Thursday, November 27, 2008

On Our Helplessness

“On His Blindness”, by John Milton is a perennial entry in many poetry anthologies for high school students. It was never a favorite of mine because it seemed so grim and undistinguished. In our teens at the Ateneo, we planned to conquer the world.

30 years later, our ambitions slightly tempered by the passage of time, revisiting the poem written amid the progressive advance of blindness receives much more sympathy. Milton was resigned to dial down his dreams with the loss of a major faculty. Could he have foreseen (pun intended) that his greatest work (Paradise Lost) was yet to be written?

These are very uncertain times and save for a very few, there is an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. The former Speaker detailed how a great many of our lawmakers were bribed and this disclosure hardly caused a ripple. Was this because the additional confirmation of corruption no longer interested a people that considered this as common knowledge?

We are not losing our sight, we are losing our souls.

WHEN I consider how my light is spent
E're half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide,
Lodg'd with me useless, though my Soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, least he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light deny'd,
I fondly ask; But patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his milde yoak, they serve him best, his State
Is Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o're Land and Ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and waite.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

When a Bum Stomach Turns Deadly

Whenever there is scarcity there is invariably rationing. We hardly have any healthcare in the Philippines. Organize a “free clinic” and the demand is greater than the water station on the halfway point of the New York City marathon. There is a never-ending supply of poor patients and even if you can only offer them 3 days of anti-hypertensive therapy, there is overwhelming gratitude (cynical colleagues ascribe this to the small profit they will make selling these drug samples).

We were just informed that the First Gentleman (FG), pet name of the husband of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was returned to the Philippines while en route to Lima to accompany his wife listen to the Arch protectionist Bush preach about free trade and free markets. It appears that FG had gastrointestinal symptoms that required their jet to make an emergency stop in Osaka, Japan where he had an urgent MRI and his cardiothoracic surgeon had to be flown from Manila (as if they had a shortage of these specialists in way medically advanced Osaka) before he was promptly jettisoned back to where he came from. Medical opinion from his various physicians were unanimous in their diagnosis: bum stomach.

Most Filipinos who make it past the critical age of 12 months (we have one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world) still live 10 years less than their counterparts in Japan. This is because we have a silent but terrible epidemic of untreated hypertension and diabetes. The previous staple of rice and salt was bad enough but with the soaring prices of rice, there has been a major shift towards “instant noodles”, even less carbohydrates with a more potent dose of sodium. Blood pressure is a function of blood volume multiplied by peripheral resistance, the elevation being directly attributed to the intravascular shifts that take place with a salty meal. Add the burgeoning number of cigarette smokers among the poor who resort to the hunger-numbing effects of nicotine and there will be no difficulty tracing the etiology of this epidemic.

Even patients in the rapidly disappearing middle class have compliance problems on account of the expensive medications. Compliance drops to near zero for the great majority. Budgets are busted by the time provisions for medications arise.

Hence I wouldn’t even hazard a guess as to how many strokes, heart attacks, and premature deaths would have been prevented had FG just stayed at home.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

In the Doldrums

The Philippines is geographically close to the Doldrums, an area in the ocean close to the equator where the water is calm, punctuated by light shifting winds and occasional squalls. Figuratively, whenever there is stagnation or listlessness, the word comes to mind.

So, in the middle of a teetering global economy and swirling political realignment stirring many parts of the world our local headline is deposed leader Joseph Estrada mulling another run for the Presidency, in order to “unite the opposition”.

Such a preposterous proposition would have been drowned by universal ridicule most everywhere else except our beloved land where the possibility of our own miserable adaptation of Napoleon, returning from Elba may happen. Just look how Estrada’s musings on a mundane television interview end up on the front pages of our newspapers.

What “opposition” is Estrada referring to anyway? The same forces that opposed corruption and incompetence successfully drove him out of office, I hope he isn’t under the illusion that he has now become the titular leader of a vast, silent and suffering majority that had entrusted to him the responsibility of governing a nation, a responsibility he spectacularly squandered.

He had his chance to enact economic reform and increase revenue, instead, while he gambled with cronies way past midnight, schemes naked in their dishonesty were concocted which would shake the foundations of our stock market. It was in smoke-filled rooms, overflowing with wine and testosterone that national policies were created. Estrada may have been less malevolent than Marcos but as a direct result of his criminal irresponsibility, millions of Filipinos continue to pay for his mistakes.

He had a clear shot towards transforming the increasingly irrelevant educational system that is producing under-prepared, mostly clueless youth. What he saw was a way to make money from printing substandard and inaccurate textbooks. He could have paid teachers much more and prevent the best of them from seeking better opportunities abroad, instead he sustained several multi-billion peso bank accounts to maintain his many mistresses and keep his political lieutenants satisfied.

There were plans to overhaul, no, rebuild, actually establish a healthcare delivery system that would finally enable the poorest to seek capable medical care but the interest was never there, and the funding necessary to fulfill the goals did not materialize and he was overthrown before his lack of knowledge and curiosity could have done more damage. The same notable lack of knowledge and curiosity which denied the full, equitable implementation of comprehensive land reform.

Surveys reveal that Estrada remains popular among the poor, which in the Philippines is akin to conceding 75% of the population. This is ironic because Estrada has been anything but beneficial towards the poor. His slogan “Erap Para sa Masa” (“Estrada for the Masses”) while taken as gospel truth by many should have always been cynically “Erap Para kay Erap” (“Estrada for Estrada”). And this is why Estrada is such a shameful waste, a man abundantly endowed with empathy, a gifted actor; like all of us, a sinner given to moments of repentance, was given a once in a lifetime chance to do glorious good and blew it big time.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

About Change and the OFW

Might I have been over-reacting? America had changed overnight I felt. In Dallas, the morning after the elections, change was palpable. The unthinkable had happened. So amid historic financial meltdowns and careening violence in many parts of the earth, general uncertainty everywhere, the election of Obama heralded hope for change. Advent arrived early.

At LAX, there was not a single vacant seat aboard the newly refitted PAL 747, filled with Filipinos who waited for the outcome of the elections before returning home. The overhead bins were groaning, unequivocal evidence that our native resourcefulness was coping with the newly imposed handicap of 20 lbs less baggage allowance. This aircraft held the hopes of our nation. 10 million of us had long ago made the decision to take matters into our own hands. Change was going to begin within ourselves, we would look after those we had left behind later, whenever we could.

The news that greeted us after we crossed the Pacific was how desperate our leaders had tried contacting the President-elect, hoping for an opportunity to capture a sliver of the new hero’s glory. There was none forthcoming. Whatever disembarked from that plane constituted a portion of the foreign direct investment that was keeping our economy viable. Soon enough, our version of the White House, Malacanang, rolled out a list of possible presidential aspirants, their own pathetic version of change. This is the quandary every OFW confronts. From a distance, we see the same changeless system stunting our country, with internecine conflict raging for what relatively can be considered scraps. It’s every dynasty to itself with net production hovering close to zero. What can we do? What must we do?

Can we expect these people, top of the heap products of the changeless system to provide us with the change that we need? Who among these compromised names will have enough credibility to inspire us to work harder, become more productive, less wasteful and more patriotic?

The recently concluded elections demonstrates that in the end, what matters is not who’s got the most comprehensive health plan or the least painful financial rehabilitation proposal or who has the most realistic strategy to solve foreign conflicts. What matters is who will be able to unite the people into participating in an enterprise that will benefit the common good. Ideas, solutions, strategies and proposals are easy. The challenge is how to get people to work together to achieve these ends.

Diaspora is a Greek word that describes a “scattering of seeds”. Most of us are simply economic refugees. We are everywhere but if we share a dream of a stronger, cleaner, more productive and united Philippines, we will all have to get together for this.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Congratulations America!

This is why America is a great nation. A black boy, abandoned by his African father and raised by a single mother who seemed lost and continuously looking like most of us for meaning in her life. Looks as if only in America can a black man who attended elementary school in Indonesia, partly raised by working class grandparents make his way through Columbia and Harvard.

Well done President Barack Obama. Well done noble Senator John McCain. You guys do your country a great service.

We wish America the very best.