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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Mission: Why I Heart the Philippines

GK Expo 2006Dearest friends, new and old, here and abroad, Filipinos and foreigners alike:

I’d like to enlist you all in a mini-mission I’ve set up for us to do.

That you’re reading this means you’ve signed up- whether you like it or else hehe

I have a friend from medical school who is due to leave the Philippines in a couple of weeks. The latest entry in his blog as well as the comment he left in my earlier post regarding my Bicol experience, prompted me to set up this mini-mission. (I posted his name and the link to his online journal in an earlier version of this blog entry of mine but he requested anonymity. So late as it may seem, his request is granted.)

My friend is not the first person to feel that the Philippines is going to the dogs. Neither is he alone. From the number of people leaving the country, to the foreigners and locals who bash everything Filipino, to the gory news on primetime TV, to ordinary people who feel that their life here is getting nowhere or worse plummeting ever so rapidly, one doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that something IS wrong with the country and/or its people. That is a fact. God knows how often I just want to jump-ship and be rid of the maelstrom that is the Philippines.

In His infinite wisdom, though, I find myself constantly reassured that there is still something good in the Philippines and among Filipinos. That we do not live in a God-forsaken place, eternally damned for our collective stupidity. That all is not lost. That there is reason to hope and to stay. I get this from my daily interactions with people, especially in connection with my GK and UP work.

But that's me.

This is where you can come in. Please share any personal experience, a detail, a news item, any tidbit that is worth celebrating as a symbol that the Philippines is still a great country. A friendly crew in a fast food joint, a policeman who refused a bribe, the Christmas attraction previously at the COD now in Greenhills- anything uplifting is worth sharing. Just add a comment to this post please.

Maybe you can even enjoin your friends and family to think about what makes this nation still great, why are you still living here despite opportunities that abound in the US, relate the stories of everyday heroes. Links to online articles are welcome, too.

This mission is not set-up to vilify my friend or the hundreds among us who choose to find greener pastures elsewhere. We have our roles to play; maybe his role is to be a physician who’ll save lives in another place. Let’s just think of this as a mission to sustain us who choose to stay in the country, encourage those who have left to come back, or just to proclaim to everyone that it’s great to be a Filipino and the Philippines is a great country.

‘Nuf said.

Let me begin, at least in the realm I am in. This is by no means complete. Do visit often to see what others see as reasons why hope springs eternal for the Philippines.

**, thanks for the inspiration to do this one =)

1) Gawad Kalinga – bringing Filipinos together to uplift the lives of those who have been marginalized for the longest time
2) The dedicated teachers and staff of the UP and the health professionals and students in the PGH and most other government hospitals, especially in the provinces– their service to the nation is has no monetary value
3) Christmas lights along Ayala Avenue, especially the giant bow atop Rustan’s Makati
4) The MMDA crew whom I saw firsthand work at the height of Milenyo’s fury
5) The MERALCO crew who worked days on end to restore power after Milenyo hit the metro, requiring their wives and family to just bring food and change of clothing over to the MERALCO office in Ortigas, while their own homes are destroyed and/or powerless
6) Jollibee and the others with 24-hour delivery service
7) Manila Bay sunset, Lamon Bay in Quezon, the Banawe Rice Terraces
8) The Apo (Hiking Society) and the Eraserheads
9) Vilma, Sharon, Maricel
10) My Lingkod Manila Action Group + brothers and sisters, my Gawad Kalusugan teammates, my high school and college friends =)
11) My sister and my brother in law and my parents =)

Your turn!

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Bicol in my mind (2)

That night, the felled trees and toppled power lines and roofless homes were no longer visible. Miracle? No. Black out. Massive cloak of darkness all around you. The only entity with power is- gasp!- the Transco compound.

These towns, Ocampo and Goa, do not get much media attention, if they get any at all, like Albay; consequently, few help trickle in. They experienced the same ferocious weather, sans the mudslide. Truckloads of relief goods pass through their area but they don’t stop.

The good thing about this, though, is that those in their neighboring towns, particularly those involved in Couples For Christ and the Gawad Kalinga work, have taken up the cudgels for these massively disadvantaged residents. With some help from the local government units, the residents of Goa and Ocampo are surviving thanks to their collective resiliency and the brothers and sisters in the CFC community who continue to heed the call to put their faith into action.

The health service delivery activity we did was a mere band-aid solution to their myriad problems. Hopefully the palliative effort directed to the body reached their spirit as well, if only to underscore the point that somebody cares and has not forgotten or has turned a blind eye.

From my readings for my Disaster Management lecture in school and from life experiences in general as made more real by our recent Bicol trip, I have come to realize that, indeed, there is much to be improved on how we deal with volcanic eruptions, typhoons, earthquakes, and other calamities in the Philippines.

We must shift from myopic, reactive planning which commences a week before a storm is due to hit the country (the kind wherein we evacuate people living in the Mayon danger zone just before the first raindrops are about to fall) into a system which really addresses vulnerabilities (the kind where we stop to ask and act on questions like: What ARE we doing about these people living in the fringes of Mayon? WHY ARE THEY THERE IN THE FIRST PLACE?!).

We must shake-off our collective amnesia which takes hold of us as interest in the typhoon-damaged area wanes and the latter no longer makes good copy or does not offer much political brownie points.

Have we forgotten already the tragedy in St. Bernard, Southern Leyte?

Have we forgotten already the lessons from Milenyo?

Wait- Did we learn anything at all?

We cannot do anything about our 22 or so active volcanoes, our location in the Pacific Ring of Fire, or our being the doormat of typhoons about to hit Asia from the Pacific or about to leave the continent via the South China Sea. What we can improve on is the way we prepare for disasters, from implementation of tougher construction standards to addressing the economic concerns of people pushed to live in disaster-prone areas to putting aside political bickering and doing away with massive graft and corruption.

We must always be mindful that taking care of our people during disasters does not stop after we pluck them out of danger, settle them in evacuation centers, and flood them with relief goods. Our ultimate goals should be to restore their lives as close as possible to the level of safety and comfort they enjoyed prior to the calamity (if not improve them further) and to ensure that number of lives and properties affected will be minimized.

It is a shame that the towns of Ocampo and Goa are suffering needlessly from neglect and apathy. Given our meager resources, if we continue to think less of ourselves and more of others, we will discover that there is enough for all.

(Any and all help is welcome. Please give through Gawad Kalinga and make Christmas- yours and theirs- a merrier one.)

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Bicol in my mind (1)

The sight of the coconut trees gave the situation away.

From Quezon onwards, even with just the moon as the source for illumination, the coconut trees have taken on a distinct look: the fronds look as if they’ve been swept to one side, the one-sided hairstyle of convicted Calauan, Laguna mayor Antonio Sanchez.

Still unable to build the imagery?

Think Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in Ghost. The pottery-making scene. Yeap, The Pottery-Making Scene. Let’s extrapolate a little further. Imagine that they were actually able to make one, say, foot-high vase. Then they let it stand before baking it in a kiln. The vase is done, albeit still a little soft. Then a Philippine softball team batter hits the still-soft vase with all his might. The disfigured vase isn’t so hard to imagine- is it?

That’s practically what happened in Bicol and the area in the path of Supertyphoon Reming. They were pummeled by some 230+ kph winds for several hours, leaving a disastrous trail of damage to property and death of loved ones.

We had an ocular inspection and health service delivery activity this week in two province, Camarines Sur and Albay. We rode a bus on which it was heartening to discover that the roads were basically free from blocking typhoon-related debris. As the small team was split, I was assigned to visit two Gawad Kalinga sites in Camarines Sur in the towns of Goa and Ocampo.

Both towns are within eighty minutes’ drive from Naga City. During the trip towards the two sites, not one kilometer had a view from the car where destruction was not evident. It was kilometer after kilometer after kilometer of uprooted trees, fallen power lines, roofless homes. Nothing was spared: shacks, softdrink companies’ warehouses, public school buildings, university auditoriums. I stopped counting toppled electric posts and towers when I reached fifty. And that was just on one side of the road. Even bamboos, symbols of quiet and reliable resilience, were ravaged by Reming, with many a grove containing bent-until-they-broke, snapped-into-two bamboo trees.

The most curious thing I saw was a piece of galvanized iron sheet bent like a horseshoe slung on a miraculously still-taut-between-two-upright-transmission-tower high-tension wire. What happened there? Probably the roof flew off, hit the wire, with the wind so powerful it bent the GI sheet into a U-shaped. Imagine that.

I kid you not, choose to point your camera or camcorder on the vista whizzing by and within any 60-second recording time, you would have caught dozens of signs of destruction. After some time, you begin to shake off the temptation to be callous: your eyes and heart can only take so much kilometer after kilometer after kilometer of destruction.

Then we got to the Gawad Kalinga sites. In GK Tagongtong, in the town of Goa, not too far from Naga City, of the 161 houses built, only 17 were not damaged. Many of the houses had their roofs blown away, some even had damage to their concrete walls. The residents huddled in houses which withstood Reming’s fury, multiple families cramped together in a 4x5-meter space. Right-click here to see a short video of the situation in Goa.

I am not a fan of medical missions. I believe these promote mendicancy. I did not want to be an accomplice to the propagation of the dole-out mentality. Hence, I really did not want to sit down and see patients. What I had in mind was that we’d just perform an ocular inspection of the damages in the area, have a general feel of what ails the people; dump the medicines we brought to the nearest local health center where people ought to have themselves checked ultimately, and then leave. To just touch base with the people. The aim really was, when we return to Manila, we can prepare for a more focused and orchestrated and ultimately effective attack on the health problems among the Reming-damaged communities.

On a more practical note, our sub-team only had two doctors. In my mind I was anticipating SO MANY PATIENTS that would be too tiring to handle. I vowed that my role during this trip is this: to be just the official documenter of the visit.

But no. At the sight of the people waiting for us in the multipurpose hall converted into a makeshift mega-clinic, my photographer’s hat was quickly ditched in favor of my doctor’s hat. After all, to give aid to a disaster-stricken population is one of the few allowable reasons to conduct a medical mission.

Many were stricken with ordinary coughs and colds, some were glaring TB cases, some sustained typhoon-related injuries. With drizzle from low-lying gray clouds alternating with softly piercing heat from the midday sun, we eventually saw about 100 patients in GK Tagongtong.

It was difficult having to turn away patients but we had to visit another Gawad Kalinga site, in the town of Ocampo, still in Camarines Sur. It was pure déjà vu: roofless homes, shattered concrete walls, close to three hundred GK site residents lining up to have themselves checked through the heat in the makeshift clinic, amidst the rain that fell through the partially roofless hall, in spite of the language barrier. For a person who is not the least bit fond of medical missions, I had around ten “Last-na-po-kayo-ha. Last-na-po-talaga” patients.

I couldn’t say no to them. It seemed un-Christian, inhuman to do so.

I would have seen more patients if we didn’t have to rush back to Naga to make it to the 9pm bus bound for Manila.

(The Gawad Kalusugan team will be back in Bicol before Christmas to render a more holistic yet focused health care. You, too, can help even if you're not a health professional. Give through Gawad Kalinga and become a hero for health.)

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