Saturday, July 24, 2010

A glimpse of the Philippines from Negros.

In early March, I had the opportunity to visit Negros Occidental province in the Philippines, thanks to Dr. Yasuhiko Kamiya at Nagasaki University and the Japan Association for International Health's Student Division (JAIH-S). I was based at Bago Health Center in Bago City, about a 30-minute drive south of Bacolod City, the capital of the province. The kind staff at the health center allowed me to stay at one of their houses, and I stayed with Joseph Aunzo, who is a nurse at the office, and his family. Every morning, it's not the alarm clock that wakes you up but the chickens that start crying no later than 6AM. I headed off to the office with Joseph every morning by 8AM and had days full of observing the many activities not only of the health center, but of schools, local villages, non-profit organizations, etc.

Due to the fact that I only had a week in the region, my primary goal for the visit was know the daily lives of the people who live in the area, and get a glimpse of the social aspects, such as the cultural, economical, political background of the community that they belong to. And from there, with a health-oriented perspective, I wanted to see what the problems, or the weaknesses, of the communities are, how the people themselves are feeling, and what they are actually doing to tackle these issues. I also had the opportunity to meet some local politicians, and wanted to know how the government sees the communities and what they are doing.

One day, I was with Dr. Kamiya, and we made a home-visit to a nearby village. This house was the home of a child with cerebral palsy, one of many disabled children Dr. Kamiya had been personally supporting for many years. He not only donates older wheelchairs and fixes those that are broken and reuses them, but listens to the child, the family, and discusses with them what can be done. The house was an ordinary house that you find anywhere in the rural areas in this part of the country, and though not affluent, the family had been taking care of the child for well over 10 years, ever since he became handicapped. However, the family didn't have enough money to buy medicine. There are established non-profit organizations, such as Negros Occidental Rehabilitation Foundation Inc (NORFI) and Volunteers for the Rehabilitation of the Handicapped and the Disabled (VRHD), both based in Bacolod, but they obviously cannot be permanent solutions. On another day, when we visited another village, the people there had listed the five major issues in the community, and the lack of money to purchase medicine and the insufficient number of health-care professionals made up two of them.

In the Philippines, the population is still growing at a fast rate. Families make many children so as to have them work and increase the household income. Catholic being the major religion, ever since the Spanish colonization days, may not be helping as they discourage contraception. Many people who worked in the health center also came from big families, some of them having seven siblings. When I visited a local elementary (primary) school, there were children full of smiles playing around, but some were saying to me "I don't have money to pay for lunch", "my house doesn't have a shower", "... because we're poor". Or were they seeing me as a donor? Comprised of six years, about 10 to 15% don't make it through the curriculum due to financial reasons, according to the teachers. The schools is trying to find scholarships, but obviously, there aren't enough. Yes, poverty, in terms of lack of cash, is an important issue and lies at the root of many problems, however, it was unfortunate that I wasn't able to feel the local people's will to do something creative to help the situation.

I asked the staff at the health center and the hospital. Here, the local government needs to find budget to lure health-care professionals to this area. Because there isn't enough cash, there isn't a sufficient number of them, especially physicians. For example, Bago Municipal Hospital, the only public general hospital in the area, had 50 beds and an emergency room (ER), but there were only five physicians. There were, however, plenty of nurses. However, many of them are working without pay, and there's a background story to this. In the Philippines, about 40,000 new nurses pass the license exam (out of 100,000 total), but that is more than the demand. And even if you are in a relatively high position, such as a chief nurse, you still only earn about US$400 per month. So, what is happening is many are moving out to work in Europe, the U.S., and more recently the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. From there, they send part of their income back to their families still living in the Philippines. The nurses who are working without pay are those trying to keep up with their nursing skills while preparing to work abroad. In Ma-ao, the village I visited, there was one physician, which is rather rare, because there are many public clinics that don't have a physician nor a nurse, and a midwife is carrying out all the diagnosis and treatment.

So, what's the government doing? Ever since the Philippines became independent from the U.S., politics have never been stable, effectively slowing down the issue of bringing affordable, if not universal, health care. Staff at the health center do say that "the government is putting at least some effort and its gradually starting to improve", but its certainly far from catching up. When I visited, it was near general elections so lawmakers had once again pretty much halted lawmaking and shifted to election projects. And every time an election happens, vote buyouts are very common, and the locals use the money to help pay for their daily expenses, including health care. The people say they don't have money. The government says they don't have money either. So who does? Of course, there are the huge multi-national corporations and related politicians, who have a hold of much of the country's wealth. Some Filipinos sarcastically put it this way: the Pareto principle (80% of wealth is in the hands of 20% of the population) is more like 95% to 5% for the Philippines.

It was a short stay for me, but I was able to meet a variety of people. However, as I mentioned earlier, the lack of money is at the root of many problems, but many people have stopped their thinking there. Yes, financial support is important, but that's an issue that will be around all of the time. What's important is how creative the people in the community together as a whole can become to overcome hurdles, including money, to make their daily lives happier. Yes, it's not easy, and it's not accomplished in just days or weeks. Some staff said that foreign visitors coming and praising the work the villagers do helps them gain confidence and move on. I guess that is important as well, but eventually, the people should be doing the things because they together feel the need to do so, not because somebody from another country is saying they're doing a 'good job'. When a people together become able to address its own issues, and creatively use their strengths and resources to tackle them, that is when a village starts to become truly independent, and it is what leads to empowerment and social development.

However, I want to make sure I am not saying the people have lost vitality. Yes, there are many who have fled overseas, but, there are many who have chosen to stay, even though their salaries are only a fraction of their counterparts in Europe or the U.S. They love their hometown, they don't want to be far from their families, or they have a strong passion for the work they do. Conversations with Nona Obando, the chief nurse at the health center, and Dr. Ramon were memorable, especially because I felt how much passion and pride they have not only for their responsibilities, but their home city. These altogether are invaluable assets to the local community and what helps it keep going. And then again, even for the people who have fled overseas, their feelings for their families and hometowns are the same. I have seen people in Japan and the U.S. who have lived for over 10 years without returning, but still continues to send money back to their families.

Immigrants are there all over the world, and ever more so with globalization. Whether documented or not, they all come because they want to make their daily lives better, because they want to support their families. And their longing to live in their hometown does not change. I would like to express my appreciation for Dr. Kamiya, JAIH-S, Nona, Joseph, Dr. Ramon, Dr. Pilar, and all the staff at the Bago City Health Center for their kindness and letting me have this opportunity.