Friday, October 8, 2021

[Speech] Message to the students of UP College of Public Health

Speech delivered virtually on October 6, 2021 on the occasion of the 2021 Welcome Ceremony and New Students' Orientation of UP College of Public Health 


First of all, I would like to express gratitude to the College of Public Health not just for this invitation but the support I have received, moral and otherwise, from people like your Dean, Dr. Jun Belizario, my Universal Health Care Study Group colleague Dr. Emer Faraon, and my contemporaries in the UP College of Medicine, like PM Hernandez and Jimjim Lopez - who I have known since our Intarmed days. I do not say this just to mention people in your college; I say this because I really feel so much at home in UP Manila because of the support I have received in my various activities. Someday, I look forward to collaborating with your college and I hope I get to meet you. 

But of course, I also feel at home in UP Manila because it was literally my home for several years, from the time I was an Intarmed student to the time that I finished medical school. I lived across Taft for three years, and in a dormitory in Orosa Street for another four years, I have seen shops and restaurants come and go - Sala Thai near PUP, Iseya in Padre Faura, Cyma our long-time favorite in Rob Manila. Gone is the computer shop where we used to play DOTA; gone even are the buildings where we used to have our lectures. But of course Robinsons in still there, and I’m sure you’ll get familiar with its every detail - including the escalators and restrooms that are out of service.

Today, with a pandemic upon us, my student days seem to belong to the remote past. But just because things have changed doesn't mean that we have to let ourselves bogged down by the thought of that change. Leadership involves rising to the occasion, and while I do not underestimate the personal challenges we all face today, I believe that by being here, and by choosing public health, you have what it takes to be leaders, whether in scholarship, community-building, teaching, or public service. Once, when I was hiking in Japan’s Mt. Hiei - the site of Ruruoni Kenshin’s epic battle with Shishio, it was foggy I couldn’t see anything, then suddenly a monk appeared, and asked me: “Why are you here?” And I said, “I want to climb Mt. Hiei”, but he repeated: “Why are you here?” And I realized that what he really asking is “Why are you here in this world at this moment?” 

I still think about that question from time and time, but today I am convinced that the reason why we’re here is because we refuse to accept that the pandemic has defeated us. We refuse to accept a future where public heath is a privilege, not a right. We refuse to accept that we have stopped growing as individuals. We are here, whether as teachers or students, because we believe that we can make the future better than the present. 

 But we cannot be future-looking all the time. Being in college, or taking that master’s degree, is not just a step in a ladder, it is a chapter in your life that is as important as the previous and the next. I think that I speak for the faculty in saying that your happiness, your sense of fulfillment and meaning with your life today matters to me much just as much as your service to the country, even as I also know that the happier you are, the better you will be able to serve. Aside from wishing you success in your future career, my hope is that you will be able to make the most of your student experience, in academics and beyond. And so, in 10 minutes or so, let me share some advice as you embark on your college journey on this time of great uncertainty. 

First, never allow yourself to get envious of the past, never think of your student experience as inferior or incomplete because of this pandemic. I know that it is disappointing, and even depressing, to start college or grad school this way. I know that it’s almost two years, and the lockdowns upon lockdowns are increasingly unbearable. But don’t think that this virtual platform will make you any less of a student. Focus instead on what you can do, from learning from the pandemic itself. Like a volcanologist who does not welcome a volcanic eruption but will nonetheless use it as an opportunity to apply and grow their field, we can learn from this pandemic, and we can evolve our way through it by developing our skills in independent learning, in online teaching, in virtual fieldwork, and so much more. 

Second, use your privilege wisely. Not everyone will have this opportunity to learn. Not everyone will have fast enough Internet; some are struggling to have Internet access at all. Even before the pandemic, studying has been a privilege. This is no need to feel guilty about this, but aside from acknowledging it, one way we can respond is by maximizing our opportunities and using it to improve ourselves so we can better help other people. 

Now one of the nice things about being a UP student is that you get to meet people from all over the country. My love for traveling was developed with my visits to my classmates during sem breaks and summer vacations - including my first trips to Mindanao. I’ve learned so much from my travels since, andI would advice you to travel whenever there’s an opportunity, with the caveat that, in this age of Instagram, I hope you will travel but not for the world to see you, but for you to see the world. But of course today we cannot even go out of our homes, we cannot even go to campus, which brings me to my third advice: Read. Read. Read, because books can also take you places. Books allow your imagination to travel, and it can be as rewarding as traveling itself. When I was in med school I used to go to the Booksale in Robinsons Manila and I made it a point to read one a book every week. I think it helped me a lot, and I think it will help you too: To the graduate students in particular, I must say that you that if you want to write your thesis of dissertation easily, you must learn not just to read but to enjoy reading. 

Fourth, I hope you realize that “ambitious” is is not a bad word. In the Philippines, “ambisyoso” has a negative connotation, and even “trying hard”, but If public health is grow, then you must be confident in your ability to expand the field. I think we have to celebrate a certain degree of bibo-ness in all of us. A few years ago, I told myself that in terms of productivity, my goal will be to publish one tweet a day, one column a week, one journal article a month, and one book a year. At that time, it seemed unreachable, especially the one journal article a month and one book a year. But this year, I’m happy to say that I’m on track to meeting this goal - I will be launching a book on “Drugs and Philippine Society” later this month. With practice and perseverance, I realized that one’s goals, no matter how ambitious, can be realized. I think we in the Philippines have much to share to the world in terms of public health knowledge and experience, and we must be ambitious in taking leadership in global health. 

Fifth, do not be afraid to question experts, including your professors, but do s with humility, with the acknowledgment that you could be wrong. During the pandemic, I have found myself at odds with some of my own professors. For example, I was one of the first to question the value of face shields especially outdoors. But I have continued to engage with them privately and I have refrained from personal attacks. Public health can be divisive because it is not an exact science. But there is far more that unites us than divides us - from the importance of vaccination to our demand that health care workers and researchers get due benefits. I hope that you will join us in trying to make public health a true community: one united by shared goals, shared experiences, and shared values. 

Sixth, never let go of who you are. Sometimes, especially in the health sciences, we think of our careers as a series of steps towards increasing specialization. From health you become a doctor, then you become an internist, then a cardiologist then an interventional cardiologist. But while we cannot be a jack of all trades, we don’t have to let go of our backgrounds, the things that make us unique. You can be plural in your career, in your professional identity. This applies to non-academic stuff too. In college, you will meet people from all walks of life, and sometimes you cannot help but wish you had some of their abilities, talents, looks, and lifestyle. Some will be effortlessly good in public speaking. Others will be physically fit and toned no matter how much they eat. Some will have so many Instagram followers, others will have the best condo. Never let go of who you are, because without realizing it, you also have something unique that can enrich you even further if you pursue it. I really loved mountain climbing, but when I was in college I had hardly anyone to climb with. I didn’t realize that mountain climbing was also a key to making so many friends, and I’ve climbed with so many people from all walks of life because of the mountains. I’ve also learned so much about our country and our world - having climbed in all kinds of places. The mountains have been a source of strength which is why I have been a steadfast environment advocate, it’s the least I can do for the mountains that are dear to me. 

Seventh, be generous with your time and your emotions - but reserve them for people that matter. I remember recently this celebrity saying that she could get by with 100 pesos a week as a student in La Salle, we were all students before and most of us will feel at some point that we never have enough. But while allowance is limited, your emotions are boundless. Do we look at our emotions as something can be generous about? It is frustrating to see all the problems of our nation and the world, but there is already so much good you can do at an individual level, from explaining vaccines to engaging relatives and friends, on matters of politics. However, I’ve also learned to reserve my emotions for people who matter. Because of my column and my tweets I get trolled a lot, I’ve even faced legal harassment, and it can hurt. But I don’t hate these people. They don’t deserve my love, but they also don’t deserve my hate. I don’t have time or space for hatred. There’s so much to do, there’s so much good we can do. Expand your concept of generosity to include time and emotions, and you will enrich the people around you. 

Finally, this is a moment of overlapping crises in our country and I’m sure you’re thinking about where you want to be in the future. I for one don’t believe that you necessarily have to be in the country to be of service, but do not lose hope, because there’s so much we can do in our lifetimes, and of course there’s no place like home. Remember - we are not a small country and there’s so much diversity and beauty within us. We are not a poor country and with better leadership, we can do so much with our wealth of knowledge, creativity and solidarity. A poet once said: “Don't stay where you are needed. Go where you are loved.” In the Philippines, you are both loved and needed. And so always reserve a space in your heart for our beloved country. With those thoughts, I conclude this message and I wish all of you the best in your public health journeys, with the hope that we will see each other along the way.

Mexico City, October 6, 2021

Thursday, September 23, 2021

[Panel Discussion] #PHCON2021 - Indigenization of Public Health

On September 23, 2021, I participated in a virtual panel discussion on the "Indigenization of Public Health" as part of the #PHCON2021 organized by the Philippine Society of Public Health Physicians. Joining me in the panel were Dr. Renzo Guinto, Dr. Meredith Labarda, and Dr. Ryan Guinaran. 

I highlighted the importance of looking at structural barriers to participation as well as the value of long-term engagement with indigenous peoples as a way to facilitate inclusivity in times of crises. I also underscored the importance of the social sciences in helping bridge medical and local knowledge. 

Friday, August 20, 2021

[Speech] Message to the students of UP Manila College of Arts and Sciences

Speech delivered on the occasion of UP Manila College of Arts and Sciences' Araw ng Pagkilala 2021 on August 20, 2021

My esteemed colleagues; my friends in the UP Manila community; and our dear students: 

I was a young and naive 17-year old from UP Rural High School in Los Baños when I went to UP Manila. I was an Eagle Scout who of course knew how to use the compass and even at some point how to build a fire, but the first time I used the LRT in Pedro Gil I got lost and ended up in the opposite direction. On our first week, two of our blockmates had their cellphones stolen in Padre Faura, and learned early on that the thieves can smell who the newbies were from a mile away. Back in those pre-iPhone, pre-Netflix days, Pedro Gil was filled with vendors selling VCDs, and the most introvert-friendly way to make friends is to add them on Friendster.

Diliman, they said, was much better campus, but we eventually warmed up to UP Manila, including our favorite part of it - Robinsons Mall. I visited the Booksale every week hoping that I would be lucky enough to find good books, encouraged by the Haruki Murakami novel - Norwegian Wood - that I bought for 50 pesos. I usually did, and I made my policy to read one novel every week. 

As an Intarmed student, I actually spent a lot of time in AS, which during our time had the strictest security guards ever. I don’t remember what my grades were, except for 2.5 in Calculus. We had colorful, unforgettable professors, like the legendary Ma’am Gavino, our History instructor Sir Esguerra, our Humanities Ma’am Achanzar, and many more. Now that I’m a UP faculty now myself, I realize that when you’re standing in front of the class you can see everything that students are doing - from watching NBA games to scrolling their Twitter and reading books totally unrelated to the course. And all I could do is to tell myself: Karma is real. 

It would be nice to continue my reminiscence because I want to impart to you a glimpse of how your college memories can be a source of strength, joy, and even laughter, in the future. Maybe today, you know even the student number of your crushes, but someday, it will feel like an achievement to remember your own. 

But at the same time, I know that we are faced with more pressing natters today, amid this pandemic and the seemingly endless cycle of lockdowns. When I graduated in 2010, a new president was about to take office, but we did not have the sense of uncertainty we have today. Certainly, we did not have this pandemic that has changed every aspect of our life, including this ceremony during which I cannot even see you face to face.

And so I cannot be a guide for what’s going on today, the way a mountain guide knows the way and takes hikers up the summit. Some might use the metaphor “we are on the same boat” and that’s quite apt since the word ‘barkada’ literally means the same: people of the same barko. But I also know that the pandemic has divided the privileged and the under-privileged, and has exposed the inequity of the world - including in your personal lives. Many of you have struggled greatly over the past one and a half years, which is why surely, this moment comes with a mix of emotions, and I do not feel adequate to the task to giving justice to all of them.

Even so, along my journey in UP Manila and beyond, I would like to remind you of three things that I learned along the way that might be of help as you continue your journeys through and beyond this pandemic. 

First, always remember that you are plural. Do you remember that UPCAT application form when you had so many choices but in the end you can only take one? Life is not like that. You do not have to choose just one thing. You can choose two. Or three. Or more. Of course you have your chosen career path but don’t let your life be limited to that. Don’t let your career define you. Some of you are singers, dancers, writers, actors, activists, leaders in different fields. Do not let go of your hobbies and passions. Hold on to them like a child misses their blanket. Nothing is too petty or unimportant if it means so much to you. My mountain climbing has sustained me throughout of my life, giving me so much confidence and strength. I refuse to downplay it. It’s an integral part of my life, co-equal with my writing, with my research. They all make me who I am, and none is less important than the other. Because I loved medicine and the social sciences, I tried to find a way of combine them and I’m so happy with my career as a medical anthropologist. There are ways to mix and match your strengths, talents, passions especially with today’s technologies that have enabled you to pursue more. I actually composed songs for the musical we produced as part of Ma’am Achanzar’s Humanities 2 class and maybe someday I would like try that again too. 

Plurality, by the way, can extend to identity - you can be a proud Mindanao, Bicolano, Palaweño, Filipino, Asian, and whatever else you end up, all at the same time. At a time when we are forced to choose between different identities - race, ethnicity, gender, or even professional affiliation - we can be all of the above - or none; we should welcome plurality not as a threat, but as a fulfillment, of our individuality. I. 

Second, always remember that as individuals, you are promising, and you continue to be. No matter how prestigious your university is, no matter how big your achievements are, it is easy nowadays to feel incomplete and inadequate. Maybe today you feel that you’ve underachieved, especially if you compare yourself to others. Maybe you felt that because of the pandemic you didn’t learn enough. 

But let me tell you that the best way to look at achievement, and at ourselves, is not as a product, but a process. The UP education did not take you to the top of the mountain, it did not even take you to a certain trail, but it taught you some skills how to climb, how to find your way, and if needed, how to find your way back. And along the way, learning has to continue, like a Final Fantasy character that keeps leveling up. How can you live up to that promise, in ways that avoid what BTS calls an “imaginary swamp” of worries and expectations? In my experience, aside from the medical training itself which taught me so much about life and death, traveling has given me perspectives that I needed to know myself and to understand the human condition better. Once the pandemic ends, travel as much as you can - but do not travel so the world can see you, but so you can see the world. There are different ways to travel - you can travel to Japan and just eat matcha and sushi all day. I don’t mind that! But you can also go to the country and learn about its history, its society, not just their technological marvels but also their societal challenges. 

Aside from traveling, I would add reading, which is like traveling with your imagination.

And then there’s practice, which is essential for any endeavor in life. When I started writing a column, it took me four days to write one piece. Nowadays, it takes me around four hours. When I started writing academic papers, it took me over a year to write one piece. This year alone, I've published 12. Keep practicing, and you will get there.

Finally, you are not just plural, you are just promising, but you are powerful. I know that this is hard to say in the middle of a pandemic, it might come off as naive.

But only if we define power in narrow terms. There are things we can do, both as individuals, and as communities. I have not solved the vexing problems of vaccine inequity and hesitancy, but I’ve managed to convince at least 13 individuals - family and friends - to get vaccinated, by giving them information and vouching for the safety of vaccines. As UP graduates, you have the power to influence the people around you. On whether or not to take a vaccine. On who to vote. On even what to eat; how to leave healthy, non-toxic, positive days. To those of you who will be pursuing health related careers, you have a special power to help other people. We will not always be able offer cure, but we can always offer care. 

Sometimes, our power lies in the most underrated life skills, like encouraging people, introducing them to new experiences, and mentoring them. Somewhere in your high school, or hometown, there’s a kid looking up to you, and your words can mean so much to them. Somewhere in your community there’s a pantry, a local initiative, and your support can mean so much as well. 

Remember, you are powerful because kindness is powerful. 

And you are powerful because science is powerful and those of you who will pursue the track of research can improve people’s lives. The very fact that it’s possible to protect yourself with vaccines today speaks of the power of research to improve people’s lives and we should never take that for granted. By science, of course I also mean the social sciences, which can diagnose the ills of society, and point out to the structural barriers to our people’s health and happiness. Science can be used in the service of authoritarianism, of corporate greed, of human vanity, but with moral courage, it can also be used to challenge them, by pointing out its weaknesses, contradictions, and harm - and pointing towards sustainability and equity in our ways of life.

Finally, you are powerful because arts are just as powerful and important as the sciences. During the lockdown, when medicine failed, it is the music, film, TV series; the stories and songs that kept us going, offering the beauty and hope that reminded that the world is still worth fighting for. UP Manila is the health sciences university, and AS fits right in the middle because the arts can heal. The arts can heal, and again with courage, they can also heal our nation. 

And so, our dear students, my colleagues and friends, fellow learners, let me end not with a challenge, but with a benediction: 

May your plurality allow you to maximize your life and realize your potential.

May your promise translate to the betterment of your families, communities, and our beloved country. 

And may the power that lies within each of you lead to a better, safer, fairer, and more inclusive world. 

Amherst, Massachusetts - August 4, 2021

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

[Panel Discussion] Asia and the Pacific Youth Symposium - Health & Wellness

On August 18, 2021, I moderated the Knowledge Session on Health and Wellness as part of this year’s Asia Pacific Youth Symposium organized by the Asian Development Bank. Building on the first-ever APYS last year, the session was envisioned as part of an intergenerational dialogue for the exchange of knowledge and experience on pressing matters involving the region, in ways that mobilize young people as partners. 

In the event, Shruti Mehta discussed how can we reduce NCD prevalence through MYE in sports investments, as well as through youth-led behavior change on harmful habits, diet and exercise and Trisha Lamban, a 19-year old mental health advocate from the Philippines, talked about engaging her peers both online and offline. Meanwhile, Rui Liu, a health specialist with ADB’s Health Sector, shared lessons learned about youth health during the pandemic and some insights how we should approach this topic amid a so-called ‘new normal’, and Prof. Susan Sawyer provided an overview of the state of young people today - as well as the current and potential opportunities for meaningful youth engagement.