To kill a doctor
“Any death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,” the English poet John Donne reminds us. But in this unprecedented season of killing—when more Filipino lives have been snuffed out in one concentrated period of time than at any other (even the dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law record of over 3,000 deaths was tallied over a 14-year period), and when most of the victims have come from the poorest, most powerless communities—the sense of the country’s diminishment as a democratic republic and as a nation of laws appears to have yet to sink in sufficiently.
The police claim that the administration’s drive for more draconian measures against drugs and criminality has led to a reduction in street offenses such as snatching and petty theft. That may well be, but what has soared on the other hand are incidences of murder and killing, as many quarters appear to have simply taken advantage of the more permissive environment for taking human life.
And why not, when the administration itself appears to have taken the lead in that regard? Human Rights Watch confirms this grim scenario in a recent report: “Our investigations into the Philippine ‘drug war’ found that police routinely kill drug suspects in cold blood and then cover up their crime by planting drugs and guns at the scene,” it said.
The killing of Dr. Dreyfuss “Toto” Perlas in Kapatagan, Lanao del Norte, on Wednesday night does not appear, at this time, to be connected to the issue of drugs. The young physician who had signed up for Juan Flavier’s pioneering “Doctors to the Barrios” program was shot in the back, the bullet piercing his heart, by a lone assailant as he was heading home on his motorcycle around 7:30 p.m. He was a well-regarded figure in Sapad, a poor community where health services and health professionals are scarce; as Sapad resident Princess May Sienes wrote in a Facebook posting, “He was a big [loss] for us, a big [loss]! He saved a lot of people, he exerted a lot of effort to improve the system of health care in our municipality.”
According to a fellow doctor, Perlas had been receiving threats from unknown individuals before his death. Eliminating him not only deprived a poor community of a much-needed doctor (Sapad had not had a municipal health officer in 12 years, until Perlas’ assignment there in 2012-2014, after which he decided to stay “because he had learned to love the community and did not want to leave the work he had started,” said his sister). His murder is yet another dispiriting addition to the tragic tally of Filipinos who have been struck down by the climate of impunity governing the land, with the rash of public killings all these months—and an administration seemingly uninterested in solving them—only breeding more such acts.
Perlas’ case recalls the death of “a martyr of martial law,” Dr. Remberto “Bobby” dela Paz. Like Perlas, Dela Paz chose to work in the countryside instead of building a financially rewarding career in the city. With his wife Sylvia, also a physician, Dela Paz set up a community-based health program in Samar in 1978, where he ministered to residents who were not only living in dire poverty but were also often targets of oppression and injustice. The military eventually labelled Dela Paz a subversive. Like Perlas, he was shot by an unknown gunman, in 1982—in the thick of the state-sanctioned violence and ferocity then operating under Marcos’ dictatorship.
The killing of thousands of ordinary Filipinos by extrajudicial means in the name of the so-called war on drugs is bad enough; the murder of a dedicated doctor who chose to work in the barrios is a crushing loss. Perlas, 31, “served the community, the people, with both honor and pride,” said his classmates at the UP Visayas High School in a statement. They remember him as a “gentle giant”—but even giants are not immune to the bullets and cold-blooded mindsets running rampant in this dark season.
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