By Lourdes M. Fernandez & Claudeth Mocon-Ciriaco
APPEARING at the BusinessMirror Coffee Club’s latest forum on Thursday (August 1), Senator and Philippine Red Cross Chairman Richard J. Gordon modestly acknowledged his and the PRC’s image as the “national firefighter” for all sorts of emergencies and crises.
Yes, he said, one could say he’s the nation’s “go to” guy whenever there’s a disaster or a problem that has left most officials, in and out of government, stumped. Think water crisis in Metro Manila, where PRC water tankers deployed to supply clean water to major government hospitals to ensure no disruption of services, “especially to the National Kidney Center,” Gordon pointed out, for the simple reason that dialysis services are at the core of the institute.
Think measles outbreaks, which sent Health Secretary Francisco Duque III scrambling to use school-based networks to get more children immunized against the highly contagious disease—which could have fatal complications—after authorities noted a decline in parents having their children administered measles shots. It’s something that’s been traced to the overall public trauma and disgust with the dengvaxia fiasco in the previous administration.
And then, too, think dengue, which has seen a galloping rise in cases.
In all these, the government relied greatly on the PRC’s quick action, organizational prowess, network of volunteers and its equipment, which are sometimes better than those of public institutions.
Indeed, the most recent crises of the past months are the best testaments to how the Red Cross has become the most peripatetic comforter of the public each time someone hollers, “Manila, we have a problem,” to paraphrase the famous astronauts. As of this writing, Red Cross teams are still on the ground in Batanes, the idyllic, far-north province hit by a killer quake last week.
Several PRC tents—air-conditioned, the chairman reminded journalists grilling him at the BM Coffee Club—are still in Iloilo, where the Red Cross rushed after the Western Visayas region was listed on the Department of Health registry as among those experiencing the biggest spike in dengue cases.
This was after the DOH, having barely declared a National Dengue Alert amid the increasing number of cases in several regions, reported a whopping total of 5,744 dengue cases in just one week.
In that weekend, DOH said that dengue cases from June 30 to July 6 were 22 percent higher than last year’s 4,703 cases. The total number of dengue cases around the country has climbed to 115,986, with 491 deaths reported.
The most number of dengue cases were recorded in Western Visayas region with 15,826; followed by Calabarzon with 12,780 cases; Soccsksargen with 9,572 cases; Northern Mindanao with 9,354 cases; and Central Visayas with 9,259 cases.
In response to the DOH declaration of a national alert, Gordon ordered the immediate deployment of emergency medical tents to accommodate in the overflow of patients in Iloilo, amid the province’s rising dengue cases.
Four sets of emergency medical tents were deployed from the PRC warehouse in Subic and brought to Iloilo via ferry, while another four sets were deployed via a C130.
“PRC’s medical tents will help decongest the overloaded wards and provide comfort to the patients and their families. Similar to how we addressed the measles crisis earlier this year, we will continue to work with DOH to identify and fill the needs in the most affected communities,” Gordon said in an earlier briefing.
Meanwhile, the Red Cross also ensured the availability of blood for dengue patients in its blood center in Iloilo and nearby blood service facilities. PRC ambulances and welfare desks were prepositioned.
PRC’s community health volunteers also intensified their information dissemination drives to encourage Filipino families to do the “4S” of dengue prevention—search and destroy, self-protect, seek early consultation and say yes to fogging.
“Dengue destruction should be done before it started. Let’s observe proper personal hygiene and keep our surroundings clean to steer away from these diseases,” Gordon added.
No buckshot vaccination
ON Thursday, at the BM Coffee Club, Gordon stressed this dengue prevention message anew: public health education on a constant, massive cleanup and good hygiene practices is the key. He added: the dengue surge cannot be used to justify another mass immunization with dengvaxia, as what happened in 2016 when the Aquino administration, on the prodding of then-Health Secretary Janette Garin, had over 800,000 children administered the vaccine.
The current surge had prompted a statement from Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo on Wednesday that the Palace might reconsider the ban on dengvaxia from the market. To which, Gordon replied, using a vaccine like dengvaxia should never be applied in “buckshot fashion” but instead, the Philippines could follow the example of Singapore, which had approved dengvaxia at about the same time as the Philippines, but did not resort to mass vaccination. Instead, it gave strict protocols for doctors to follow so that each candidate for vaccination is well assessed before being given the shot. In contrast, many of the 800,000-plus young Filipinos given dengvaxia were not definitively assessed as to whether they are those who never had dengue, or are being vaccinated against a repeat of the mosquito-borne disease. That distinction was crucial, it turned out, when the French pharmaceutical Sanofi-Pasteur belatedly admitted that dengvaxia was not advisable for the first group, because those who never had dengue and are given the vaccine were at risk from suffering a “severe disease” or a far stronger, possibly fatal, strain of dengue.
More blood stations
Meanwhile, its involvement in helping put out the latest public health “fire” from dengue gave the Red Cross an opportunity to highlight one of its core advocacies, i.e., encourage people to donate blood, and help those in dire need of blood to have safe, adequate supply.
(PRC launched more blood service facilities outside Metro Manila as part of the recent celebration of the 2019 World Blood Donors Day [WBDD], with Chairman Gordon announcing that the organization opened new blood collection units/blood stations in Albay, Bogo, Mountain Province and Calamba.)
“In PRC, we aim to create more blood banks and blood centers for accessibility of blood supply. We want to reach the most vulnerable communities in the rural areas in our country to ensure that there is safe blood for all,” Gordon said in a press conference on June 10.
This year’s WBDD celebration carried the theme “Safe Blood for All,” a call to expand access to safe and quality blood and the crucial role of voluntary blood donation in the Universal Health Care.
The humanitarian organization currently has 93 blood service facilities, including 27 blood centers, 66 blood collecting units/blood stations, and 11 apheresis centers.
This year, PRC is eyeing new blood facilities in Marikina City; San Carlos in Pangasinan; San Rafael, San Jose del Monte and Bocaue in Bulacan; Imus and Bacoor in Cavite; Sorsogon; Mindoro Oriental; Romblon; Batanes; Coron, Palawan; Malay, Aklan; Biliran, Eastern Samar; Basilan; and Tawi-Tawi.
Gordon repeated PRC’s appeal to the public to help save lives by regularly donating blood.
“Everyone should try and encourage everyone to donate blood [because every day, thousands of people need blood around the country]. Everyday should be World Blood Donor’s Day,” Gordon said.
As a major provider of blood needs in the country, PRC served a total of 205,772 individuals in 2018.
Worth noting is the fact that PRC’s National Blood Center also earned the international standard on quality management systems (ISO 9001:2015), making PRC the first blood center in Southeast Asia and the only non-hospital blood service facility in the Philippines to receive the certification.
Disaster, emergency response
Gordon was asked at the BM Coffee Club if he supported setting up a separate Department for Disaster Resilience, and his reply was a big no.
He believes it will just cause needless public spending for more bureaucracy, without solving the oft-repeated problems of coordination during crises. He is a firm believer, he said, in “continually building up capability” of everyone, in or out of government, institutuon or individual, to deal with emergencies or disasters from their end.
This is why he takes pride in the PRC’s network of volunteers (12,000), and the way the Red Cross Operations Center (Op Cen) in Mandaluyong City, on Edsa, can readily determine who are the volunteers nearest ground zero of a disaster or emergency who can be deployed for first aid and rescue work.
He recently pitched for ensuring there’s a trained first aider in every home, at work, or in a public place, and mobilized its staff and volunteers to conduct a mass cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) demonstration to equip Filipino families with this lifesaving skill.
Last month, PRC went to schools, offices and public places to teach Filipinos how to conduct a hands-only CPR, in cooperation with the DOH, the Philippine Heart Association, and the American Heart Association.
“We have our volunteers nationwide, but no first responder can respond as quickly as a neighbor, a family member and a coworker. When that person knows first aid, further injuries and loss of lives can be averted,” Gordon said.
Fighting a fire lit by PRRD: No problem, says Gordon
AS we were going to press, Senator and Philippine Red Cross Chairman Richard J. Gordon was fighting yet another “fire,” this time directly lit under him by President
Duterte, who appeared stung by Gordon’s statement on Thursday and his remarks at the BM Coffee Club.
Responding to a question on observations of a rising number of ex-military and ex-police officers in the Cabinet and key government agencies, Gordon had agreed with the observation about the abundance of ex-uniformed men in government. He offered, as one possible explanation, the President’s having come directly from Davao before ascending the national stage, adding that perhaps, he had a “shallow bench,” or his network was limited.
Also on Thursday, Gordon was quoted saying the appointment of too many uniformed men could be “dangerous.”
Hours later, appearing before the Bureau of Fire Protection’s founding anniversary, Duterte lashed out at Gordon, likening the senator’s belly to a butete (tadpole), owing to his robust middle.
The body shaming did not faze Gordon, who simply drew attention to his track
record in fighting for bigger budgets for the Armed Forces, both for personnel benefits and the modernization program.
Gordon’s statement, sent to media past midnight Friday:
The statements I made yesterday were made in good faith and out of concern for our country and the President, whom I consider a friend. We have known each other since we were both mayors and believe that we have mutual respect.
I also have great respect for the military and the Armed Forces because they are the protector of the people and the State. However, at the same time, we want to assure the public that we are not militarizing the government.
In the Senate and in my entire career, my record speaks for itself. I have always supported a strong military, with a credible Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard. I will continue to do so because I believe that we need to strengthen the military in order to protect our country, especially during these challenging times.
During my first term as senator, we authored and passed RA 6948, or the Act Standardizing and Upgrading the Benefits for Military Veterans and their Dependents. We even pushed for a higher budget for the military and defense. In fact, during the deliberations of the TRAIN law, we proposed that 15 percent of the collections from it be earmarked for military modernization and it passed the Senate. When it was later removed, I threatened to filibuster until the President called and assured me that the Executive would ensure that it would be implemented.
I take no offense at the President’s comments. As I have said, everyone is entitled to an opinion, and we cannot be onion skinned about such things. I will continue to focus on working hard to serve the country and the people. Our goal as public servants is not any higher office, but to remain steadfast in service to ensure that we uplift the lives of our people, and that is what I try to do every day.
I am happy that President is concerned about my waistline, but he need not worry about that. My wife has seen to it that I have reduced it significantly of late. But I appreciate that he is concerned about my health as I am about his.
Image credits: Philippine Red Cross