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Coronavirus: Singapore shifts primary schools to online learning; fatigued Philippine nurses battle resignations

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 18/9/2021 Agencies
a man standing next to a bicycle: The pandemic has exacerbated a pre-existing lack of nurses in the Philippines. Photo: AFP © AFP The pandemic has exacerbated a pre-existing lack of nurses in the Philippines. Photo: AFP

Singapore's primary schools will shift to home-based learning for 10 days ahead of a key national examination, the education ministry said on Saturday, as the city state reported 935 new Covid-19 cases the previous day, the highest since April last year.

Primary 1 to 5 students will move to home-based learning from September 27 to October 6.

Primary 6 students will go on a study break for a few days from September 25 before sitting for the national examination to minimise risk of school-based transmissions and reduce the number of students placed in quarantine.

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"With the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination) written paper examinations approaching, we will undertake further measures to protect students who are not yet medically eligible for vaccination and give parents and students greater peace of mind," said Education Minister Chan Chun Sing.

A recent rise in cases after the relaxation of some Covid-19 measures has prompted Singapore to pause on further reopening. More than 80 per cent of its population has been vaccinated against Covid-19.

Singapore is looking at vaccinating children under 12 years in early 2022.

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Fatigue hits Philippine nurses

Exhausted nurses in the Philippines are struggling to care for patients as colleagues contract Covid-19 or quit a profession that was dangerously understaffed even before the pandemic.

The country is enduring a record rise in infections, fuelled by the Delta variant, with the health department reporting a nursing shortfall of more than 100,000 - forcing those left to work long hours for little pay on often precarious short-term contracts.

"They are tired and burned out," nursing director Lourdes Banaga, at a private hospital south of Manila, said.

"At the start of the pandemic we had almost 200 nurses," said Banaga, director for nursing services at the Lipa Medix Medical Center in Batangas province.

"By September that will reduce to 63."

Official figures show 75,000 nurses are working in public and private Philippine hospitals but roughly 109,000 more are needed.

The pandemic has exacerbated a pre-existing lack of nurses, said Maristela Abenojar, president of Filipino Nurses United - a situation she describes as "ironic" in one of the world's biggest exporters of health care workers.

The "chronic understaffing" is down to inadequate salaries, she said.

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An entry-level nurse in a public hospital can earn 33,575 pesos (US$670) per month, official data show.

But Abenojar said most were on short-term contracts, earning 22,000 pesos with no benefits such as danger money. Meanwhile, those in the private sector were making as little as 8,000 pesos.

And many have had enough: About 40 per cent of private hospital nurses have resigned since the start of the pandemic, according to the Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines.

More than 5,000 nurses have been given the green light to go abroad this year after a Covid-19 ban was replaced with a cap to ensure enough nurses were available in the Philippines.

It hasn't worked.

"We can't get additional nurses, we can't compel them to apply," said Jose Rene de Grano of the private hospitals association.

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In recent weeks, health workers have protested over unpaid benefits, including a coronavirus special risk allowance. Abenojar said many were still waiting.

President Rodrigo Duterte has asked for patience while the government tries to come up with the money.

"We don't feel cared for," said Melbert Reyes of the Philippine Nurses Association.

Many hospitals boosted their bed capacity after a virus surge earlier this year threatened to overwhelm them.

Official data show coronavirus ward and ICU bed occupancy rates at more than 70 per cent nationwide as daily cases often exceed 20,000, fuelled by the hyper-contagious Delta variant.

A public hospital in Binan city, near Manila, turned a car park into a ward.

"Many of our nurses are sick and in quarantine," medical director Melbril Alonte said.

"We feel exhausted ... but we always keep in mind that we have to help our people because ... no one else will."

But due to the nursing shortfall, some facilities - like the Lipa Medix Medical Centre - have had to slash their bed capacity, and extend their nurses' shifts.

Nurse Trixia Bautista said she works up to 15 hours per shift looking after mostly severe Covid-19 patients at a public referral hospital in the capital.

At times, she has cared for as many as 30 patients on her own after nurses on her ward quit or got sick.

"Physically it's very tiring," she said. "There's not enough people to cater to all these patients."

a group of people jumping in the air: Anti-lockdown protesters clash with police in Melbourne on Saturday. Photo: EPA-EFE © Provided by South China Morning Post Anti-lockdown protesters clash with police in Melbourne on Saturday. Photo: EPA-EFE

Australia posts 1,882 cases as protesters return

Australia recorded 1,882 new coronavirus cases on Saturday, as thousands of police officers in Sydney and Melbourne were deployed to quell planned anti-lockdown protests, setting up checkpoints and barricades.

Several hundred people managed to gather in downtown Melbourne and local media reported some early arrests and clashes with the police, as 2,000 officers made the area virtually a no-go zone. Public transport and ride shares into the city were suspended.

In Sydney, riot squad officers, highway patrol, detectives and general duties police were also deployed to the streets.

Australia has been grappling with an outbreak of the Delta variant of the coronavirus since mid-June, with both Sydney and Melbourne, and the capital Canberra, in strict lockdowns for weeks now.

New South Wales reported 1,331 Covid-19 cases, mostly in state capital Sydney, and six deaths, while Victoria had 535 new infections, again mostly in state capital Melbourne, along with one death.

Most of the restrictions in Victoria, New South Wales and Canberra are to remain until at least 70 per cent of those 16 and older are fully vaccinated, which based on the current pace of inoculations could be in late October or early November.

A high rate of compliance with public health orders has helped Australia keep the number of infections relatively low, with just under 85,000 total cases and 1,145 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

The vast majority of Australians support vaccinations and the public health measures, but there have been sporadic and sometimes violent protests against the management of the pandemic.

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Vietnam approves Cuba's Abdala vaccine

Vietnam has approved Cuba's Abdala vaccine for use against the new coronavirus, the government said on Saturday, as the Southeast Asian country is battling its worst outbreak.

Abdala becomes the eighth Covid-19 vaccine approved for use in Vietnam, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the region, with only 6.3 per cent of its 98 million people having received at least two shots.

The announcement came hours after President Nguyen Xuan Phuc left Hanoi for an official visit to Havana.

Vietnam has recorded 667,650 coronavirus infections and 16,637 deaths, the vast majority in the Delta-driven outbreak from late April.

"The ministry of health has approved Abdala vaccine, based on the country's urgent need for its Covid-19 fight," the government said in a statement.

The ministry last month said Cuba would supply large quantities of Abdala to Vietnam and transfer the production technology by the end of the year.

Reporting by Reuters, Agence France-Presse

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