filipino community was affected during the pandemic and provides valuable race-based data.

Lailani Tumaneng, a registered nurse in B.C. who shared her testimony in Bayani, said she would like to see similar projects document the experiences of health-care workers from, for example, Indo-Canadian communities.

“Everyone has different stories, but we have the opportunity to talk and get everything on the table and learn from each other,” she told The Tyee. “Then we’ll be able to see the similarities across different scenarios and locations.”

This could help the country be less surprised by the next pandemic, she said.

Tumaneng has still not gotten sick with COVID-19, despite her and her husband, who is also an RN, working throughout the pandemic.

She said she was terrified of the virus but when it came to fight or flight, she chose to fight and continue caring for her patients.

“There was pressure and stress and the bills kept coming,” she said. “We had to go to work.”

“I was very scared. At one point I thought there was a good chance we might not make it,” Tumaneng told The Tyee.

Tumaneng has worked as a nurse since 1996 and always knew her job was about saving lives. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit Canada, and suddenly she realized her job could cost her her life.

During the first few months of 2020, the country — and world — was scrambling to figure out how the virus spread and what personal protective equipment was needed to keep frontline workers safe.

It was stressful to hear experts on the news say one kind of PPE should be used and then have her employer say a different kind should be used, she said.

She said a co-worker who had lived in China during previous coronavirus outbreaks was an incredible resource during that time, and they would petition their workplace to mask up and cover air vents to reduce transmission.

Once health-care workers started to die from COVID-19 in Canada, Tumaneng and her husband sat down to plan for the worst. They made funeral arrangements and other plans to care for their two daughters if either of them should pass away.

Tumaneng said she was very scared and “quietly panicking.” Their household isolated as best they could, quarantining in the family home as a precaution and making plans to isolate in a hotel if anyone got infected.

“There’s lots of stories out there but we still have lots of stories in here,” she said, touching her heart. “After every stressful situation you should have a debriefing, but health-care workers haven’t gotten a proper chance to debrief. Everyone wants to get back to normal but we need to pause and learn from this so we can do better next time.”

Aquino said he’s heard stories that were “harrowing,” where workers faced uncertainty, fear and anxiety about not knowing how to stay safe. People felt isolated, unsupported and unable to access PPE.

This was also happening during a spike in anti-Asian racism, where a Filipino health-care worker could be singled out or accused of not being Canadian, Aquino said. “This added to the overall burden they were carrying on top of their duties,” he added.

One of the most frightening messages Bautista heard while he was filming was health-care workers wondering out loud why they were working in the industry.

If we chase all health-care workers out of the industry, we have no one left to care for us, he said. This circles back to the importance of the public working to protect health-care workers, he said.

One way to reduce the stress caused by staffing shortages would be for B.C. to make it easier for foreign-trained health-care workers to get jobs in their field, he said.

Take workers from the Philippines — a country with a high number of trained nurses but lacking the money to offer them all good-paying jobs, he said. That’s why so many Filipino health-care workers come to Canada, a country that’s scrambling to address staffing shortages in its health-care industry.

Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick have programs that encourage Filipino health-care workers to settle there, but B.C. requires additional school time and exams, Bautista said.

“We have families so we need to work; we can’t afford to go back to school,” he said. “The workforce is here but there are policies preventing us from working.”

The Filipino community is growing in B.C. and, according to the 2021 census, is the third-largest immigrant group in the province, making them a “very visible minority,” Aquino joked.

“We’ve reached a turning point of how we need to tell the story of the Filipino community in Canada," and Bayani, and the role of Filipino health-care workers during the pandemic, "will be a critical part of it,” he said.

Tumaneng credited her faith and dedication to her job for getting her through the early days of the pandemic.

She said her family is doing all right now and she’s comfortable going to work because she doesn’t have to “fight” to wear PPE.

The workplace culture has shifted as well, she said. If anyone is feeling ill, they’re encouraged to go home. If a patient so much as snuffles, they’ll be tested for COVID, she said.

Aquino hopes that Bayani, which is still in production, will help highlight how overrepresented communities of colour are as frontline health-care workers.  [Tyee]

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