Monday, December 05, 2011

Oblivious and prejudiced

This post is antedated. This was my column December 5, 2011.

I have long ago stopped listening to Abigail Valte, supposedly deputy presidential spokesperson, because I still have to catch her saying something that makes sense, or failing that, at least something that I don’t already know from reading the papers or watching the news.

Every single time the woman is asked a question, she prefaces her answer with “as far as I know” or “based on what I know” which, if we really come to think about it doesn’t really inspire confidence. This is particularly since half the time she is simply regurgitating stuff that has already been said by another government official. The rest of the time, Valte tries to “think aloud” by issuing motherhood statements that doesn’t really reveal anything newsworthy, or every remotely noteworthy. Her stock answer amounts to something like “As far as I know, that topic is of major concern for the government and of course we will look into that.”

Of course many people think she is simply a diversion—a talking mouth that is not supposed to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, Valte seems have become the de facto face and voice of this government more often than we care which is truly not a good sign. Valte doesn’t seem to know anything in terms of what the President actually thinks; so her official title of spokesperson is a sham. But then again, perhaps we are being too harsh. The poor woman is probably the typical official of this administration: clueless, detached from the real world, but nevertheless speaks with all the moral authority that can be mustered. In short, long on the morality aspect but short on actual performance. Unfortunately, we cannot feed people or make lives better with just good intentions. Nor can we stop HIV/AIDS infections with empty words and prejudice.

On occasion of the global celebration of World AIDS Day, Valte was asked to respond to concerns about the fact that the Philippines has been cited as one of only seven countries in the world that have rising HIV/AIDS infections. She responded in typical Valte-speak: “This is a point of concern for us but the DOH has already raised this in a previous discussion so we know the DOH is aware, the DOH is concerned and the DOH is acting and taking immediate steps to correct the rise.” Translation: I don’t have the faintest idea but I presume the DOH is doing something.

The poor woman was not only obfuscating, she was clearly oblivious to reality. Had she bothered to check, she would have known that officials of the DOH below the level of the secretary have been frantically pressing the alarm button on HIV/AIDS. Had she done her homework, she would have known that there is huge shortfall in funding requirements for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment and that the DOH has refused to put more money into HIV/AIDS programs; its current secretary seems to think that HIV/AIDS is not a serious problem and by all indications wants to put it at the same category as renal diseases, his field of specialization. But of course, all these were too much for Valte to process.

I am not trying to be mean to Valte but the rest of the comments she made rankled because it showed in no uncertain terms just how officials of this administration are clearly oblivious of the real problems of this country. “We will wait for their update because the last time we talked—it seems it was early this year—they had a program to arrest the increase of these cases. This includes an information campaign.” Early this year? Oops, we forgot; this administration does not believe in Cabinet meetings. An information campaign? For crying out loud, this country has been doing information campaigns on HIV/AIDS since the time Juan Flavier was secretary of health but I guess Valte is happy being a vacuous talking head to bother with actually making sense.

Valte’s attempts to talk nonsensically about HIV/AIDS I can ignore. But Health Secretary Enrique Ona’s abysmal lack of political will to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS is unacceptable. Ona’s lack of awareness of the social and psychological issues around HIV/AIDS prevention and his utter insensitivity to the human rights issues of people living with HIV/AIDS and members of communities that are vulnerable to infection is unforgivable. What the heck, I will drop attempts at being politically correct since Ona did too: We have a Secretary of Health who is not only in denial in terms of the urgency and gravity of the HIV/AIDS situation in the country, his prejudice and tendency towards bigotry is showing.

According to a report posted by AIDS activist Jonas Bagas in his Facebook account, “Ona was booed and jeered at the Plenary Meeting of the Philippine National AIDS Council held Friday, December 2, 2011, after he practically endorsed a witch hunt of ‘homosexuals’ as an HIV testing strategy to address the growing HIV epidemic in the Philippines.” A video of the event can be seen on Youtube.

According to Bagas, “around 30 HIV and AIDS activists from organizations belonging to the Network to Stop HIV and AIDS in the Philippines jeered Ona and blew their red whistles, demanding that Ona exercise political leadership as chair of PNAC.”

“In reaction to the growing infection among men who have sex with men and transgenders in the Philippines, Ona proposed that the government’s interventions must be targeted, suggesting that parents should be contacted and asked if they have homosexual children and be told about their children’s ‘problem’,” Bagas reported.

This is the first time I actually heard a secretary of Health openly advocate a proposal that stigmatizes people. What was even ironic was that Ona raised his “brilliant” suggestion when the council was discussing the adoption of the United Nations Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS. The declaration strongly opposes interventions that increases stigmatization and discrimination against vulnerable populations such as men who have sex with men, transgenders, drug users, and sex workers.

The Philippines is one of only seven countries in the world that has seen a rise in HIV/AIDS infections. The rest of the world has been seeing a steady decline in HIV/AIDS infections while we are seeing an almost algebraic rise in reported infections. Clearly, there is a need to double, even triple HIV/AIDS prevention efforts.

But this government does not get it. A sizable percentage of money used in HIV/AIDS prevention in the past has been sourced through funds from international donors, which has become more and more difficult to source. With no money coming from global funds, it is given that government will have to come in and deliver the funds. This administration has refused to do so. Ona insists that the current amount of spending by the national government is enough. Ona’s logic stinks because the infections are tripling and yet the total money available is short by about half of what is required. To make up for the shortfall, Ona has come up with his stigmatizing proposal to conduct a witch hunt of homosexuals.

We will have to pay dearly, very dearly in the very near future for Ona’s and this government’s inaction and indifference on HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately, being aware as to who is to blame for the rise in infections in the country does not help reverse the situation. As usual, we, the citizens will just have to do what we can because it really seems that nobody is out there in the corridors of power.

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