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Does loving your country mean staying?

By Angel Martinez Published Oct 22, 2021 5:00 am

Keeping a country afloat in the midst of a global health crisis is no easy feat. Yet, our doctors and nurses have powered through, thanks in no small part to their collective skill and strength in character. But despite their efforts, they remain publicly mistreated by the administration that relies on them most. 

For too long, our healthcare workers have been victims of institutional neglect, subjected to daily shift fatigue, only to earn a maximum of P20,000 per month.

And to make matters worse, we have officials like Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque constantly undermining their knowledge and throwing nasty temper tantrums at them for “never having anything good to say about the government’s response.” It’s no wonder a lot of them are forced to join the millions of OFWs who send back billions of dollars each year.

Well, given the fact that they are underpaid, unprotected, and unappreciated, can we really fault them?

When I was younger, I personally would have. I always felt a strange lump in the back of my throat as my Sibika teacher discussed the brain drain phenomenon, citing that 2.3 million Filipinos were scattered throughout different parts of the world.

I’d be strangely overcome with anger, post-election day, as I saw countless Filipinos proclaim their desire to leave upon witnessing such disappointing outcomes. “‘Wag natin sukuan ang Pilipinas!” I made it a habit to manually reply to the most random tweets I’d find. “Kailangan niya tayo ngayon!

Scores of Filipino workers go abroad each year in search of better work opportunities.

I know I’m not the only one: we were all conditioned to believe that nationalism meant prioritizing the interests of the state above our own: staying to fight the good fight at all costs, even if it equates to eventual destitution and a slow, painful death. That’s why the likes of Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifacio and Ninoy Aquino are considered heroes, after all.

This expectation has obviously intensified due to the pandemic, where we require everyone to pitch in to lift us all out of this catastrophe. And because health workers swore a sacred oath to protect human life upon assuming their position, they are held to higher standards and forced to live up to the “hero” image we’ve collectively imposed on them.

To choose to grapple with uncertainties over remaining in the Philippines shows that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way our citizens are treated.

Ironically, in August of 2020, Roque himself implored that HCWs refrain from seeking opportunities abroad, despite the fact that many of them remain unemployed.

Kidney doctor Dr. Carlo Trinidad shared: “We are seen as individuals who will do everything in their power to save every person, no matter the cost. We are expected to be selfless, untiring and altruistic, often to the detriment of our physical and mental well-being.” 

True enough, when he recently tweeted a call to younger people telling them that love for country alone can’t pay the bills or put food on the table, some were quick to misconstrue his intentions.

“There was this one guy who misinterpreted what I said and saw it as an encouragement to leave the Philippines,” he shared. “He conveyed a romantic but unrealistic and distorted portrayal of nationalism, where one should endure and stay here in order to serve the motherland.”

After years of sticking to my idealistic beliefs, I experienced a long-overdue paradigm shift once I got to know my high school classmates. Through heart-to-heart conversations and group sharing during retreats, I found out that most of my classmates had OFW parents who were funding their education. Their decision to leave was necessitated by a desire to provide their children with the best possible quality of life — something I failed to realize when my mom and dad lived with us under the same roof.

Many OFWs toil through jobs abroad to fund their children's education.

The false dichotomy I had been practicing was generally a harmful notion to perpetuate. While it undoubtedly came from a place of loyalty, this binds our notion of nationalism to arbitrary factors like geographical location. As if sending back remittances to bolster the economy, buying properties in the metro, or funding children’s education in the Philippines are not clear enough demonstrations that we love our country. 

In fact, this simplistic approach implies that staying is the ultimate manifestation of patriotism, when many who remain here commit extreme injustices against our motherland and her people.

Think of the numerous politicians plundering immense amounts of wealth while claiming to serve the populace, or power-hungry corporations that exploit and dehumanize their employees. Is it still safe then to assume that these are the morally superior?

Rather than pinning the blame on those who choose to leave, we must question why this country is deemed to be unlivable in the first place. Contrary to popular belief, life abroad is not a quick and easy fix.

“There’s the culture shock, climate change, the constant feeling of homesickness and fear of the unknown,” said Giezl, a Filipino nurse currently in Michigan. “I came to America with a few sets of clothes, two towels, a tube of toothpaste and some money saved to keep me afloat. At that point, it was pretty much swim or sink for me.” 

To choose to grapple with these uncertainties over remaining in the Philippines shows that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way our citizens are treated.

Maybe President Duterte should reallocate our police force’s budget to improve our HCWs’ working conditions, or implement more safeguards to ensure their health and financial stability. Or at the very least, he and his officials should learn to speak to our healthcare professionals from a place of respect and openness.

This is not to say that I am encouraging all you readers to live abroad or shaming those who can’t and won’t: we all have our specific contexts, our own set of needs.

At the end of the day, there are many who will decide to fight on the ground and mobilize their resources to take action on this nation’s pressing problems, which is great! Today’s youth is still characterized by an undying spirit of idealism, and I know we’re capable of inciting the next revolution. 

But some simply cannot afford to wait until that happens — not with mouths to feed, bills to pay, and dreams to achieve. Our labor force has grown tired of empty promises, of having to cope with the effects of one letdown after another. Instead of passing blame and judgment, what they need is for us to extend the heartfelt support only we can give as fellow Filipinos, regardless of where they end up in the world.