Promise to care more

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

It is in trying to pull ourselves apart into many boxes and then live life box by box, setting aside many things to focus on what we think is more important, that we then have to accept the blessings or consequences of our decisions. Filipinos, though, are not very reflective or introspective as a people. We would rather live for the moment except that circumstances force us to question much of our lifestyle and what we reap because of it.

When I say goodbye to a year that has passed and hello to a new year, 2019 and 2020, I am filled with great hope. I am not blind nor indifferent with the challenges that I, and we as a people, face. I am deeply concerned. With some, I am greatly alarmed. Life, however, is about what is good and what is not – together. We do not have the capacity to cut our lives in different compartments and succeed in separating them. We try, but we do not succeed.

Again, I would like to repeat that we have issues that are alarming. It used to be poverty and hunger. There is still poverty and hunger, but their ranking among our greatest dangers have shifted favorably in the recent years. What used to be our worst cancers are, almost miraculously, being treated effectively. Poverty has substantially dropped. I am not an economist that can enumerate the reasons why. But I am a concerned Filipino and have devoted many years to a work determined to dismantle poverty. Allow me to give a layman’s list of meaningful intervention that have impacted on the marginalized.

In the beginning, it was the conditional cash transfer program. It had its growing pains and operational kinks, even the scandalous attempts to politicize a good work. But the program was not abandoned and ultimately expanded. Its benefits now far outweigh its inefficiencies.

Then came disaster relief and rehabilitation. Maybe because of my senior years and elephant memories, I can still remember when there were hardly any preparation for natural calamities and no rehabilitation work at all. It seemed that, for centuries, these calamities were simply taken for granted and that everyone just had to live with the consequences. Because the consequences almost totally affected the impoverished, government in general was not seriously pressured to address the problem.

That has changed dramatically. I have personally witnessed this transformation by government over the three administrations. What was once a lonely office in Camp Aguinaldo, the Office of Civil Defense, is now a virtual department called National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (not yet a department but already being considered to become one). Its importance is reflected by offices dedicated to disaster prevention and management from the national all the way to the barangay level. And the budget allocated to activities and program related to the concern have exploded over the last 15 years.

Probably, though in my eyes, the most substantive government intervention must be the health care, personified by the establishment and budget of PhilHealth. The marginalized had always been doubly challenged – unavailable and unaffordable health care. Again, the last 15 years have seen a powerful move to reverse the situation. I can still remember in the early 90s when the DOH under then Sec. Juan Flavier had to confront a pitiful national situation where almost 30% of Filipinos would live and die without any health intervention via medical practitioners, hospitals and/or clinics, and pharmaceutical medicine. I belonged to one small NGO that was tapped by DOH to help (in our case, it was to focus on herbal medicine that was available to affected communities).

Today, sin taxes are funding a universal health program with the intent to cover every Filipino as best as it can, from primary to tertiary care. The evolution of such a health care program will not mature overnight but it has taken such a powerful vision and program that I can only feel confident about its expansion. From almost nothing to hundreds of billions of pesos. No wonder why corruption is a bigger threat than raising the quantity and quality of health care.

Of course, there is education, free education, for most Filipinos. Not all can be covered with free college education but state colleges and universities are opening up for the intellectually advanced. Vocational courses through TESDA are providing massive opportunities for employment and the entrepreneurial. Our challenge today is less quantitative and more qualitative so both free and paid education can be relevant to the future ahead of us.

Let me make a special mention of hunger. As a Filipino and a Christian, I long felt that the unattended hunger incidence of the nation as monitored for over 20 years by SWS reflected best what was the worst of us – both in governance and good citizenship. I could not fathom how brother and sister Filipino could tolerate the hunger of tens of millions.

But, again, miracle of miracles, the dedicated struggle of a few groups that never gave up on raising awareness on the hunger of our people and finding ways to feed the hungry have tipped the balance of sympathy and resources. Even before the implementing rules and regulations of a national feeding program are in place, there is a determined and succeeding effort to address affected students in public schools. Feeding our hungry and then incorporating food for better education will break that hunger incidence cycle and begin what I call the humanization of Philippine society.

It is not surprising, then, to read that poverty has substantially dropped. Food, health, and education are reaching our people more and more, especially the least fortunate. Of course, poverty will be dismantled because we, the public and private sector, are changing and upgrading the way we regard those who have been left behind. This is the secret ingredient – that we care more today than yesterday.

In 2020, let us promise to care more. Walang Iwanan!