Nitwits’ Ride

by Juan L. Mercado

(On Dec. 28, 2013, we wrote this article for Viewpoint. Today, we reprint to emphasize the fact that little, if at all anything, has changed.)

Editorial and TV desks are swamped on Dec. 28 with features on practical jokes. The one fooled is ribbed: “Na-Niños Inocentes ka.” That jab refers to the feast of the Holy Innocents.

Liturgy readings recall King Herod going ballistic after the Magi, who found the Child and His Mother, didn’t report back as cajoled. He then ordered his centurions to slaughter all boys in Bethlehem, who were two years old and younger.

“A cry was heard in Rama, sobbing and loud lamentation,” Jeremiah wrote six centuries earlier. “Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.”

Bethlehem is dwarfed by the carnage that plays out daily here. Look at the “Under-age-5 child death rates” (U5MR) indicator. Two decades back, 59 kids out of every thousand births never made it to age five. Today, reports Unicef, the child death rate in the Philippines has been reduced by 55 percent. And we rank 83rd out of 169 countries—compared to Thailand at 12th spot and Indonesia at 71st.

UNDP Human Development Report 2014 documents that the U5MR for Filipino kids stood at 20. We are bracketed between El Salvador and Uzbekistan.

The odds are stacked against kids born in penury cesspools. A child delivered in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, once a feeding trough of the Ampatuan clan, has four times less chances to reach his/her fifth birthday than one born in Metro Manila. Factors from polluted wells to lack of medicine cut them down.

Further reductions are anticipated as the peace accord between government and the Bangsamoro takes over.

The number of Filipino women who die in childbirth is quadruple that of Thais. Last year, 15 mothers died every day due to complications during pregnancy and childbirth. Many infants are born to ill-fed mothers in job-short families.

Preventable ailments, like pneumonia and diarrhea, are main infant killers. Babies born preterm—or before the 37th week of pregnancy—are especially vulnerable. Almost a third of infant deaths stem from this one cluster.

“The first two years of life are a window of opportunity. Nutrition programs then have an impact on a child’s development, with lifelong benefits,” the International Food Policy Research Institute points out. After age three, the economic benefits dwindle to near-zero.

Lack of micronutrients saps intelligence quotients. The IQs of ill-fed kids can be whittled down by 10-14 percent, an Asian Development Bank study found. This loss is irreversible. “Their elevators will never go to the top floor.” That’s layman’s lingo for permanently impaired lives.

These are preventable tragedies, yet there is no outcry. Why?

Because death stalks mostly kids in city slum hovels or farm shacks. Their burial shrouds are out of sight. And tiny coffins blend into the woodwork.

The rich man who feast daily never noticed the pauper Lazarus scrounging for his leftovers.

Flabby responsible-parenthood programs whittled maternal deaths too slowly. Responding to unmet family-planning needs can slash maternal deaths by almost a third. More can be done to save mothers from premature graves or kids from being orphaned.

“There is unfinished business” such as securing vaccines, adequate nutrition, medical plus maternal care, wrote Unicef executive director Anthony Lake. “[There are] proven, affordable interventions…. The challenge is to make these available to every child.” Indeed, “life is the threshold at which all other hopes begin.”

“After 25 years of pastoral and social involvement, I see the Filipino family as very much at risk,” the Jesuit sociologist John Carroll wrote. But the threat does not stem primarily from contraception. The main destructive forces are infidelity, multiple families, drugs, alcoholism—and sheer poverty.

The Bethlehem birth “has unavoidable social implications,” wrote Washington Post’s Michael Gerson. “If the deity was born as an outcast, it is impossible to treat outcasts in quite the same way.” As Dorothy Day wrote: “He is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth.”

“Today, the well-armed empire that judicially murdered Jesus of Nazareth exists only as archaeological digs. The man who was born in obscurity and died an apparent failure is viewed as guide and friend by more than two billion people. Our history, laws and art are unimaginable without his influence. Christ sought a different victory than politics brings—the kind that ends all selfish victories.”

Here, hard cash is the sole yardstick of value. Doors open depending on your car model, checkbook, or Virgin Island secret bank stash. Ask Imee Marcos. “Net worth equals self-worth.” A society that pegs the worth of a man on his pork barrel will betray the poor.

“Do you know who I am?” Mayor Jejomar Binay Jr. denies he ever snapped that to Dasmariñas Village guards who manned a no-exit-after-10-p.m. gate. The open gate was a block away. Yet, Binay and bodyguards fumed and bucked.

Sen. Nancy Binay stood by the Makati mayor. Nor did she protest when cops hauled in the guards and kept them for four hours. “Checking their firearm licenses” was the excuse.

At a Canadian airport, a junior Cabinet member got impatient. The long queue threatened to slow down his Christmas Eve flight. He snapped at one of the attendants: “Do you know who I am?”

Without missing a beat, the attendant punched the public address button and said: “We have a gentleman here who doesn’t know who he is. Can someone please help him?”

Na-Niños Inocentes tayo by abusive officials. Translation: We nitwits were all taken for a ride.

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