At least 71 frontline health and care workers of Filipino heritage have died in the UK of coronavirus since the pandemic began, according to organisations supporting Filipino communities who have been compiling their own figures based on social media.
HuffPost UK has heard how workers fear turning down overtime could jeopardise their jobs, and many need the extra money to send to families in the Philippines who are relying on them.
“The real figure of how many Filipino health and care workers have died in the UK will undoubtedly be higher,” says Susan Cueva, a trustee at Kanlungan. The charity brings together a group of organisations working for the welfare and interests of Filipino and other British migrant communities.
“Our organisation has the capacity to record and monitor deaths through social media or through people who know our organisation – but some deaths won’t be on social media.
“One of the issues is that Filipinos are not recognised as a separate ethnicity. On the ethnicity list, they just come under ‘Asian other’. So the recording and reporting of deaths is not very good and will not be an accurate reflection.”
Cueva told HuffPost UK that Filipinos are at greater vulnerability as many of them are disadvantaged even before they come to Britain – where they often end up plugging gaps in the health service.
“It is down to structural and institutional discrimination,” she said. “The immigration system was already putting them at a disadvantage even before Covid happened and then the socio-economic conditions of migrants made things worse.”
Cueva explained that the cost of migration is relatively very expensive for Filipinos and that it is becoming increasingly difficult due to “hostile migration policies” such as a restricted visa and the points-based system.
Despite some nurses having done five-year Bachelor’s degrees in the Philippines, their qualifications are not recognised here and they have to undergo training and pass additional tests during their first months in the UK.
“It is as if the UK looks down on migrant workers because they have not been educated in this country,” Cueva said.
Saddled with crippling migration costs, Filipino nurses and health workers often live in overcrowded accommodation. With nurses’ pay only being around £25,000, they cannot afford their own homes and don’t have the option of living with family like some UK nurses starting out.
Add to this the fact that many are sending money back home to support their families, Cueva says it is little wonder Filipinos are more susceptible to becoming ill and dying of coronavirus, particularly as a high proportion of Filipino migrants work in health and social care.
“There are whole Filipino families working in the health sector – not just first generation individuals,” said Cueva. “Husbands, wives and their children are often working in hospitals or in care. That’s why our community is so badly hit.”
Oliver Adrada, 45, a domestic worker at Broomfield Hospital in Essex, died on February 3 after becoming ill with Covid-19 and spending more than a week in intensive care.
He and his wife Lorena, who works at the same hospital as a healthcare assistant, came to the UK from the Philippines over a decade ago and Oliver worked on the frontline throughout the pandemic.
Described as “the small Filipino man who is always smiling”, his death shocked hospital colleagues and friends from the local Filipino community.
Friends from work set up a fundraiser to support Oliver’s wife and two young sons and it exceeded its £20,000 goal with donations.
Lorena said: “My husband has gone too soon. I keep trying to convince myself that he just went somewhere only to realise that he’s never coming back.
“He touched a lot of hearts with his smile and his simple gesture of taking time to say hello to people he met.
“I thank God for giving him to me, for the days I spent with him were the happiest days of our lives.”
She said of the tributes: “The future is uncertain and the pain has been unbearable, but I find comfort with all the words you kindly shared with all of us. Thank you for all your generosity and I will forever treasure your kindness.”
Healthcare assistant Ryan Calonge, a friend of Oliver and Lorena’s, told HuffPost UK how he ended up caring for Oliver at the hospital where they both worked.
“Oliver and his wife Lorena are both really nice and caring people so I felt very emotional when he died,” he said. “When Oliver became ill with Covid, he was my patient when he was admitted to hospital and I looked after him and reassured him.
“He was young and didn’t have any other underlying issues. He had been doing well and I thought he would be going home soon.
“I was shocked when I heard he had died soon after going to ICU. All of a sudden, his organs shut down.”
Calonge, 34, who came to Britain from the Philippines 12 years ago and lives in hospital accommodation at Broomfield, admitted he is terrified after seeing the way coronavirus has hit Filipino health workers such as Oliver.
“Filipinos always have a strong bond and we are all friends,” he said. “Seeing Filipino people become ill and die of coronavirus is frightening.
“I worry for myself and haven’t been able to sleep at night as I feel anxious. I’m terrified I might be the next to die.
“Oliver had not had the vaccine as he was too young. He was just such a lovely guy and was always smiling and gentle. The hardest thing for me was caring for him in hospital before he died. The personal and professional side of things has been too much for me.”
I worry for myself and haven’t been able to sleep at night as I feel anxious. I’m terrified I might be the next to die.Ryan Calonge
Broomfield Hospital nurse Maria Marco, 34, set up the GoFundMe page in memory of Oliver.
“I saw Oliver every day in the corridor at work and would call him ‘Kuya’ which means ‘older brother’ and is a mark of respect,” she said.
“It was so sad and scary when he died after getting coronavirus as it shows it can happen to anyone.”
She added: “The first wave was scary, but I did not know a lot of people who passed away, although I knew people who were getting sick with the virus.
“But since the second wave, people I actually knew were getting sick and ending up in ICU and people I knew were dying of Covid.”
She says it is inevitable Filipino groups will be among the hardest hit.
“A lot of Filipino people work in the NHS and in healthcare,” she said. “We don’t mind working lots of hours as we are thinking about our families back home. Many Filipinos work lots of hours to earn money to send to their families.
“Everything is frightening as you don’t know when you will see your family again. But I don’t tell my mum back home what is happening with coronavirus here and about people dying as I don’t want to scare or worry my family.”
We don’t mind working lots of hours as we are thinking about our families back home."Maria Marco
Luisa Real came to the UK with her family for a better life and worked as an NHS nurse for 20 years. She loved cooking and set up her own dessert business about a year ago.
Luisa worked nursing shifts during the pandemic but had to stop as she began suffering from symptoms including stiff muscles and problems with her speech.
She was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in October and died in January this year, aged 63, soon after testing positive for coronavirus.
Her son Joseph Bio, 29, told HuffPost UK he, his mum, his step-dad, his brother and his brother’s family all lived together in the same house.
“My brother is a frontline worker as he is a policeman,” he said. “In November, he tested positive for Covid and my sister-in-law was also positive.
“We tried to isolate from each other, but it is hard when you are all in the same house.”
Lisa developed pneumonia and was hospitalised with coronavirus on January 6 – but sent home on January 8, where she died the next day.
“The hospital just called us and said they did not have enough beds and were running out of oxygen,” said Joseph. “The next day, she passed away.
“We complained to the hospital about why they sent her home, but they kept saying it would have been the same result if she had stayed in hospital and that she would have died there as the MND was progressing fast.”
Joseph feels his mother was let down in her time of need after giving much of her life to the NHS.
“Most Filipinos are too kind and would not say no if they got asked to work an extra shift,” he said. “Most are too nice and wouldn’t say no even if they were being taken advantage of.”
Susan Cuevo of Kanlungan believes trying to pay off the debts they have incurred as well as trying to support families back home is a huge factor in Filipinos working as much as possible.
“Studying nursing in the Philippines costs a lot of money,” she said. “Family members often have to put money together to send their child to nursing school.
“The expectation is that because you have been so supported to get your education, you must pay off the debts and support the family income because they will have made many sacrifices to pay for the nursing.”
Cueva added that, for the first few years of their lives in the UK, Filipino nurses are restricted by immigration rules and face the fear of losing their job. As a result, many work as much as they can and avoid any kind of trouble or disagreement with their bosses.
“Migrant workers are looked down on because they weren’t educated in the UK,” she said.
“These immigration barriers need to be removed and these nurses need to have their qualifications recognised and be put on the same pay as other nurses immediately without putting them through a testing system with extortionate charges.
“The system is very discriminatory towards migrant nurses who are already under a lot of pressure and it is very devastating that so many Filipino health and care workers have lost their lives.”
A government spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “Every death is a tragedy and our sympathies go out to everyone who has lost a loved one during this incredibly difficult year.
“We are hugely grateful to all of our health and social care workers working tirelessly on the frontline of the pandemic, including the 30,000 Filipinos in our NHS, and we continue to deliver huge volumes of PPE to protect all frontline staff.
“At the same time, all health and social care staff have now been offered the vaccine as a priority because we know vaccines are the best way to protect people from coronavirus and will save thousands of lives.”