In the land of the blind

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

After two months of quarantine, and stricter rules for senior citizens like me, dramatic adjustments have had to be made by society. I know it is a repetitive move to say again that the whole world was caught with its pants down by a new virus that erupted in Wuhan, China, and then spread throughout the world. Repetition, however, appears to be the more effective way for people not to simply brush off that fact or entirely forget it. I do not mean Covid-19, I mean that it caught all of us by total surprise.

Though I had been alerted to the Wuhan virus since January 2020, let me jump forward to mid-March when Philippine society was jolted to its feet by a quarantine that national government felt forced to impose on the country. It did not seem that there were experts then, not from the DOH, not from Malacañang, and not from media. I felt more up to date myself because I had already written articles about it before the quarantine. Still, what I wrote was merely what I was picking up from how different countries were reacting to their own unpreparedness, just like the Philippines

Today, mid-May and two months of reading almost nothing except about the Wuhan virus now officially called Covid-19, I am literally amazed at how mainstream ignorance about the virus has produced instant experts. Even more amazing is how these instant experts are not medically schooled and have never managed an epidemic in their neighborhoods, much less in any municipality or province. Yet, they are instant experts about pandemics and quarantines, especially how food or social amelioration should be distributed to tens of millions of families, and especially whether quarantines should be lifted or not.

It is not that I cannot understand where they are coming from – because I do. We all came from ignorance and surprise. In fact, I doubt if more than a very few had ever written about a global pandemic before. Even on simple dengue which has been around for a long time (first isolated, classified, and named in 1943) I do remember sporadic attacks on towns and provinces that merited some news reports. They were that – news reports. Nothing more because the experts were not the ones reporting. Until a controversial anti-dengue vaccine was purchased and applied on several hundreds of thousands of children. Even then, the controversy was about how legal minds became overnight scientific and medical experts.

I also understand the need to write about Covid-19. It has almost been like “What else is there to write about?” I get that. Although I submit articles only once a week, the last two months and a few more weeks before that, were already on Covid-19. But all I could write was the impact of the virus on the world, all countries, and more than 7 billion human beings because I still feel quite inadequate venturing into the technical aspects of the virus. On lessons being given to humanity, I felt informed enough because of decades of immersion in community work. Plus a healthy amount of historical and political information drawn from sustained personal interest.

From Day 1 of the national lockdown or quarantine, we have been in a special place, made such precisely because of the surprise by which Covid-19 caused the world and because of the inadequacy of our health system to meet the demands of a deadly pandemic. We know about the surprise or shock, starting with our own experience. Let me move then to our health system because that has generated more comments and criticisms.

I am not a doctor. In the early 90s, however, I was part of a small NGO that cooperated with the Traditional Medicine Unit of DOH then under Sec. Juan Flavier. It was common knowledge to both the national government and the people at large that our health system was totally inadequate. Nothing new. At that time, it was estimated that approximately 30% of our people would live and die without medical intervention, not from doctors or pharmaceutical medicines. That was precisely why we were invited by DOH to help in their Doctor to the Barrio program – to share what we knew about herbal medicine to their own health practitioners in selected areas.

I can say with some amount of happiness that our health system has undergone a massive upgrade since then, represented today by the DOH budget and Universal Health Care allocations versus 30 years ago. It was about P7 billion in 1992 and now P80 billion for DOH and P166 billion for Universal Health Care. I do not understand the implications of the P166 billion allocation for Universal Health Care, if that is a yearly thing or represents several years, but P7 billion in 1992 is totally like no comparison.

The instant experts today must mention quarantines or lockdowns, of course, and connected to that would be the testing done on the populations. There are natural correlations to these two factors but I already see that country-to-country comparisons are snapshots of contrasting cultures and stages of health systems. I cannot see how good comparisons can be made between the different behavioral responses among peoples of different countries to the same quarantine policy. And how we quickly forget where our health system is, where it had been just a few decades ago, and where other health systems are within their own economies, histories, and culture. Who are experts in doing the comparisons and what are their credentials other than assumed high regard for their unknown expertise?

I am tired of being cooped up in the house when I know I can be more productive for society, even as a senior citizen, if I can occasionally move outside the home. Still, I am a citizen, first and foremost, in a situation where the common good is paramount, and am no one-eyed king in the land of the blind.

Leave a Comment