Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

The Philippine government is suddenly very concerned about my health.

Actually, it is suddenly very, very concerned about the health of all Filipinos, especially the poor. So much so that recent laws and policies have been presented as “health-oriented” and enacted in the interest of my physical wellness and quality of life.

The Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion Law (more popularly known as TRAIN) has been, and is continued to be severely criticized on various fronts. It is difficult to see how much of a reform it really is when it’s immediate effect has been to increase the prices of many consumer goods. But the “silver lining” its proponents are determined to push are its health benefits: with the higher prices of sugary drinks, its consumption will be reduced.

No less than the National Tax Research Center (NTRC), a government-run think-tank, suddenly became a health expert in citing how soft-drink consumption is linked to various illnesses like diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease. “The imposition of an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages is deemed timely and justifiable on the ground that these beverages are addicting for some and have been substituted for drinking water,” they intoned in a media report. The Undersecretary of Finance himself, Karl Kendrick Chua, has also assured the public that this additional tax was a health measure.

Aside from sugar, cooked rice has also been at the crosshairs of legislators and policy-makers. Not too long ago Senator Cynthia Villar complained that unlimited rice consumption should be banned from restaurants. She only backed down after receiving much backlash from netizens.

It is not only my blood sugar that the government is worried about, but also the state of my pulmonary system. Department of Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade was recently quoted as saying that he was pushing for the jeepney modernization program to reduce air pollution levels. He relates how his son passed away due to asthma, and that he did not anything like this to happen again.

The death of a child always deserves all our sympathies, and the Secretary and his family have mine. I do not intend in any way to belittle that tragic experience. But it is hard for me to see why the jeepney modernization program is now being adamantly being promoted like it is the ultimate anti-pollution initiative. After all, don’t we already have the Clean Air Act and other regulations (such as vehicle emission testing prior to renewal of registration) in place that just need to be better enforced?

Tugade’s remonstration was picked up by James Deakin, who offered his own opinion that “…being anti-poor is better than being anti-earth. Air is the last great equalizer. We must choose what is right for all, and not just a sector. Regardless how noisy it gets.”

Sometimes I feel like I live under a rock because I have no idea who James Deakin is. So I looked through his official Facebook page and found out that aside from being a motoring expert and aficionado with a news program at a much-respected media outlet, he also marked out his interests (or, “Genre”) as “Motoring, Life, Love, basically anything but religion and politics.”

And there lies the rub. Deakin’s view only makes sense in a social vacuum devoid of any politics whatsoever.

The truth is, in the modern world where health care is no longer solely within an individual’s purview (i.e., it’s more than just gathering herbs in the backyard but instead should involve specialists, hospitals and facilities, pharmaceutical companies, regulatory boards, economic policies, etc.), it becomes and remains to be a political matter. Who gets access to what is a political matter. Pushing for the fulfillment of a human right – and quality of health is a human right – is a political matter.

We must not lose sight of this no matter how “well-intentioned” some of these government policies are. Instead of meeting them with the same naïveté as Deakin, we should meet it with a vigilance and readiness to engage the government with this opening that they themselves have provided to really talk about what we need for our health.

If legislators, cabinet officials, and policy-makers are really concerned about our health, then they should, in first place, be able to find the political will to provide quality universal healthcare. This includes better hospitals and health facilities, and taking care of our doctors and nurses so that they would be encouraged to serve the public instead of flocking abroad or to private institutions. This must also include taking care of the agrarian sector so they can provide good, affordable food – the ultimate cure – all for everyone’s wellbeing.

They were able to find the political will to railroad the TRAIN Law without a quorum nor voting, and the Dengvaxia vaccine without sufficient studies; when will they find the political will to simply prevent horror stories like this in our public hospitals from ever happening again?

A more hyperbolic (and a bit more vexed) stance is: If the government does not seem to be genuinely, or only half-heartedly, interested in investing in our health, then I think it has very little ground to police what we take into our bodies and how to manage them. If I will ultimately end up shelling out my own money anyway whenever I get sick, then I don’t think I would allow them to meddle with whether I can drink softdrinks or not (which I don’t, by the way, but only because it is my own free decision, and not because external political policies beyond my control have made me a “have-not” instead of a “have”).

As long as the health of Filipinos, in the broadest sense, do not become the priority of the Philippine government, this makes their sudden concern for it (for example, riding as it is on the TRAIN and jeepney modernization) feel insincere at best and hypocritical at worse. To slightly tweak the feminist call, they can keep their policies off my ovaries, stomach, lungs, etc.

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