Sunday, March 28, 2010

Postscript of an absent faith (in between Earth Hour)

My pace was destructed.

My faith altered.

And they arrived bearing the white envelope; a uniformed Roman Catholic lay faithful assisted by two faithful uniform less vocals or are they the assistants? Whatever.

Short prayer and a song. Holy water sprinkled and the dogs bark at their best. I moved out, leaving the family in prayers and me sprinkling outside.

I am faithful to my faith.

But I prefer to wash my hands with alcohol after taking a pee and water the plants. Today is actually Vendetta sa Lukay diay, I was reminded of their presence in our home.

Earth hour?

It seems we are enjoying the one-hour Earth Hour?

Yesterday, around 7:30 in the evening, I was about to finish my 1000 meters freestyle or roughly ten laps of the 50 meters Olympic size swimming pool at the Cebu City Sports Complex when the Earth Hour participants eagerly awaited to switch off their electricity.

Meant to raise awareness on energy conservation, according to Wikipedia, Earth Hour is a global event organized by WWF, also known as World Wildlife Fund and is held on the last Saturday of March annually, asking households and businesses to turn off their non-essential lights and other electrical appliances for one hour to raise awareness towards the need to take action on climate change.

Earth Hour was conceived by WWF and The Sydney Morning Herald in 2007, when 2.2 million residents of Sydney participated by turning off all non-essential lights.

With the success of the Sydney’s lead, many other cities around the world, including the Philippines adopted the event in 2008. Earth Hour 2010 took place on March 27, 2010 from 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 pm, at the participant's respective local time.

Such activity is incredibly innovative, every year since 2007, participating countries offered an hour of their precious time for mother earth. But then, switching off is not enough. We should be reminded that the electricity that we are using, mostly coming from the destructive effects of coal-fired power plants, major cause of ozone layer depletion.

In Cebu alone, we have three.

While the Philippines have a lot of indigenous, clean and green energy resources, it remains untapped due to pressures and politics from multinational corporations (MNCs). We remain reliant on carbon dioxide (CO2) emitting coal fueled power plants as a source of electricity.

However cheap the electricity generated by this carbon dioxide emitted power plants, it makes our life cheap and the earth hour cheaper if awareness alone on raising energy conservation is the goal. Condemnation for the use of destructive power plants, like coal, and advocating for the use of earth friendly renewable and indigenous energy sources, like hydro, solar, wind, should be in the agenda.

Geothermal and natural gas are heavily taxed by the government while coal-fired power plants like Kepco-SPC (Salcon Power Corporation) coal fired plants in the City of Naga, Cebu are being encourage by the energy department and the province of Cebu.

Unfortunately it reflects our governments policy on the use of renewable and energy sources, despite the abundance of natural gas and geothermal the Philippines remains committed to contribute to the ozone layer depletion.

In Naga alone, where I used to serve as consultant to both the rank-and-file and supervisory employees union, most of them are electrical engineers at the prime of their life, are not comfortable with coal fired power plants, experiencing first hand its destructive effects in the nearby communities and themselves.

In time of massive panic due to the erratic weather disturbance, energy conservation is laudable and necessary. Switching off our electricity usage for an hour coupled with our green and clean energy advocacy should be in placed. And in our everyday life, for example, we should limit our energy usage.

In the meantime, let us enjoy the Earth Hour, while transnational and multi-national companies around the world are signing agreements after agreements with host countries for the energy development using coal-fired power plants just so we can switch off the electricity that we are using – for an hour!

So that by the last Saturday of March 2011, we can switch off our electricity usage again and enjoy the privilege of being ‘in’ even just for an hour.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Epidemiological shift

“In some groups, such as young gay men, infection rates have recently risen again, perhaps because the highly successful treatment options with lifelong antiretroviral (ARV) therapy have turned AIDS into an apparently less dreadful and more manageable disease. AIDS has lost some of its horror for many people. But believe me: It’s not something you’d want.” Kevin de Cock, the WHO's chief strategist in the fight against AIDS

Alarmed, Sec. Esperanza Cabral of the Department of Health (DOH) confronted head-on the selective morality espoused by the Roman Catholic Church in the Philippines when she and the entire DOH machinery distributed condoms and flowers on St. Valentine’s Day to passers-by.

While local politicians are afraid to confront the Church, Sec. Cabral’s actions is like punching the misplaced righteousness of the local leaders of the Catholic faith using Pacquiao’s left hook. Running amok, Church officials in particular the bishops then turned their ire to the courageous Dr. Cabral and vow to punish her.

Though relatively small compared to other Asia-Pacific countries, incidence of HIV-positive reported cases in our country, experts warned, is just a tip of the iceberg. Which lead major actors in the male sexual health to spearhead a conference on HIV.

June of last year, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) together with TLF Share Collective Inc., Health Action Information Network (HAIN), Philippine National AIDS Council (PNAC) and Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health (APCOM) attended by various community-based and non government organizations all over the country, sponsored a national conference aimed at confronting the rising, albeit at an alarming rate, the HIV/AIDS cases in the Philippines.

The First National Conference on Men Who Have Sex with Men and Transgender and HIV (MSM/TG), the first of its kind in the Philippines, is meant to address the shift by gathering data from the ground in order to come up with an all round analysis and intervention of the alarming epidemiological shift.

Last December, the DOH through the National Epidemiological Center (NEC) and the United Nations AIDS (UNAIDS), a multi-UN agency tasked to confront the epidemic launched the 2009 Integrated HIV Behavioral and Serologic Surveillance (IHBSS) through the National Dissemination Forum (NDF)

With utmost clarity, the NDF established the fact that while global infections has dropped to 17 percent, but the number of new infections in the Philippines has increased by 334 percent. HIV/AIDS epidemic in our country spread like wild fire in most at risk populations (MARP).

In an e-mail I received from the DOH NEC last January, unfortunately I just opened it the other day in time for the writing of this piece, the sad news is this January alone, there were already 143 new HIV Ab sero positive individuals confirmed by the STD/AIDS Cooperative Central Laboratory and reported to the HIV and AIDS Registry. According to the well prepared presentation by the DOH NEC, this was a 120% increase compared to the same period last year.

Of the 143 individuals reported, 58 were detected from voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) as part of ongoing community outreach activities.

Most of the cases (87%) were males. The median age was 28 years (age range: 16-61 years). The 20-24 year (26%) and 25-29 year (24%) age-groups had the most cases. Forty percent (57) of reported cases were from the National Capital Region (NCR).

The document added, of the 143 HIV positive cases, two were reported as AIDS. Both were single males who acquired the infection through homosexual contact. There were no reported deaths on the other hand.

The message was clear: there is a shift of HIV-positive cases in the Philippines.

From commercial sex workers (CSW) during the early 80s, to the overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in the 90s, HIV infection shifted from heterosexual to MSM transmission in our country. In fact, in May 2009 alone, a whopping 88 percent increase transmitted through sexual contacts between males having sex with male (MSMs).

The NDF titled “This Is It” which was passionately delivered by NEC Head Dr. Eric Tayag warned us that anyone can get infected with HIV, even unborn babies. And added, but some groups are more at risk than others because of HIV associated behaviors but are not limited to unprotected vaginal and anal sex, multiple sex partners and re-use of needles and syringes while injecting drugs. Lack of information and inadequate prevention programmes and services among most-at-risk groups compound risks.

Confronting the shift is actually a challenge not just to the affected sector but to the entire community as well, including its staunch opponents, like the church. After all, the victims are actually God’s people, and they are the flock the good Lord is referring to be saved from the dreaded epidemic.

Given the misplaced priorities of the current regime, the issue on health and safety of our population remains at risk. Add to that is the arrest of 43 health workers who volunteered time, talent and resources just so the government’s inefficiency on matters related to the implementation of basic social services, such as health, are narrowed.

In fact the DOH own admission, health per capita allocation is only P252.49 for every Filipino each year. This means only P0.70 is allocated for every Filipino per day, an amount less than what government allocated for every bullet a standard M16 assault riffle used by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, according to the Health Alliance for Democracy (HEAD).

The national budget for 2010 is P1.541 trillion and the budget allocation for health is P33.678 billion or 2.2 percent of the national budget. The Department of National Defense (DND) is assured with at least P73.6 billion, more than twice the DOH budget.

Given the current circumstances, it is Sec. Cabral and other pro-choice Catholics (and non-Catholics) who are heeding the Gospel just so the challenge to confront the HIV/AIDS epidemic as well as homophobia as a major uphill battle in the fight to stop the spread of the disease.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Doctor and patient, barefoot

The continued unjust and immoral detention of the 43 health workers now languishing in the hands of the military for more than a month now salvaged the thankless job of community health workers. It reminds us that those who care for and extend services in a voluntary capacity to the victims of injustice are threatened and will experience the brute force of the Arroyo government like what happened to the 43.

For where in the world can you find health workers arrested, detained and tortured en-masse? And where in the world can you find those responsible for the gruesome act awarded with military medals?

It is simply incomprehensible to think of arresting a single health worker whose training and mission in life is to help the sick and aid the dying. The Arroyo regime arrested 43!

In our country where majority of the peasantry haven’t meet a doctor or any medical practitioner, the role of community health workers or barefoot doctors provides a sigh of relief. They are not just called barefoot doctors for lack of training in ‘formal’ medical school. Literally, they are. And those with formal training usually end up barefoot, literally, in the communities they served.

They represent various communities and sectors without medical practitioners to assist them. In fact, they are a symbol of how our country ignored the health and safety condition of our people and their arrest threatened the already comatose condition of the country’s state of health which needs some sort of resuscitation.

And who will resuscitate?

Aside from the social impact the arrests of the 43 caused me, I am deeply disturbed since I knew one of the 43. And even if I don’t know anyone of them, as a community health worker myself, I am deeply affected because the commitment and sacrifices of those involved in community-based health programs are beyond compare.

Dr. Alex Montes is a 60 year old surgeon, worked in private hospitals in Manila and Cebu. But his commitment to the oppressed and exploited peoples, particularly the peasantry and workers, including the urban poor in the fishing community of Mactan Island, Cebu is visible and admirable. But people like them don’t necessary liked to be admired. For a commitment to the exploited is innate, you take away that commitment; you take away the essence of his being.

A soft-spoken and unassuming medical practitioner, I once worked with Dr. Montes on matters related to reproductive health and public health. Once, I visited Punta Engano in Lapu-lapu City, the people in the fishing community he and his group helped are not your typical ‘patients’. They understood the social dimensions of their health problems. They do not just receive medicines from their well-loved doctor; they received, too, ‘medicines’ for their social diseases which is more destructive.

Now, the ‘barefoot’ doctor, who wears only sleepers and pants in the community and mingles with fisher folks and ordinary people is detained, tortured and held incommunicado.

More than five years ago, I experienced pain in the middle of the mountains of Eastern Visayas. I was dehydrated with no enough food in-take and less water; I end up bed-ridden for a day after walking for a week. I thought I’d die in a place where monkeys and wild animals live for decades. Imagine myself moaning with indescribable pain like I was undergoing a heart bypass operation without anesthesia, intense shivering and vomiting with a few seconds interval while surrounded with fellow teenagers most of them peasant youth in the middle of the night.

I thought I’ll gasp my last then, but I survived, not just because of the commitment to go there but because one of the peasant youth that surrounded me was actually a trained community health worker, an acupuncturist. She did not finish her primary schooling which is common in peasant areas. Lately, I was informed that she committed suicide.

She applied more than 10 needles in the upper portion of my body particularly in my forehead and throat. I can’t say no, I needed to survive. After a few minutes I stopped vomiting, the shivering mellowed and the pain slowly subsides.

She may not be one of those arrested but people like her are detained, tortured and held incommunicado.

Not so far away several years ago, here in a first class province with surplus cash, somewhere in the municipality of Aloguinsan, Cebu, I experienced how a cancer patient slowly giving up her last breath with no available medical aid. She looks like a strong woman with no signs of pain, maybe only to show to her children, that parents, in particular mothers, are known to bear the pain, if only in deep silence. She was brought to the albularyo or quack doctor hoping to be healed.

I saw in her eyes the end for her is in the offing and she seems to agree with me. But you can’t see tears flowing, not even her little children, and not even her. They simply hope for the best. Under the biting heat of the sun, which added intense pain to her already sickly self, she was carried by two men for almost four kilometers, equally needy of health support, walking on hilly and grassy fields and hills just to meet a quack doctor.

The following day, since I just stayed a few meters away from their shack, a violet cartolena designed to look like a ribbon, adorned the unfinished house, and a white cloth serves as backdrop waiting for her to return home for the traditional nightly vigil for the dear departed.

Experienced like that made you realize the cruelty of the world you live in and examines the unjust society’s unequal distribution of wealth and resources. And now, the hated regime arrested the 43 whose day-to-day job to serve the community is needed and necessary for there are limited doctors, nurses and even midwife available. The irony is that we are one of the world’s biggest producers of medical professionals.

In a country where health practitioners and professionals are prepared, trained and encouraged (destined?) to work abroad to contribute to the country’s growing dependence on OFWs remittances in order for the local economy to survive, the only refuge the ailing population can look forward to ease their health related problems which is directly tied to the unjust social structure we are in is through community health workers whose mission in life is not just to cure the sick but to aid in the protracted struggle to end the unjust social system that brought diseases and too much suffering in our communities.

Free the 43 now!

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