Thursday, July 27, 2017

[Second Opinion] "Human rights are for crybabies"

Some people ridicule the whole idea of human rights, saying it’s only for crybabies. My response to them? That’s exactly why it’s so important.

I had never thought much of babies until recently when I became an uncle. Baby Tori, my sister’s daughter, was four months old when I first saw her, and she was truly precious, a joy to behold. When you hold a baby for the first time, you are filled with wonder at seeing a human being’s frail beginnings—and with an awesome responsibility for someone so innocent and powerless.

Baby Tori, to my sister’s relief, is no “crybaby.” But as with all babies, there can be no predicting her behavior, and sometimes she would cry when we’re in church or a restaurant, raising our anxiety. In medical school I learned that crying can mean many things: It can be a sign of hunger, fatigue, discomfort, fear, or desire for companionship—but as my brother-in-law says, “parents are usually more worried than others.”

Of course, the other churchgoers or diners do not seem to get annoyed at Tori for crying; most of them throw sympathetic glances our way. They understand a four-month-old’s capabilities, because most of them have also experienced caring for babies.

To be honest, I used to hate being seated next to a baby in a bus or an airplane. But when it happens to me nowadays, I find myself more understanding. I think of my niece and I am filled with happy memories. Surely, no one has the right to get in the way of her sense of wonder for a world that to her mind remains beautiful.

Crying babies can be a metaphor for the voiceless and the powerless of the world, who, like infants, can only cry for mercy and justice. Human rights, after all, are not for those who have the ability to exact freedom and comfort with their own means. Our due is responsibility, not remonstration, and life can go on without anyone intervening on our behalf.

But human rights are still important, because others do not necessarily share our experience of the world. Just as it is hard to understand why a baby cries, it can be difficult to comprehend others’ pleas. When people march on the streets to protest unfair wages or indiscriminate airstrikes, we can easily dismiss them as causing traffic, because we do not have hungry children waiting for us, or homes at risk of being collateral damage in a war. Without empathy, there can be no solidarity.
And guess what? We need others, too, if only because someday we may be the ones who are in need. Isn’t life a cycle, and the babies of today the ones who could take care of us tomorrow? When we lift them up and protect them, we are not just valuing them, we are valuing ourselves and the rest of humanity as well.

Some say that human rights are being used as a tool to discredit governments. But isn’t this the very discourse that reduces human rights to mere talking points? Surely the political ramifications are secondary to the very real consequences for people on the ground.

Then there are those who concede that human rights per se are important, but the problem is that the human rights of “criminals” are being prioritized over those of the “victims.” But how can we label people as “criminals” when their right to due process is not respected in the first place? Besides, the issue of human rights is not a zero sum game, in which valuing one comes at the expense of devaluing the other. A strong and credible justice system—and not politicians — should decide whether people are hiding behind human rights as a shield.

If, like Kafka’s Joseph K, you find yourself wrongfully accused, labeled a criminal, a terrorist, or a drug user, will you not protest? And when, under pain of death, your pleas of innocence are dismissed, will you not cry?

And so when it comes to human rights, don’t think of the issue in political terms, or as an abstract and naive concept. Instead, think of the babies and children closest to your heart. For them and for those like them in spirit, we must keep fighting for human rights: the last and only resort for the weak and the defenseless.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Thursday, July 20, 2017

[Second Opinion] The delusion of quick fixes

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

By 1980, it is predicted that Manila may have expanded so much that it may include Infanta, Quezon province. This will be a city, therefore, two sides of which are harbors. One on the Pacific Ocean and one on Manila Bay or the China Sea side.” We will never be able to tell if Ferdinand Marcos, who delivered those words in his 1976 State of the Nation Address, was genuinely convinced that his New Society would usher in a transformation of Asimovian proportions.

Regardless, he is not alone in imagining — or claiming — that dramatic changes take place in our country in a short period of time. “Three [MRTs] will be completed in 2004, one in 2005, and another one in 2006,” declared Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in her own Sona in 2001. “Before I step down, all the land covered by CARP will have been distributed,” Noynoy Aquino pledged on the same occasion in 2012. Two years later, he would trumpet the Laguna Lakeshore Expressway Dike, assuring that bidding would take place very soon amid hearty applause.

Perhaps one can fault our former presidents for making empty promises. But one can also ask why such promises were seen as plausible at that time. And why the same plausibility is accorded the current president’s pronouncements: Kill me if I don’t resolve crimes in 6 months. “Just give me a little extension of maybe another six months,” he would say later, only to eventually concede that the promise was a ‘miscalculation’ and that his term is not enough.

The political expediency of quick fixes taps into people’s impatience in a broken system that they feel has not worked for them. They also draw from our people’s penchant for blind faith — i.e., an uncritical acceptance of what our politicians say. We ask presidential candidates what they plan to do for our country, without interrogating how exactly they plan to do it.

The problem with most quick fixes, however, is that they break the continuity that’s necessary for most programs to succeed. In DOT, for instance, the changing of slogans — from “Wow Philippines” to “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” to “Experience Philippines” — is undertaken by every new administration, as if it would miraculously allow us to finally beat the tourist arrivals of Thailand and Malaysia (both of whom, by the way, have maintained their respective slogans for the past decade).

Another is they lead to desperate and drastic measures that are ultimately detrimental to our nation. Instead of building a comprehensive approach to our drug problem, the government embarks on a ‘war on drugs’ without addressing why people use drugs in the first place. Death, whether in the form of suspected drug users getting shot or criminals getting executed, is valorized, despite the overwhelming historical and scientific evidence that it is not just inhumane, but ineffective.

And then there’s martial law, which is being touted today as a magical solution for Mindanao’s problems — even though, as my colleague Oscar Franklin Tan pointed out, it does not actually add to the already awesome powers of the presidency. Completely untethered from any sense of history, some even wish for martial law to be declared over the entire country, thinking  that it would return us into an imagined utopia. Alas, many of our leaders tolerate these untruths, betraying a complicity that is just as expedient for them as the myths they enable.

“Federalism,” too, is trumpeted as a panacea for our republic’s maladies, as if it would overhaul our broken political system and rid us of the pernicious culture of patronage. While federalism is a legitimate long-term aspiration for the country, the way it is presented by today’s political actors, as yet another silver bullet, misses the mark, even as it once again hits people’s longing for change.

Quick fixes can take the form not just of programs or platforms, but individuals, as when they too are touted, and uncritically accepted, as the answer to our problems. And here is where the gravest danger lies. Over 40 years after a Philippine president presented himself as our nation’s savior, the last thing we need is another fake messiah.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Thursday, July 13, 2017

[Second Opinion] Remembrance of typhoons past

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Typhoons were a big part of my childhood. Surrounded by the forest trees on Mount Makiling, our apartment in the UP Los BaƱos housing area was particularly vulnerable to the storms’ effects.

The anticipation for a coming storm began with Ernie Baron’s prognostications on “TV Patrol,” in which he would point his weatherman’s stick at the Pacific in order to show the position of the looming storm. As the storm entered the Philippine Area of Responsibility, it would acquire a Filipino woman’s name (“Rosing,” a strong one, was particularly memorable, it being the name of my paternal grandmother).

Signal No. 2 sufficed to cancel classes in elementary school, but sometimes even after Signal No. 3 was raised there would be blue skies, or just some cloudiness, in which case we would play our favorite outdoor games: patintero, siato, or taguan. Otherwise, we would just stay indoors. Looking back, I would attribute my penchant for reading books to the many days when there was nothing else to do.

The apartments — a housing project for UP faculty — were thankfully sturdy, but because we were surrounded by trees, even a slight wind could cause a branch to fall on electric wires, cutting off power. And so even before the first gusts arrived, we already expected “brownouts,” which sometimes lasted for weeks.

After the storm, we the neighborhood kids would scour the forest for sticks that we could use for siato; the best were from fallen branches of kape and kamagong. The brownouts — and trips to a water outpost a few kilometers away — may continue for days or weeks, but everything else was back to normal. I didn’t realize it then, but looking back, it must have been a tremendous effort on my mother’s part to make sure that we could go back to school—with ironed uniforms and packed lunches—despite the lack of electricity.

My childhood experiences are just one thread in the Filipino struggle to face the storms that come our way. Safe in their mansions and gated villages, some children may never even have heard the ominous sound of a fierce gust of wind; a typhoon’s sole consequence will be to have no classes. For others, however, the experience is far worse.

A few years ago, a typhoon swept Laguna and felled many trees, including most of my maternal grandmother’s rambutan. When my mother visited her the next morning, my Lola Belen was in a state of shock, unable to process the sight of so many fallen rambutan days before they were to be harvested. How much more shocked, I thought, are Filipinos who wake up to destroyed houses, or those who could not sleep because of floods? Typhoons call us to empathy — a realization that the blind force of nature affects people differently—and we have to factor in others’ experiences, not just our own.

I was reminded of this on a recent trip to Tacloban, where my friends opened up about their experiences of living through “Yolanda.” They said: “It wasn’t the typhoon per se that devastated us, but the aftermath. People were not people anymore: Some were willing to kill for a sack of rice. And the stench of dead bodies permeated the air for several weeks…” As they proceeded, it became clear to me that the full impact was beyond narrative.

Even so, Tacloban itself has risen, and my friends show no sign of defeat. “It makes you stronger, knowing that you lived through Yolanda,” one of them said. What shines through in their accounts, like a candle in a dark stormy night, is a resilient spirit: one that we can neither romanticize nor underestimate.

“What do you do,” I once asked an old woman in Catanduanes, “when the roofs are detached?” She laughed. “We chase after them,” she said, perhaps half-jokingly. “And nail them back.” Which reminded me of what my Lola Belen told me in the wake of the storm, weeks later: “We will plant new trees. It will only be a matter of time when there be rambutan again.”

With our planet’s climate changing, and our future ever more uncertain, I fear that there will be stronger typhoons, with greater impacts, ahead of us. But I know enough of the Filipino people to say that we are capable of weathering any storm.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer:

Thursday, July 6, 2017

[Second Opinion] "Dahan-dahan sa dahon-dahon"

by Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer 

We Filipinos have a rich heritage of herbal medicines. Long before Dr. Nelia Maramba’s pioneering research and the Department of Health’s “Sampung Halamang Gamot,” Filipinos have been using herbs as remedies. In my own research, I encountered pine needles being used for contraception in the Cordilleras, kamangyan as treatment for asthma in Leyte, and the popular tawa-tawa for dengue all over the country.

In some way, this is good because many of our common ailments do not really require medication. Most cases of cough and cold, for instance, will get better even without any treatment, and patients end up attributing their recovery to whatever they were taking — be it an antibiotic, a vitamin, or an herbal medicine. Moreover, beyond a placebo effect, many herbs have very real benefits, as more and more scientific research is revealing.

But our soft spot for herbal medicines is being capitalized upon by various companies to sell all kinds of products. Some of these products actually have very little “herbs” in them: Dr. Bryan Lim, an infectious disease fellow at the Philippine General Hospital whose quip inspired the title of this piece, laments that some “herbal” powders promising to treat diabetes actually make it worse because they’re mostly sugar.

Others, while having actual herbs, are marketed as wonder drugs that can cure all kinds of diseases. Despite disclaimers of having “no approved therapeutic claims,” these products often come with implicit and explicit claims that even some radio newscasters attest to: a different way of being bayaran.

What’s more worrisome is when these herbal products are being presented as cures for serious conditions, particularly cancer. It is bad enough that patients are made to pay for unproven therapies, but what makes it worse is when these products take patients away from proven treatments that could have saved their lives. Any kind of therapy has an opportunity cost, which is often missed out in people’s decision-making processes.

Finally, there is also a chance they can cause actual harm. Contrary to the public’s perception that herbal medicines are largely harmless, they can be overdosed — and they do have side effects. Herbal supplements, considered technically as “food” but are often taken as medicine, remain a regulatory grey area, making it hard to ensure safety.

The appeal of herbs, of course, comes from the long-held idea that “nature heals.” To a certain extent, there is truth to this: A nutritious diet, coupled by a healthy lifestyle, can certainly make a big difference to our health. The industrialization of food and today’s sedentary lifestyles, on the other hand, have undeniably contributed to the rise of noncommunicable diseases.

But we must also bear in mind that the past was no Garden of Eden. Even when everything was “organic,” people had cancer, and it cannot be denied that modern medicine, with its vaccines, antibiotics, and novel technologies, has saved millions, if not billions, of lives.

On top of this discourse of “natural vs. artificial,” the appeal of herbs lies in the power of testimony. For scientists to be able to say something conclusive, they demand rigorous clinical trials—not just anecdotal evidence or animal studies. For many, however, a blog post can be more convincing—and celebrities more authoritative. Desperation, of course, can predispose people to cling to false hopes.

Having said all that, I have to stress that we should be open to the potential of herbal medicines, and thus support further research to validate their uses. But what we should be against is making false claims and raising expectations as to what they can do. Toward this end, government agencies and medical societies should be vigilant and critical in the way certain products are advertised. (This, by the way, also applies to pharmaceuticals — but that’s for another piece.)

Meanwhile, we must strive to create an environment of critical thinking: one that will empower the public to make informed health choices. When it comes to herbal medicines—as with all kinds of promised cures — a dose of healthy skepticism will go a long way.

Originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer: