A little outrage won’t hurt

Orlando Oxales, Fellow of the Stratbase ADR Institute and Lead Convenor of CitizenWatch Philippines

At this point, much has been said about the incident involving Filipino fishing boat Gem-Vir 1 and a Chinese vessel in Recto (Reed) Bank on June 9. The early accounts of the Filipino fishermen—that their anchored boat was rammed by the Chinese trawler around midnight and they were abandoned on the high seas—was corroborated by the Vietnamese fishermen who ended up rescuing them hours later, something that satellite data also confirmed.

This runs contrary to the version released by the Chinese camp, who claimed that the collision was unintentional and that the vessel left the 22 Filipinos amid the wreckage of their boat due to fear of being “besieged” by other Filipino fishing boats in the area.
Things are further muddled up by the succession of confusing statements by various government officials in the days after the incident, in an effort to appease an increasingly emotional and indignant public.

While the Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest against China and called the attention of the United Nations International Maritime Organization, President Rodrigo Duterte, known for his fiery, often expletive-laden rhetoric, was unusually timid on the issue. Silent for the first couple of days and, when he finally spoke about it, dismissed the sinking as a “little maritime accident,” and which the navy shouldn’t meddle with.
He explained: “Maritime incident is a maritime incident. It is best investigated. And I do not now issue statement because there is no investigation and there is no result. Then the only thing we can do is wait and give the other party the right to be heard. This is important.”

Sending in the Navy will only “make it worse,” President Duterte said.
Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi, who was one of the first national government officials to talk to the fishermen, earlier cast doubts on their version of the story, saying the Chinese trawler could not have intentionally hit the Filipino boat. This was a “wild” and “outlandish” remark, according to Senator Risa Hontiveros, who described Cusi’s statements as “effectively” favoring China.

The fishermen felt rightly insulted by Cusi’s comments, according to reports. Fisherfolk group Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas demanded reparations and moral damages for the aggrieved fishermen from the Chinese government. Among what was lost when Gem-Vir 1 sank, they said, was at least 3 tons of catch from 10 days at sea, estimated at more than half a million pesos.

“Aside from the damage to personal belongings and livelihood equipment, our fishermen have experienced moral distress and trauma, said Fernando Hicap, Pamalakaya national chairman. “What we need is just and assurance that it will not happen again by removing Chinese vessels from our seas.”

Reports on an emergency Cabinet meeting and a meeting between the President and the fishing boat’s captain Junel Insigne also circulated before eventually dismissed by Malacañang, another source of confusion.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who was among the first to condemn the incident and who called for diplomatic action over the incident, also softened his stance as the days went on and stressed that the perceived ramming was not state-sanctioned.

“We are having some doubts about what really happened,” he said. “The first report I got was it was rammed. There was really a collision, but whether it was intentional or not, there’s some doubt now whether it’s intentional or not.”

For his part, Senator Panfilo Lacson said “unless we can stomach being pushed around forever,” the country’s longstanding defense agreement with the US, the Mutual Defense Treaty, is the “only weapon in our arsenal” toward “a balance of power” in the West Philippine Sea. US Ambassador Sung Kim had also commented that attacks against Filipino forces, including public vessels, “will trigger our obligations” under the MDT.

Defenders of the timid government stance on the issue point out that the Philippines is not ready for war with China. This simplistic binary between visibly cowering in fear and war is misleading, of course. As Sen. Lacson pointed out, the Philippines has trusted allies in the global community that can exert pressure on Beijing and help tilt the balance of power in the West Philippine Sea. There are a number of ways to deal with a bully, no matter how dauntingly lopsided the matchup may appear.

Trying to present a balanced view of the sinking of a wooden Philippine fishing boat by a much larger, steel-hulled Chinese trawler is especially difficult as the incident sparks naturally polarizing biases. An incident like this would lead one to expect our political leaders to come to the defense of our Filipino fishermen, who almost lost their lives—that all of this occurs amid the backdrop of a protracted territorial row certainly elevates it beyond “a little maritime accident.”

As of writing, for instance, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario was reportedly held and questioned at the Hong Kong International Airport early Friday. Del Rosario in March filed a case against Chinese President Xi Jinping at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Prior to departure, he called plans for a joint probe between the Philippines and China on the sinking incident “the worst news yet.”

“We should really feel sorry for our poor fishermen as the ultimate product of a joint probe with Beijing is expected to be no more than a bowl of fruit salad,” he had said in a statement.

Former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, who filed the case with Del Rosario, was also barred from entering Hong Kong last month. Clearly, this is a state that is not afraid of meting out punitive actions against those whom it deems its enemies. In other words, an unqualified bully.

The President has been loud on many things that have challenged the values and sensitivities of Filipinos. A little outrage against foreign intruders and bullies that are already hurting Filipinos won’t hurt. But with its chronic passivity and acquiescence when dealing with Beijing, it makes you think. Are we missing something here?
ECONOMIC development, especially if it were to be inclusive, requires conscientious planning in which time is of the essence.

Coming out of the summer months, the series of yellow, and even some disquieting red alerts in the Luzon grid over April and May ought to call attention to a problem that requires immediate attention. Supply issues continue to hound the domestic power industry, an important engine that can make or break an unfolding economic takeoff.
Expand that situation to the six-year period between 2012 and 2018, for instance, and you get an even more dire picture, with the Luzon grid seeing demand consistently outpace capacity. If nothing is done to arrest this worrying trend, it can have enormous repercussions in the context of the administration’s much-vaunted economic development agenda. No economy had prospered without stable, adequate, and affordable power.

Add the issue of climate change into the mix and the situation becomes even more complex. While clean renewable energy is inarguably the way forward if the fate of the planet were to be considered, it is similarly clear that on the ground there is a need to balance ecological awareness with reliability and cost to consumers, especially with the fast growing demand.

Meralco recently announced that it is embarking on a significant expansion of its plants to invest in renewable energy projects over the coming years. The shift to renewables is “inexorable,” said its new president and CEO lawyer Ray Espinosa, and so the power giant has vowed to invest in 1,000 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy projects in the next five to seven years.

“Meralco is committed to developing large-scale renewable energy projects that can deliver competitive energy for our customers, without any requirement for subsidy or support, while keeping environmental stewardship and sustainability as top priorities in our business,” Espinosa added.

MGEN Renewable Energy Inc. (MGreen), the newly set up subsidiary of Meralco’s generation arm MGEN, will serve as the platform for this strategic push to develop primarily solar, wind, and run-of-river hydro projects. Espinosa said part of the impetus was “the significant reduction in the development cost [of the projects], particularly for large-scale solar and wind over the past years.”

This allows MGreen to pursue a model that takes costly government subsidies out of the equation while delivering competitive electricity for its customers. The broad potential of the shift did not go unnoticed, and Murang Kuryente Party-list said Meralco’s profile as the biggest distribution utility in the country, not to mention its power-generation projects, puts it “in a position to change the energy mix of the Philippines on its own.”
Even so, MGEN president Rogelio Singson said the push toward renewables is meant to complement so-called baseload power sources that guarantees round-the-clock supply.
“Our argument is we need baseload plant from cheapest source, which is coal, but using ‘high efficiency, low emission’ [Hele] to be able to decommission the old and inefficient coal plants, which are on extended life,” Singson added.

Coal currently accounts for more than a third of the country’s available capacity. Of the 4,835 MW of new capacity committed by power generation firms from 2019 to 2023, some 81 percent, or 3,950 MW, will come from coal plants. Gas lags behind at 650 MW or 13.4 percent, with the rest coming from other renewable sources.

Elsewhere, the key reform necessary to further reinvigorate the power sector is still cutting the bureaucratic red tape, which will facilitate the building of much-needed power plants. Even so, Department of Energy Assistant Secretary Redentor Delola said the combined committed capacity from various projects “will cover our demand for next year until 2021.”

Meanwhile, the multibillion Mindanao-Visayas Interconnection Project will connect us with the Mindanao grid by 2020. With a unified national grid, power transmission services in the country will be more reliable, and the sharing of local energy resources will translate to fewer power interruptions nationwide, according to the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines.

The situation thus appears to be under control for now but in the very short term. But since the power industry is capital- and time-intensive, we can never be too prepared. AC Energy Inc. president Eric Francia said he predicts “a huge uncertainty” beyond 2022 when it comes to gas, LNG, and the future of new plants, due to persistent issues of openness and transparency in the market.

In this regard, Meralco’s entry in renewables can be a game-changer, and it is only through a strategically balanced mix of power sources and enough plants that we can cross that tightrope between growth and environmental stewardship.

As the Duterte presidency marks its second year, the country is anticipating the third State of the Nation Address and how the President will present how this administration has performed, and, we hope, give us a sense of the top priorities of government.

Less frequently reported but no less important are headways as far as health outcomes are concerned. President Duterte last week certified as priority a bill that mandates “universal” access to health care. The Universal Health Coverage bill was passed by the Lower House last year; a counterpart remains pending at the Senate.

Under the much-anticipated measure, the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation will be reconstituted into the Philippine Health Security Corporation and will serve as the state purchaser of health services, to which all citizens have access.

The move is certainly a step in the right direction. It acknowledges the obligation of the state to secure the health of its people, that it is more than a private and domestic concern. But the medical landscape is a complex one, and one disease appears to be more misunderstood and neglected than others: cancer.

This is strange, considering how the disease is now the third leading cause of death in the Philippines. Latest data from the Department of Health’s (DOH) Philippine Cancer Facts and Estimates even reveals an alarming increase in cancer incidence, up to 11 new cases and seven deaths every hour for adult cancers and 11 new cases and eight deaths per day for childhood cancer. This translates to some 110,000 new cancer cases and over 66,000 cancer deaths every year, excluding the unreported cases.

But beyond the numbers and statistics, as any family who has had to deal with serious illness would attest to, the emotional toll that comes with caring for a sick family member rivals only the financial stress associated with the high cost of private medical care in the Philippines. What can financially upset a middle-class household is an outright financial catastrophe for the poor, from which they may never recover.

A study by Dr. Hilton Lam, Director of UP Manila’s Institute of Health Policy and Development Studies, points out a number of factors that aggravate the situation. A typical Filipino patient, the study said, is diagnosed when their cancer has progressed to a later state—when the cost of care has risen and the odds of survival have narrowed. Multiply this experience a thousand fold—one out every 1,800 Filipinos is diagnosed each year—and the need for a national policy on cancer becomes indubitable.

To its credit, the DOH, through its Administrative Order 89-A series of 1990, has shown the state’s commitment to controlling cancer incidence among Filipinos, the study said.

Among its recommendations is for the DOH to transform the AO into a proposed legislation that will increase the consistency of prioritization and budgeting as far as its cancer-related programs are concerned.

The proposed National Integrated Cancer Control Bill—Senate Bill 1850—satisfies this. Sponsored by Senate Committee on Health Chairman JV Ejercito, there is broad support for the important piece of legislation in the upper house by way of 15 senators: Loren Legarda, Nancy Binay, Sonny Angara, Frank Drilon, Migz Zubiri, Ralph Recto, Francis Pangilinan, Richard Gordon, Grace Poe, Sonny Trillanes, Win Gatchalian, Risa Hontiveros, Cynthia Villar, Joel Villanueva, and Panfilo Lacson.

In the House of Representatives, the chairman of the Committee on Health, Rep. Helen Tan, had also approved the consolidated version of the Cancer Control Bill. Originally filed by Rep. Alfred Vargas, the bill has likewise garnered broad support, with almost 200 sponsors. It has been referred to the Committees on Appropriations, chaired by Rep. Karlo Nograles and then the Committee on Ways and Means chaired by Rep. Dax Cua.
Outside the halls of government, patient groups, medical societies, and a host of other health advocates have long been pushing for the passage of the bill. These include the Cancer Coalition Philippines, a broad national alliance of cancer patient support organizations, medical societies, and health advocates. For the group, only a holistic, integrated approach to cancer control can address the complexity of the phenomenon, from prevention, detection, and diagnosis, all the way to treatment, survivorship, and palliative care.

A national policy on cancer will also mean that no patient will be left behind. The proposed law guarantees this by addressing what it had identified as major gaps in the cancer treatment ecosystem, foremost the glaring need for more pathologists, oncologists, oncology-trained nurses, and cancer centers.

In response, the key provisions of the bill include the creation of a National Cancer Assistance Fund, with expanded availability and accessibility of essential medicines, the establishment of a national cancer registry and surveillance system, and support for persons with cancer and cancer survivors similar to that afforded to persons with disabilities.

With President Duterte’s expressed prioritization of the universal health coverage bill, it appears the government does understand the importance of a holistic and national approach to healthcare. As a special and urgent phenomenon, cancer deserves a similarly careful and specialized attention, which only a national integrated cancer control act can provide.

Cancer is such a difficult and sensitive issue to talk about. For decades it has not received the level of institutionalized support despite the alarming data. Hence a critical mass of stakeholders representing millions of Filipinos directly and indirectly affected by cancer are appealing our legislators to pass what would be one of the most significant landmark legislation of Congress for health.

Among the many interests that are competing for President Duterte’s political capital, making the National Integrated Cancer Control bill a top legislative priority will benefit the whole spectrum of Philippine society.

Pass the National Integrated Cancer Control bill into law!



This article was originally published in Manila Standard.

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