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Pandemic Claims The Lives Of Doctors In The Philippines At Startling Rates

An ambulance enters the main gates of the San Lazaro Hospital in Manila on Feb. 2. Doctors have been especially hard-hit by COVID-19 in the Philippines.
Maria Tan
AFP via Getty Images
An ambulance enters the main gates of the San Lazaro Hospital in Manila on Feb. 2. Doctors have been especially hard-hit by COVID-19 in the Philippines.

In the Philippines, doctors who have treated patients with COVID-19 are dying in alarming numbers. Fourteen physicians who died tested positive for the virus and four more are suspected of succumbing to it, according to the Philippine Medical Association.

As the pandemic sweeps through the Philippines, confirmed cases of COVID-19 are rising by the hundreds each day. On Friday, 385 new cases were reported, and 29 deaths, the highest for a single day. Total confirmed cases have crossed the 3,000 mark, with 136 total deaths.

But the toll on the country's physicians in particular is heightening fears that the magnitude of the outbreak may be much worse than is being officially reported.

Physicians comprise more than 1 in 10 of those who have been reported to have died of the coronavirus in the Philippines. Dr. Oscar Tinio, the spokesman and former president of the Philippine Medical Association, told NPR there are many reasons, but chiefly it is the same shortcoming that has afflicted countries around the world, including the U.S.: personal protective equipment.

"Most doctors got the disease because we lacked the necessary protective equipment to be used against it. And I think some doctors also felt invincible. ... But basically, I think we failed to protect ourselves — completely."

Tinio, 63, says his 100-bed St. Dominic Medical Center in Cavite outside Manila has only enough PPE to last another eight days. The government has provided only meager amounts of supplies. He says the full-body suits his staff must wear when treating coronavirus patients "are very expensive."

Shortages are forcing hospitals to assess whether they can afford to stay open. Two major hospitals less than 3 miles from Tinio's medical center have already closed because staff had to be quarantined and because they didn't have enough facilities and equipment to meet patient needs, he says. In Manila, premier private hospitals are already filled to capacity and turning people away.

Local media report that data from the University of the Philippines predict the virus will infect 660,000 to 1.4 million people in the country, with 80% of cases in Metro Manila.

Particularly distressing, says Tinio, is the way some patients have "lied to doctors about their travel history or whether they were exposed to the virus." He says they could well have transmitted the deadly virus to their attending physician.

The Philippine Medical Association is pushing a message on social media encouraging patients to be truthful: "If you lie, I die."

Tinio says he's feeling a mix of emotions, "because I'm in the middle of the battle."

"Sadness, grief and anger. Those are the three things I have in my in my chest. ... Why weren't we prepared?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.