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    A Silent Crisis

    Office of the Vice President 24 May 2017

    Speech at the Champions for Health Governance Awards, Bayleaf Hotel, Intramuros, Manila, 24 May 2017

    Vice Mayor Amie Hernandez, Executive Director of Kaya Natin Movement; Dr. Beaver Tamesis, President and Managing Director of MSD; DOH Undersecretary Dr. Herminigildo Valle and Undersecretary Dr. Mario Villaverde; Mr. Harvey Keh; representatives from partner organizations: Association of Municipal Health Officers of the Philippines (AMHOP), Philippine Alliance for Patient Organizations (PAPO), and, of course, Zuellig Family Foundation (ZFF); our Champions for Health Governance 2017 finalists and awardees; fellow workers in government, honored guests, ladies and gentlemen: Magandang umaga po sa inyong lahat.

    Before coming over, I just came from a briefing by the AFP on the Marawi clash. I was in touch with them since last night for updates, and this morning they assured us that the situation is under control and that the threat is isolated in Marawi City.

    On this occasion, we would like to thank our uniformed personnel for bravely performing their duty in this time of need. Of course, we all condemn in the strongest terms this act of terrorism being perpetuated by the Maute group. But then, nakikiusap po ang ating mga sundalo na humihingi ng kooperasyon galing sa lahat. We were asking them this morning what kind of help can we extend to them and they were saying that nakikiusap lang sila na maging kalmado ang ating mga kababayan. For them to cooperate with the authorities against this threat, and to urge everyone to be responsible about the information they share.

    Siguro po, pareho ko, marami na rin tayong nabasa, at marami sa nabasa natin ang hindi naman totoo. We have to understand that this is a terrorist act, and propaganda is one of the weapons of terrorism. Pinapakiusap po natin lahat, for us to come together in this time of need, because the success of this operation depends not only on our soldiers, but this is a shared responsibility of us all.

    But going back to my assignment this morning.

    When Junjun Cabareño was first brought to Bgy. Agsirab Catchment’s health center, a barangay in Lambunao, Iloilo, he was almost two-and-a-half years old but weighed only 7.5 kilograms. This is almost three kilograms short of the normal weight for children his age. He couldn’t stand or walk on his own because his bones weren’t strong enough.

    His mother, Lilibeth, and his eight older siblings take turns carrying him around when they feed him or play with him. By the end of February, after a month of regular feeding sponsored by the Negrense Volunteers for Change (NVC) and our Office’s Angat Buhay program, Lilibeth observed a gradual increase in Junjun’s weight. Several more weeks after, Junjun could stand and walk short distances without being held by his mother or any of his siblings.

    By early May, Junjun weighed 8.1 kilograms. While he is still considered underweight, Lilibeth is confident that by the end of the feeding program, Junjun will exceed the required 10.4 kilograms for children his age. She says that the Mingo Meal packs she regularly receives from the Negrense Volunteers for Change (NVC) helped him steadily gain weight.

    But Junjun is not the only one whose health is affected by malnutrition. According to the Department of Health, our country has one of the highest stunting growth rates in Southeast Asia at 33.4 percent. For most of our neighboring countries, it is at less than 20 percent. Kaya staggering.

    In fact, Save The Children has said in a report last year that 95 child deaths every year are malnutrition-related. To me, that number is earth-shaking. Shouldn’t we all be enraged at such senseless loss of lives? Of little ones, no less—those who are so defenseless and so deserving of our attention and our protection.

    Apart from the fact that taking care of our young defines our humanity, failure to deal with this silent health crisis today, puts at risk the benefits that we are supposed to harvest from the Philippines’ demographic window of opportunity.

    For so long, majority of our population were dependents—those who have not reached working age. We are now at the cusp of that period where majority of the population will be at their most productive stage. They will enter the working population, they will earn more, and they will consume more. In other nations, like South Korea, this brought on long periods of unprecedented, high economic growth. Economists say that the Philippines will experience around 40 years of high growth, but only if our working age population will be in its most productive stage.

    But what if our children today are stunted? That is irreversible if unaddressed after they turn five. What if they are wasted? What if they die from malnutrition? Our dreams for progress will turn into ashes once more. Hunger, malnutrition, health, and poverty are the biggest wars we have to fight today, more damaging even than drugs.

    The issue of public health is a silent crisis that deserve more attention, especially from our local government officials. When our barangay captains, our mayors, and our governors, want to get things done, even the impossible becomes possible. And in these extraordinary times, we need heroes like our enlightened local chief executives, who are committed in getting things done, who do not mind setting politics aside, and focus on helping those who need help the most.

    There is no better time than today to do more and to do better for our people. Let me repeat, many of our children are dying. Imagine how you would feel if they were yours, or your nephews and nieces. Somewhere out there, there is a mother and a father crying because something could have been done to save their child’s life, but the help never came.

    And to think, it doesn’t take much to provide a bowl of nutritious meal in a child’s stomach. Our world has successfully dealt with plagues, conquered gravity, and invented robots. We are already benefiting from artificial intelligence—we have Waze, we have Uber. Providing nutrition and protecting our people’s health do not call for new technology or new inventions. They only require our commitment.

    Thankfully, a growing number of local chief executives show that commitment. This awards event is proof of that. A recent study by Brookings Institution, a non-profit public policy organization based in Washington D.C., is also proof that health governance as a movement is starting to pick up in our country.

    The study showed that the Philippines ranked 8th among 18 countries with quality healthcare governance, a list that consists of low and middle-income African and Asian countries. A Manila Times news article that came out recently stated that the Philippines received an overall score of 69 percent, broken down into a 45 percent grade in terms of leadership and capacity, 60 percent in effective policy making and implementation, 85 percent in terms of regulations, 70 percent in infrastructure and financing, and 85 percent in health systems. The article also said that this high ranking will open the door to global health investments in our country. These are numbers, and they are impressive, but yours are the faces that made them happen.

    I hope that you will stay committed to this advocacy, that you will continue to find ways to do things better each year, disrupt and innovate if you have to, so that more of our people will have the health services they need and they deserve. That is because despite the favorable numbers I cited, there is still a lot of work to be done.

    A Brain Trust study commissioned by the World Food Programme Philippines just this year stated – and I quote – “food and nutrition governance structures are unable to transcend the seemingly inevitable overlap, confusion, and fragmentation of investments or actions across various sectors, both local and national.” Close quote.

    It is said that the most frontline workers, especially our Barangay Nutrition Scholars, cannot handle the caseloads of households of malnourished children in their communities. There seem to be implementation gaps, weak accountability, lack of resources, and policy incoherence. These are just some of the challenges we face; there are many more.

    Clearly, our nation is facing a public health crisis, and also clearly, we need to do better at making people see the urgency of this issue. This is not just the problem of the child’s parents, not just the nurse’s problem, or the mayor’s, or the national government. But this is everyone’s concern.

    There is much that can be said about the role of the private sector and the international community, too, in public health reform and governance.

    At the Office of the Vice President’s Angat Buhay initiative, partnerships with the private sector, the development sector, international aid agencies, and local government units are the lifeblood of our programs. There is much value in having good international relations—it helps us feed children, save lives, and keep people healthy. Support can take many forms: funding, logistics, and expertise. And even something as simple as willingness to come to the table and join the discussion is something that we sincerely appreciate.

    Anyone who has worked on advocacies that require partnerships understand the challenges of working on something with many moving parts. The words “collaboration” and “consultation” sound harmless enough, but those who have done work in grassroots development know how tiring, frustrating, and slow things can move when you are dealing with different personalities, needs, and histories of suffering. Success requires empathy, more than just compassion. Patience, more than just funding. Commitment, more than just career growth. Excellence, more than just compliance.

    So to those who won awards today: my sincerest congratulations and deep admiration for what you have accomplished. Hearing everyone’s stories of difficulties and triumphs should inspire all of us to find more ways to conquer barriers, reach more people, and scale up. We have a silent public health crisis that begs for innovative solutions and even more intense collaboration between all stakeholders. Let us do this for our children, our people, our nation, and our collective future.

    Maraming salamat po. Congratulations muli sa ating finalists at sa ating awardees. Magandang umaga pong muli sa inyong lahat.

    Posted in Speeches on May 24, 2017