Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The list

This is my column today, April 29, 2014.


The hottest item in the country at the moment that everyone wants to acquire a copy of, or at least have definitive knowledge of, is The List. 
Of course there are many things that are troubling, to say the least, about the way our leaders have been wrangling over the The List and how best to manage it, but I guess that is to be expected given the kind of irreparable damage inclusion in the list could bring to anyone’s political career. 
As it is, I doubt if there is sufficient expertise in the world that can cleanse or deodorize the image of the three senators already linked to the scam.  They are already as good as retired, and that is the better scenario.  The worse scenario is jail time, not to mention lifetime stigma of being branded as thieves.  A source told me yesterday that at the birthday bash thrown for former President Joseph Estrada Saturday night, even the polite applause for the three senators was embarrassingly sparse—and to think they were in the company of supposed loyal partymates and friends. 
Conversely, there is the matter of the kind of boost non-inclusion in the list could bring to a flagging political career.  If she plays her cards right, this could just be the needed push that could catapult Justice Secretary Leila de Lima into the Senate in 2016.  She knows it and that’s why she is managing the situation with uncharacteristic prudence.  Of course there is the possibility that she is under extreme pressure from her friends and partymates who are currently squirming at the thought of imminent public ridicule and embarrassment.
It’s not really surprising that most everyone in this country has ascribed a mafia-like context around the existence of The List.  It stands to reason that anyone running an operation as dangerous and as complex as the pork barrel scam would have some way of tracking the extend to which key people in this country were strangled by the scam or the depths at which they were buried in excrement. 
If we are to believe the speculative drivel that has been floating around, The List will decimate both houses of Congress.  The implications are staggering. 
But then again, haven’t we all suspected that for the longest time?  Aren’t we all aware of the existence of the so-called SOP which refers to the standard commission elected officials get out of government contracts that pass through their office?  We’ve known for the longest time that our culture of political patronage breeds the kind of corrupt behaviors among our leaders.  We also know that political dynasties exist as a necessity —families in power need to continue to be in power so they can wield influence when situations such as the pork barrel scams crops up. 
It can be argued of course that the Napoles operation which involved the use of bogus non-government organizations was an extreme example of insatiable greed because under the scam absolutely nothing—as in nada, zilch—went into any kind of program or project.  The Napoles operation was basically a grand scheme to siphon off billions of money from government into the pockets of a select few. In short, the scheme has violated the perceived rules of the game which is to keep corruption within the norm (SOP) and to ensure that the people still get something from the stinking deal.
So yes the clamor for the identities of those who are in The List is legitimate and understandable.  Of course we dread the thought of having our worst fears validated:  That power does corrupt in this country and that contrary to all previous pronouncements on the matter, elections in this country is nothing but a money-making scheme designed to make the rich richer and the powerful even more powerful.  We’re not really sure if we can handle the truth, but it must be made known.
One wishes of course that we all temper the predilection to turn the matter into a national soap opera.  It’s a serious matter with grave consequences not just on those who are in The List, but also to all of us who may have supported them in one way or the other.  In the end, the only way for The List to have any real value other than becoming the bases for prosecution and banishment into political retirement of those who are in it is for all of us to use it as a mirror of our own weaknesses and failings as electorate. After all, we did elect these clowns and thieves into office.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Unprepared for MERS-COV

This is my column today, April 22, 2014.


There were a number of questions that begged to be answered in the wake of the feared Middle East Respiratory Syndrome—Coronavirus epidemic that could have happened last week after a returning overseas Filipino worker tested positive - and subsequently negative-  for the virus. 
First, why didn’t the Department of Health act swiftly to require all passengers to voluntarily submit to a quarantine and testing hours after Etihad Airlines Flight EY 0424 landed in Manila last April 15?  Why did it take government a full week before issuing calls through media for the other passenges of the flight to voluntarily come forward to undergo testing and quarantine?  
When media announced that government had quarantined the Filipino nurse and the members of his family who met him at the airport and that there was ongoing search for 12 other passengers who were seated close to or around him inside the plane, one could already sense the utter lack of a comprehensive crisis management plan.  It was clear that the Health Department was winging its way through the crisis.  There was no well thought-out, properly coordinated and laid-out plan that could have been activated immediately.
A crisis management plan would have immediately invalidated the initial decision to limit the sphere of possible contagion to within a few seats of the index patient.  Why limit to only 12 passengers when the patient was within a highly pressurized cabin for almost eight hours, could have gone to the bathroom many times, and could have had close contact with other passengers before, during, and after the flight?  A plan would have provided for leaflets containing information about MERS-Cov and the numbers to call in case of possible exposure to the virus being distributed to passengers when they filed out of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal.  In fact, the government could have set up a table manned by personnel from the Department of Health at the NAIA Terminal to answer questions or give quick information to the passengers.  All of these, and many other actions, could have happened immediately and many people could have been spared from unnecessary speculation and worry.  
Because our government was not ready, it is now resorting to questionable tactics to encourage all 412 passengers of the EY 0424 to come forward for quarantine and testing—a week after they arrived in the country.  The much-delayed move has increased the possibility of local infections already happening in the event that someone among the 412 did contract MERS-CoV while on board the flight.  The 412 passengers have already come home to their families, interacted with families and friends, and even possibly gone out to public places for the Holy Week.  We’re all praying this has not happened, of course. 
I am not sure the government is morally correct should the Secretary of Health makes true his threat to release the names of all the passengers of EY0424 if they refuse to come out and submit themselves for voluntary testing and quarantine.  That would be tantamount to stigmatizing the concerned individuals publicly just because they happened to be traveling in the same plane as the Filipino nurse.  Contact tracing is unethical and breaks a patient’s right to medical confidentiality.  Of course, the state can invoke public order and safety in extreme cases as a last recourse.  I am not sure this is true in this particular case.  At any rate, doing so would validate the utter lack of empathy of certain people in this administration.
The other question that has been bugging me since the MERS-CoV issue started to spiral out of control last week was:  Why has the government been so trigger happy about disclosing everything related to the ongoing MERS-CoV issue to media including unverified reports and tentative plans and decisions?  The task of government should be to allay the fears of citizens and to downplay sensationalist reporting, not to create panic.
Something as serious and as worrisome as MERS-CoV deserve a well thought-out and—dare I say it, scientific and rational—response from government.  It’s a virus that’s airborne and easily caught.  Worse, there is no drug that treats the disease.  Any news about infections being contracted locally is bound to create panic.  And we know what happens when people panic—they lose the faculty for rational thinking.  Consequently, stigmatizing, witchhunting, and pursuing irrational courses of action become the order of the day. 
What we do know now based on what we have seen last week is that government is totally unprepared for a MERS-CoV epidemic in this country.  It’s not too late though.  We can forgive what happened last week, but am not sure we can afford a repeat of the same bungled approach.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Back to business as usual

This is my column today, April 20, 2014. 


It’s Easter Sunday today.  There will be a flurry of text messages as well as shoutouts in social networking sites proclaiming the significance of the occasion as if we all needed to be reminded that Jesus Christ was crucified last Friday and was risen from the dead today.   Passages from The Bible will be quoted and passed around.  There will be special feasts in some hotels and restaurants as well as Easter egg hunts.  Theoretically, Easter Sunday is the most important religious event in Christendom.  The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the greatest story in Christianity.  But then again, most of us in this country are stuck with the rituals rather than the substance.  Holy week is a season, which means that it has a specific prescription period.
So for most, today is simply the day that marks the end of a long weekend. Many will try to cram this day full of unfinished tasks and unfulfilled promises.  For the tens of thousands who will be coming back to Metro Manila after spending time in the province, it will yet be another day of battling the other tens of thousands of commuters for precious space on the road. 
For more than ten years now, I have made it a point to stay home during the Holy Week.  There was a time during my younger days when I also joined the mass exodus out of the Metro and into some places where one could – supposedly - peacefully commune with nature and spend time in quiet reflection. But after being stuck at the North Luzon Expressway and in the Pampanga-Tarlac stretch for more than ten hours sometime in the late nineties, I swore never again to submit myself to the aggravation.  Besides, I discovered that most of the people who join the mad rush out of Manila also tend to bring the party spirit to their respective destinations and enjoin everyone else to celebrate the holiest season in the Christian calendar in most unholy way possible.  While I don’t think everyone should flagellate themselves and starve in the name of faith, I do think there are more appropriate ways to pass time during the Holy Week other than gyrating to loud music and consuming tons of alcohol. 
I have since come to the conclusion that the best place to be during the Holy Week is Metro Manila.  It’s the only time during the whole year when there’s less congestion and pollution in the national capital. 
Unfortunately, this year seemed like an exception.  Although our media networks made a big to do with the bedlam that occurred at the exit points of the metro Wednesday night supposedly caused by the bazillions of people who wanted to get out, it did seem like many residents of the city also decided to stay home this year as evidenced by the unusually heavy traffic during the Holy Week. 
Of course it can be argued that this was because government chose to make use of the four-day holiday to go full blast with various construction projects, but there really seemed to be more people who did the Visita Iglesia this year.  Restaurants and yes, even Starbucks cafes were unusually full last Thursday. Traffic was so bad that for the first time in 10 years, we cut our annual visitation of churches to seven, from the usual 14.  I know.  Visiting 14 churches may strike some people as an overkill; but we’ve always been able to accomplish the task, very often arriving at the 14th church just when they are about to transfer the Blessed Sacrament back to the main church.
I must admit though that my motivation for doing the Visita Iglesia has not always been 100% religion.  A large part of the visitation has always been cultural and architectural appreciation – I’ve always tended to look at churches as great reminders of the richness of our culture as reflected in way we practice our faith.  Although our churches are supposed to be bastions of the same Catholic faith, there is no denying that each community finds expression of its own spirit and temperament in the way they dress up altars and even organize church activities.  Some churches are ultra conservative, others are very open and accepting of new ideas, still others are heavily politicized.  The various altars of repose are always an interesting study of the operating religious culture of the community.  This year, for example, I was struck by the way the Sta. Ana Church in Manila chose to situate their altar of repose in the current times, against a backdrop of boiling issues of the day such as corruption and inefficiency in government.  No wonder really that many people are unable to resist the temptation to take selfies with the various altars as background.
The holy week ends today. It’s business as usual tomorrow.  And sadly, that does not bode well for us given what we had to endure prior to the Holy Week.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Misery

This is my column today April 15, 2014.


I attended a wedding Saturday afternoon at the Resorts World complex in Pasay City and got stuck for hours in agony as traffic at the area around the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3 was awful.  Just getting through the toll gates from the Skyway was already like squeezing through a fine sieve – it seemed that the three gates were sorely inadequate to deal with the volume of vehicles trying to get into NAIA3 and Resorts World area.  Given that the Skyway has been operating for many years now, it seems inconceivable that they still haven’t been able to put in place mechanisms to deal with unusual traffic situations.  As a result, many passengers were not able to catch their flights out of NAIA Terminal 3.  Many of the guests in the wedding were also delayed.
As can be expected, getting out of the NAIA Terminal 3 area and into Fort Bonifacio for the reception was also an ordeal.  It took us almost two hours to traverse a distance of barely four kilometers.  From what I gathered, it was the same everywhere in Metro Manila.  The reblocking in EDSA near the Cubao area created a monstrous traffic jam.  At least there were MMDA traffic cops that tried to establish some semblance of order in EDSA, according to a friend.  In Pasay and Fort Bonifactio, it was bedlam as motorists tried to fight for every inch of space on the road.   
The traffic situation in Metro Manila has been exceptionally nightmarish in the last few days.     In addition to the various construction projects that are being undertaken at the same time, we’re also right smack in the middle of one of the hottest summer seasons. This is why I am really looking forward to Maundy Thursday up to Easter Sunday when the whole of Metro Manila becomes a ghost city and one can actually travel on EDSA and other major thoroughfares at fairly decent speed.  It’s a sad reflection of how things are in this country that we get respite from traffic problems only during Holy Week and when national boxer Emmanuel Pacquiao has a fight.  But then again, perhaps not this year, if most people choose to stay home as a result of the various warnings issued by government about how road repairs being pursued in places outside the metro are also resulting in monstrous traffic jams.  A friend told me that there are also major excavations and road repairs being undertaken along the national highway leading to the North so people going out of Manila to mark the Holy Week in their respective provinces will be forced to observe various forms of penitence along the way.
The really infuriating thing is that everyone, it seems, has thrown up his or her hands in the air as if there is nothing else that can be done to reduce the aggravation.  If we are to go by the recent actuations of our leaders, warning people about possible inconvenience seems to be the full extent of government’s expression of accountability to the people.  The lines at the MRT are long?  Traffic is bad?  Power rates are going up?  Disaster relief operations and rebuilding efforts are not proceeding at satisfactory speed?  Tough luck, but people will just have to wait longer because government is already doing what it can.  We’re all being told that our aggravations are necessary and that suffering and misery are natural pains associated with the quest for progress. 
I disagree, of course.  The aggravation that we are going through is caused by mismanagement and the utter lack of strategic thinking.  The long lines at the MRT terminals could have been avoided if only our leaders did something two years ago.  Actually, they may not be able to do anything now about the long lines, but there are many things they can do to reduce the aggravation among those standing in line.  A little empathy and concern for people would do the trick.
***
At a wedding reception dinner over the weekend, I threw the subject of the Reproductive Health Bill and the ramifications of the Supreme Court decision at the table for discussion.  People were trying to strike conversations to while away time as the newlyweds were, as has been the practice lately, very fashionably late for their own reception as they had to go somewhere for pictorial and to shoot additional footages for the wedding video.  I expected my tablemates—thinking middle class people—to weigh in with their respective takes on the matter.  I knew the couple to my right were active members of this big association of Catholic couples.  The most I got were indications that as far as everyone was concerned, the Supreme Court decision was the last word on the subject.  So either people are really tired of the issue and just want to move forward, or the law of inertia is in effect.  It seems people are waiting for something to happen to get galvanized into action.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Not unconstitutional


This is my column today, April 13, 2014.
Of course the use of the double negative had relevance in the legal context—the petitions that spurred the discussion and the subsequent decision was precisely a prayer to render the Republic Act 10354 or the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012 unconstitutional.  But the double negative pronouncement was a harbinger of the tortured discussions that followed it.  In fact, I received at least three emails from people who claimed that the use of the double negative was precisely indicative of just how strongly the justices found favor in their respective positions.
Advocates of the Reproductive Health Bill claimed victory, with two-time senatorial aspirant Rissa Hontiveros-Baraquel gushing on public television about how sweet it was to hear those two words.  The jubilation was echoed by many others.  The irrepressible Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago proclaimed her unabashed affection for the high court telling them “I love you.”  The principal author of the RH Bill, former Albay representative Edcel Lagman, congratulated the high court for upholding the separation of the church and state and for “giving impetus to sustainable human development.”
Those vociferously against the RH Bill immediately doused water on the jubilation claiming that the Supreme Court decision which struck down eight provisions critically defanged the bill effectively making it a toothless tiger.  It’s a matter of opinion, of course, but it can be rightfully argued that the eight provisions were precisely the ones that could have made the law meaningful. 
These provisions dealt with the matter of “conscientious objections” by health practitioners and local governments, the need for spousal consent for reproductive health procedures, and the right of minors to access reproductive health education and services.  
No sir, the Supreme Court decision has not settled the issue, nor has it effectively ended the debate. 
There are those who have weighed in with calls to accept the so-called Solomonic decision of the Supreme Court.  People like Vice President Jejomar Binay have claimed that the government can still pursue reproductive health programs despite the lack of punitive measures against those who use religious beliefs to deny reproductive health services to those who need them. Of course the government can—but it has to put up with every obstacle thrown on its way by religious zealots and politicians desperately seeking favors from bishops and priests.  The likes of former Manila Mayor Lito Atienza who disallowed condoms and family planning services in the City of Manila during his term of office can still wreck havoc on reproductive health programs of government and private organizations. 
So I am not sure that the Supreme Court decision has brought us any closer to enlightenment or to the gateway of modern civilization.  In fact, I think what the decision has proven is that intolerance do exist in many forms and in many guises and is not limited among those imbued with lesser educational or intellectual qualifications.
In the end, I am not sure who really won last Wednesday.  But I am very sure of this:  Ordinary people, specially those who most need access to reproductive health services lost.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Stories from Leyte

This is my column today, April 8, 2014.


I woke up Sunday morning in Leyte to heavy downpour, the kind that makes one want to snuggle deeper in bed and not get up at all.  I would have wanted to linger in bed and enjoy the rare weather phenomenon -  just barely 24 hours ago I was on the verge of passing out due to heatstroke as I addressed a graduating class of almost 500 pupils in one of the biggest public schools in Tacloban City—but I had a catch to flight back to Manila in a few hours. 
A heavy downpour in summer is unusual, at least for those of us in Metro Manila who suffer uninterrupted weeks of sweltering heat during this time of the year.  A downpour would be welcome development if only it weren’t spawned by a typhoon that was predicted to hit the southern part of the country any day now.  News of the typhoon spread very quickly and by noontime people were talking about imminent destruction that might just rival Yolanda’s.  I had to go online to search for more accurate weather bulletins to allay the fears of kith and kin. 
It will take some time before people in Leyte recover from the trauma they experienced during the super typhoon.  Stories of miraculous survival and heartrending loss, as well as of courage and valor, during the height of the super typhoon and in the critical days after, were still the most animated topic of conversation in many encounters with relatives and friends.   I was particularly  awed by the story about how a friend (she was editor of my college paper when I was a freshman) survived and found herself in Basey, Samar after being washed ashore from Tacloban City in Leyte and after floating at sea for almost 10 hours clinging tightly to a piece of wood.  There were a number of similar stories and I could only wish someone would be able to put together a compilation of these stories into a book someday.
I was in Tacloban for a speaking engagement.  The speaking engagement went well despite the unbearable heat.  It was heartwarming to see children being kids again as they tried to enjoy the ceremonies that marked their rite of passage from elementary to high school.  Good things do come out of the most horrifying experiences and in this particular case, I noted the collective effort of teachers and parents to make the graduation ceremonies more fun and meaningful.  The kids did a song and dance routine a la High School Musical for their graduation song instead of a more formal choral rendition of, say, The Impossible Dream.  
The kids were also not required to wear togas nor school uniforms but were instead asked to come in their Sunday best, which can be and was indeed interpreted loosely.  I saw kids wearing elaborate party dresses while others opted to come in simple sundresses.  In lieu of the more formal toga, the kids were asked instead to don a short stylized alampay inspired by the University of the Philippines’ famous sablay.  Truly, what a difference comfortable clothes make on the behavior of children! They seemed to go overboard in giving awards and recognition, which was not necessarily a bad thing given the fact that quite a number of the members of the graduating class perished during Yolanda.  In keeping with the informal tone of the ceremonies, I ditched my prepared formal speech and decided to speak to the graduates in a more personal and engaging way. 
I also took the time to visit relatives in my hometown 60 kilometers south of the city and to check on some friends in Tacloban who were severely hit by the super typhoon.
The good news is that the towns facing the Pacific Ocean have now acquired a shiny glow. Thanks to availability of construction materials, the silvery glare of the sun reflected on tin roofing is very noticeable as one travels around the island. Coconut lumber is abundant and can be had almost for free because of the millions of coconut trees that were uprooted by the super typhoon.  Mercifully, most of the donor agencies are now focusing on rehabilitation and rebuilding efforts so it was heartwarming to hear of stories of people distributing farm implements, pinakbet seeds (seeds of vegetables that are ingredients for the common dish), and yes, various mechanisms to make available funds on easy credit. 
Most of the people I talked to expressed dismay over stories of spoiled relief goods that had to be buried or discarded, but quite frankly, many are already indifferent to the canned goods and food packs that find their way to households.  Of course it might be a different story when supply of rice is depleted, but right now most people I talked have more than enough.  Government must shift focus to enabling people to find livelihood and sustainable sources of income rather than just distributing relief goods.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

It's not fun getting through Terminal 3

This is my column today, April 6, 2014.

Hungry, tired, and sleep deprived, I staggered into Bay 1 of the departure area of Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3 at the ungodly hour of 2:15 in the morning last Friday, April 4.  My 4:55 flight to Tacloban was still almost three hours away but I was repeatedly warned by well-meaning friends to come very early lest I get caught up in the bedlam that has reportedly characterized the situation at the terminal in the last three weeks.  I’ve also read quite a number of posts in various social networking sites that expressed exasperation over the difficulties people experience at Terminal 3.  I thought coming early would save me from the aggravation.  I was wrong, very wrong.
The lines going into the terminal were already very, very long at that hour and were moving at snail pace.  I stood in line at the end of one near Gate 3.  My heart sank when I realized it was the line for Gate 1, a good 30-40 meters away.  It took me 30 minutes to get to the x-ray machines that screened people into the terminal. What it must feel like to stand in the same line at noontime in the scorching summer heat!  The strange thing was there seemed to be no additional security requirement added to explain the hold up. 
I thought I was doing okay because I still had more than two hours to spare.  I searched for the assigned counters for my flight, stood in line, and started reading the book I brought with me.  Twenty minutes later, I looked up to see that the line had barely moved; it was taking the airline people inordinate time to check passengers in; it was like every transaction involved a group of 10 aliens with 22 checked in baggage each.  
I was still standing in line at 3:55.  My feet were killing me and I could sense a headache coming - a major one.  I tried to screen my impatience out and concentrated on the book I was reading.  I finally got in front of the check in counter at 4:10, more than two hours after I arrived at the terminal.  While waiting to get my travel details checked, someone started calling passengers for my flight, pulling them out of the queue for quick processing in other counters.   
So those who woke up or arrived late at the Terminal were luckier; they ended up getting preferential treatment than those of us who took pains to arrive early. They did not have to stand in line for two hours. 
I rushed to the assigned departure gate for my flight, which involved a long walk and going down a steep flight of stairs.  I was met with more confusion at the departure lounges.  Forget about comfortable chairs or even floor space to squat on while waiting for flights to be called; there simply was not enough space for departing passengers to hang around.  To make matters worse, gate assignments kept getting switched so people were continually being mixed around.  I truly admire the patience of Filipinos; most simply took a deep sigh, gathered their hand-carried baggage and walked up the stairs in search of their new gate assignments.  In the meantime, droves of people descended from other floors to take their places.
We were told that the bedlam has been caused by the onset of the summer season, which is supposedly the peak season for traveling.  Parents and relatives travel to attend graduations, students troop to their hometowns for the vacation, and whole families take the time to take trips together.   Airlines were reportedly adding flights. 
But then again, we have been told that Terminal 3 is not even operating at 50-percent capacity yet, so if terminal facilities are already stretched tight at this point, one can only wonder how much worse it would be when it begins operating at maximum capacity.  There are many things that are wrong with Terminal 3, and I’m not just talking about the obvious design, structural and physical defects.  It is clear that the terminal is also badly mismanaged.
Since there was no space to sit down or even a wall to lean on, I joined a group of people who were standing in between aisles and who were unfortunately blocking people from moving about.  As I listened to the various announcements being made over the public address system, I wondered what it will take for the people who managed the terminal to hire an editor so the people who kept making grammatically tortured announcements would be spared the embarrassment.  Everyone kept saying “Calling the attention for the passengers for flight, say, AB1234, bound for Davao.  Please await for further instructions.” 
I was not surprised when it was announced that our flight was going to be delayed.  We have known a long time already that the aviation traffic coming in and out of NAIA is also badly mismanaged.
Just when our flight was finally called for boarding, there was a major confusion as people realized we have been divided into two flights supposedly scheduled to depart minutes from each other.  We were told that Tacloban runway was having some problems and could only accommodate propeller planes but not airbuses.  Arrgh.  I do dread riding in smaller planes which in my experience tend to be bumpier and therefore bad for my vertigo; but my apprehension was drowned out by the cacophony of complaints from passengers travelling together who suddenly found themselves separated at the departure area.  And to complicate matters, it was further announced that the other flight was being put on hold pending availability of an aircraft.  You can just imagine the kind of reaction that announcement generated.
Fortunately for me I was placed on the first flight so we got to leave the departure lounge ahead of the rest—only to be cooped inside a very warm and toasty cabin for another hour.  Someone who was supposed to be on the other flight somehow managed to slip into our plane and ground personnel had to come and get the person out and fix the paperwork.  We arrived at Tacloban two-hours late, hungrier (they did not serve food on flight) and thirstier to find a Cebu Pacific airbus about to take off from the runway.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The good and the bad in government service

This is my column today, April 1, 2014. 


I celebrated my birthday recently.  I guess it must be a sign of creeping old age that I forgot what birthdays mean after reaching legal age:  Renewing one’s driver’s license. 
Government has extended the expiration date of driver’s licenses to two years which means one only needs to show up at some Land Transportation Office every other year.  I’ve been going to the same LTO office for almost two decades now partly because it’s near where I live and work and partly because I’ve been told there are less people that go there.  I am not sure there is truth in the latter, but it seems true given the fact that not one of the people I know seem aware that there is an LTO office in San Andres.  I’ve been told many times that the expiration date of a license is effective until the end of one’s birth month, but I have been reluctant to push my luck on this aspect since I seem to be a magnet for traffic cops – if there’s a traffic cop that desperately needs lunch money and I happen to be driving on the road at that specific time, that cop is bound to flag me down.   
I don’t like dealing with government offices.  I know this makes me sound like a snobbish prick but most of my experiences dealing with government offices and functionaries have not always been pleasant although I would not go as far as to say that they were extreme ordeals either.  Let’s just say that every time I walk into a government office, I always expect to be made to wait a long time even for the simplest transaction and to do so under the most uncomfortable environment. 
Imagine my surprise therefore when I breezed through the whole process of renewing my driver’s license in a record 30 minutes the other week.  I walked out of the San Andres Manila LTO grinning in disbelief that something that usually took at least four hours was completed in less the time it took me to finish a chapter of the book I brought with me to read.
First I am glad to note that drug testing has now been taken out of the whole process.   While I do think we must put in place a screening mechanism to deny driving privileges to drug-crazed individuals, I think requiring everyone to submit to a drug test was unnecessary.  Besides, it became painfully obvious that the whole drug-testing set-up at LTO offices was clearly nothing more than a money-making venture.  Second, I am glad that there seemed to be mechanisms in place to avoid fixers.  A LTO personnel was stationed at the entrance to give instructions and point people to the correct counters and tables.  I am happy to report that practically everyone was solicitous and seemed to be in a good mood.  It did seem like the whole process was almost automated – and human intervention was kept to a minimal. 
However, there was still the physical examination conducted by a medical practitioner.  At the San Andres LTO, this was conducted by the same doctor who has been since I started learning how to drive, who sat in his desk reading a tabloid and couldn’t be bothered to even shoot me a quick glance.  I was asked to sign two sheets of blank papers, which could have been petitions to allow blind people to drive, asked to step into a weighing machine that overstated my weight by 10 pounds (I complained and the clerk promptly deducted 10 pounds from the weight reading), made to pay a hundred bucks, and was promptly asked to go back to the main building to continue the process.  They took a picture of me, asked me to sign electronically into a pad, made to pay at another counter, and then after 10 minutes, my brand new license was ready for pick up at another counter.  The waiting area was still not air-conditioned but at least there were no stray cats loitering about anymore. 
I bragged about the whole experience to my friends and gloated about how government service has seemingly improved.  And then some told me about how the exact opposite still existed in the bigger LTO offices such as the one in Tayuman, Manila and Quezon City and my heart sank.  A friend told me he had to deal with fixers to enable his son to get his first driver’s license because he surprisingly flunked the written exams; he said someone told him the proctors of the driving test only gives passing marks to those who pay grease money.  
If there are some improvements in some government offices, I am afraid conditions in our government hospitals are still worse.  A relative in Tacloban City was admitted for acute appendicitis at the Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center and was promptly scheduled for surgery.  It’s been three days and the poor guy is still waiting because the hospital supposedly prioritizes those who are critical; one hospital personnel brusquely told a relative that the patient would be wheeled into surgery if and when his appendix would rapture. I advised them to go to a private hospital but the EVRMC personnel would not give them the referral. And so they are still waiting.