Perennial Irony

by Juan L. Mercado

Naty “Morales” never heard or read about the Marcoses, Estradas, Binays and Ampatuans wresting election victory. She is a 53-year old beggar, who looks a haggard 80.  What matters is even left over food, she shrugs.

Alms cadged from shoppers and church goers tide Naty and grandkids to the next day. Walang tutong sa taong nagugtom. “There is no burnt rice to a hungry person”.

In dumps, where ill-fed squatters huddle, TB spreads like wild fire. TB incidence here is 275 for every 100,000 population. It is 137 for Thais.  Handouts couldn’t buy for Naty the anti-tuberculosis medicine she needed. So, the wife scraped up the anti-TB pills.

But  what about other Natys  locked into this treadmill?    Almost  3.9 million Filipinos experienced hunger in March, Social Weather Stations survey reported this week. That’s 19.2  percent of Filipino families. SWS did the headcount from March 19 to 22. In December, 16.2 percent had empty pots.

Despite a 2 percent drop in self-rated poverty, overall hunger increased in all regions except in Metro Manila. There, hunger slumped to about 615,000 families. In Mindanao , 1.4 million families tightened their belts. So did 1.3 million families in Luzon and 580,000 in the Visayas.

The hungry are not “another race of creatures, bound on other journeys,”  Charles Dickens wrote (We all) are fellow passengers to the grave. “

In Asia and the Pacific, 578 million have empty plates, Food and Agriculture Organization estimates. Three out of four cluster in villages or barangays. Many eke out a living from scrub agriculture; others  fish in depleted waters.  “Those who produce the food are often  the ones who suffer hunger the most.” That is the perennial irony, former Malaysian agriculture minister Datuk Hussein Onn  noted.

Many trek to cities to search for non-existent jobs.They bloat the ever-expanding populations of shanty towns. Hunger triggers a lethal cycle. Chronically malnourished mothers give birth of stunted children who often die early.

In the Philippines , more infants are orphaned today than in 2006. And  one out of every  four  pregnant women are “nutritionally-at-risk,” says the 2013 study by UP and Institute of Child Health Development . Worse, “there has been no change in the past 15 years.” On average, 11 mothers die daily during  childbirth.

Most of those deaths were preventable. “Sri Lanka and Honduras led in slashing maternal mortality,” Nicolas Kristoff of New York Times reports. “The biggest themes of life are put into the best focus when held up against the very sharp light of mortality.”

Over one-third of child deaths here are due to under-nutrition. They usher in diseases that a little more nutrition could have staved off.  Out of every 100 kids , who survive, 22 .are scrawny under-weights, UNDP’s 2013 Human Development Report notes. IQs will  be dampened for life.  “Their elevators will never go to top floor.”

Among Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines and Cambodia rank second in prevalence of undernourishment: 17 percent. Laos towers at 28 percent.  Chronic hunger means food intake slumps below minimum energy requirement.”

My two grandkids put a human face on those arid figures. Some Sundays, their parents drive them to where grimy out-of-school kids cluster. The two share food packs  they’ve prepared   “A lola ate the rice I gave, then cried,” our 6-year grand-daughter Katarina explained. “There were two children with her,” 9-year old sister Kristin added. “They ate the sardines I put on their rice”.

Malnourished Filipino children remain at 20.2% today. And what about the Philippine pledge to meet the Millennium Development Goals? We’re committed to tamping down the prevalence of malnutrition among under five-year-old children to 13.6 percent by 2015.  Forget it. We’ll fall short.

In Asia, domestic prices of rice and cereals weakened with arrival of the 2013’s early season rice and winter wheat harvests, FAO reports. That’s  a breather after over five years of food price inflation.

Hunger is local. That  reality confronts 80  newly-elected  governors, plus  mayors, in 143 cities  and  1,491  towns. The brunt of easing it’s ravages, specially among infants and young mothers, fall on  them, not  national  government. They have a window-of-opportunity to  reverse the sorry track  record of their predecessors.

Far too many local officials couldn’t  be  bothered  with voiceless endangered mothers or infants. Many squandered the 20 percent Local Development Fund on waiting sheds nobody uses. The late  Interior Secretary Jesse Robredo had to issue memo circular No. 2010-138. This  bounced claims for honoraria, lakbay-aral junkets and such.

Others tried to bore their way into the P44.5 billion conditional cash transfer (CCT) program. President Aquino beat them back — and rightly so.  A 2013 World Bank study confirmed the program ‘s successful record of keeping kids from dropping out of school and better health care for mothers.

The hungry should spur the new LGUs to set their house in order. That calls for scrapping the laid back habit of just  wheedling for larger slabs from the Internal Revenue Allotment  Fund, as a start. Then, they have the gut-wrenching task of  collecting local taxes better. In addition, they  must  revising obsolete taxes that coddled the rich.   New revenues generated should then go to  help the poorest.  That ‘s why the European Union underwrote a project to buff up finance management.

In a 1955 award winning movie, the kid  Marcelino offers a small loaf to the Crucified and says:  “Tiene cara de hambre.” ”You have the face of hunger.’ Just like Naty.


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