The Filipino Diaspora and Care in the Time of COVID by Justine Abigail Yu


Art by Jovie Galit | Translation: "Value the rights of migrant Filipinos."

For all of my life, whenever I would tell people that I’m Filipina, I would get a standard response that I could predict almost each and every single time. It would range from any one of these responses: “Oh, are you a nurse?” or “Oh, my children’s nannies were Filipinas!” or “Oh, my father’s caregiver is a Filipina!” Or some other variation of the like. 

Many of these were responses of delight and recognition, feelings of connection. These people felt a connection to my people because of the care and comfort a Filipina had provided to them personally or to a loved one at some crucial, formative moment in their lives. 

My mother always held this as a point of pride. She would often say, “I’m proud that people trust us with their most loved ones. That in their most vulnerable moments – either as children, as elderly, or in illness – people see Filipinos as the ones who can give the best care.” 

But I think that’s too optimistic.

You see, I always vehemently resented these responses. It’s not that I don’t respect or see the vital importance of this line of work, it’s not that at all. It’s that my younger self resented how it boxed me into this one narrow idea, how it simplified the Filipino experience, how it reduced my identity to a flat, one-dimensional stereotype. 

As I’ve grown older and wiser to the ways of the world, I’ve grown to resent these responses for their much deeper, more insidious implications. I’ve grown to resent the systemic inequities that have forced so many Filipina women to leave our homeland in order to serve and give care to foreign families while having to leave their very own children behind – all while working tirelessly and often for less pay, and while having to navigate complex, expensive, and exploitative immigration systems. Not necessarily out of the goodness of our hearts or passion or even true choice, but out of economic necessity, survival, and the promise of better opportunities. 

And so I guess what I really resented was what I always knew was lurking underneath these responses. When we rip away that momentary glimmer of connection, that response to my ethnicity is the quiet (often unknowing and unintentional) implication that I am lesser than, that my people and my community are lesser than. 

In the midst of this pandemic, I am forced to reckon even more deeply with these hard realities as I hear the stories of so many Filipinos – my kababayan, my own pamilya, and my mga kaibigan – who are risking their lives at the very front lines of this crisis to give care. 

An “Empire of Care”

Filipinos are known around the world for their work in caregiving. All around the globe, we can be found working in hospitals as nurses, as nannies to children of wealthy families, as caregivers in senior’s homes, as in-home and personal support workers to the sick. 

According to Ethel Tungohan, Canada Research Chair in Canadian Migration Policy, Impacts and Activism, and Assistant Professor of Politics and Social Science at York University:

“34.4% of internationally-trained nurses are from the Philippines. With a study from 2008 showing that although Filipinos constitute 1.2% of the Canadian workforce, they constitute 5.6% of Canada’s total health care aide labour force. While there has yet to be a study updating these figures, it is reasonable to assume, given how the Philippines has become Canada’s third largest ‘source’ country for immigrants (after India and China), that the proportion of Filipino workers in Canada and thus, the proportion of these workers who are part of the healthcare industry, has grown bigger.”

And that’s just in Canada alone. 

In the United States, 16% of all nurses are immigrants with 30% identifying as Filipino – making up the largest group of internationally educated nurses in the country. In the United Kingdom, there are over 18,000 Filipinos working at the National Health Service, making up the second largest group of internationally educated nurses in the country – and second only to India with which the UK has a long history of colonization. And even then, that is only just nursing. Those numbers don’t capture the many other areas of care that Filipinos occupy. 

The Philippines is a job-scarce environment and, even for those working in the health care sector, low pay and poor working conditions means that many Filipinos seek employment overseas where there are far higher wages and better opportunities. Fortuitously, many wealthier countries have also faced a shortage of nurses and have seen the cost-effectiveness of hiring Filipinos over training their own nurses. And so what has developed is what historian Catherine Ceniza Choy calls the Philippines’ “Empire of Care”, a dependent relationship between a job-scarce country and those of more affluent developed countries that acts as an economic growth strategy. 


Screenshot from Vox Media: Why the US has so many Filipino Nurses

Care as a Commodity

But again, our “Empire of Care” extends beyond nursing. Here in Canada, a large majority of Filipinos work as caregivers. You have undoubtedly seen one of us at the park watching over children of wealthy and yes, typically white families. Or maybe you’ve seen us on a walk pushing a senior in their wheelchair. You’ve very likely seen us taking care of the sick and elderly in a home or some other healthcare facility.  

A large majority of Filipinos who have come to Canada (typically women who are wives and mothers) have crossed the largest ocean through the Live-In Caregiver Program all for the opportunity to bring their families here someday for permanent residency. 

I would be remiss not to mention that this opportunity for Filipina caregivers to apply for permanent residency in the first place is all thanks to the work of Carribean caregivers who came before and laid this groundwork. After World War II, the Canadian government enacted a strategy that aggressively recruited women from Barbados and Jamaicans to fill this gap in the care industry. Unlike their British counterparts, however, they were not given rights to permanent residency and were considered only as temporary workers or “reserve labour”. 

Protests led by Black community members, migrant care workers, and activists spread across the country that resulted in the Foreign Domestic Movement program (later renamed the Live-In Caregiver Program) affording caregivers the opportunity to apply for permanent residence if certain conditions were met.

But despite this progress, the Live-In Caregiver Program is a Kafka-esque system that our government has implemented with ever-changing policies, effectively separating Filipina mothers from their children for years on end. The government of Canada has kept Filipino families apart through the guise of bureaucratic delays and legal roadblocks. In fact, as of the beginning of 2018, there was a backlog of more than 30,000 Caregiver Visa holders awaiting a decision on permanent residence. 

It seems we are good enough to work and give care during the most intimate and vulnerable times of many Canadians’ lives, but not deemed good enough to stay. 

The COVID-19 Reality

Filipinos are and will continue to be disproportionately affected by this pandemic. We are at the frontline of this crisis as nurses, as personal support and healthcare workers, as caregivers, and other professions now deemed “essential”. 

Don Ryan Batayola, an occupational therapist; Susan Sisgundo, a neonatal ICU nurse; Alfredo Pabatao, a hospital orderly; Daisy Doronila, a correctional facility nurseWarlito Valdez, a residential support worker; Victoria Salvan, a patient attendant.

These are just a handful of names of Filipinos in North America whose lives have already been lost while providing care and comfort to those facing COVID-19. Who knows how long this list will be once all this is said and done? 

an illustration of women holding a banner that says caregivers are skilled workers

Photo and illustration by Kwentong Bayan Collective

Suddenly, Filipinos and so many others working in healthcare and other frontlines have become heroes to be revered and applauded. Suddenly, we see the life-giving, life-saving importance of these professions in ways that were overlooked, diminished, and exploited for so long. Suddenly we are seeing the increase in pay that so many in the healthcare industry have been demanding for so long. Perhaps soon we will also see kinder and more generous immigration policies too.

I am grappling with the grave dissonance between the treatment of these people, many of whom are my own people, before this pandemic and now as we lay in its terrible wake. I am grappling with the inequities that have always existed but now suddenly lay bare in all its ugliness and injustice. I am grappling with the weight of what will come next – if (and that’s a big if) and how our society will change its systems when we see the other side of this pandemic. 

Connecting the Diaspora and Homeland

As I work from home these days in the comforts of my Toronto home, I dwell heavily and frequently on the privileges I have been afforded. I continue now, more than ever, to interrogate my position as a Filipina-Canadian who straddles not just these two cultures, but these two countries — these two physical places — as I see fit, and how I reckon with this conflicting and often uncomfortable duality. 

In these desperate times, as I hope to do in all times, I am thinking about how I can support and amplify the voices of my people not just in the diaspora, but in the homeland too. How do I use this hyphenated identity of mine to act as a bridge in this time of crisis and beyond? It’s small compared to the sacrifices of so many on the frontlines right now, but I hope writing this is one way. I don’t have all the answers and I may never reconcile the disparities between my own reality and so many others who must face illness and death head on every day, but let this be a start.

Support Filipino Healthworkers and Caregivers 

What can you do to support Filipino healthcare workers during this time? Consider donating or getting involved with these organizations working to bridge the diaspora and our homeland:

About the Author:

Justine Abigail Yu is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Living Hyphen, an intimate journal that explores the experiences of hyphenated Canadians and examines what it means to be part of a diaspora. She and the publication have been featured on national and local media outlets including CTV National News, CBC Metro Morning, CBC Ontario Morning, and CityTV’s Breakfast Television.

Justine Abigail is a fierce advocate for diversity and representation in Canada’s arts and literature scene. Her mission is to stir the conscience and spur social change.

Social Links:
@justineabigail / @livinghyphen

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