Isn’t it ironic?
It struck me, as I’m sure it struck other health care professionals, how ironic it is that President Duterte declared 2020 to be the “Year of Filipino Health Workers” last week. The incidental release of the documentary film, “Aswang,” over the weekend seems to underline exactly why.
Heavy, difficult to watch, and as author Richard Bolisay notes in a CNN essay, “made with clear political intent,” the film takes us through the first two years of the Duterte administration’s war on drugs and extrajudicial killings, which continue to be hotly debated even now but which are a reality for mourning families and for communities left behind.
The filmmakers spend the most time in these communities. A mother holds photos of her slain son. A man chokes on his grief, saying that he’s pro-Duterte but that the murder of his innocent brother was “very wrong.”
A woman talks about her experience with the inhuman conditions of a room in the back of a precinct, the size of a walk in closet, filled with prisoners and filth, and being told that if she had money, she could get out of there. Others are told that if they can’t pay up, they would be killed by “tokhang.” “They beat us here,” says one more. “Sometimes they electrocuted me,” says a man whose eyes don’t quite meet the camera. A little boy in the streets, whose mother is in jail, calls the police “kalaban,” because he has grown up knowing that uniformed officers are not there to look after his welfare.
The film shows protests by a mourning and enraged public. “Our sons have been dead for a year,” a woman cries out, “and the men who killed them are removed from office, but not punished. Where is justice for the poor?” The link between the administration and the impunity of the killers is clear to mourners in the documentary: The viewer infers that the former enabled and continues to enable the latter, and that the latter is inextricably linked to the first push of the drug war, becoming its cause and its excuse.
Without being trite, the film uses the concept of the aswang, who preys in darkness and kills in the night, to frame these events: How, at the prospect of so many deaths, people transition from shock and anger to despair, and how the narrative eventually transforms to one of caution and fear. A strand of police tape is shown flapping in the wind: “Police line — do not cross,” it says, and hardly anyone dares.
This administration probably doesn’t appreciate the irony: that health care workers, pandemic or no pandemic, soldier on to save lives, provide comfort, and improve quality of life, while killers, both uniformed and not uniformed, are allowed to run rampant. We can save thousands of lives in our hospitals and clinics, but what of lives lost to the whimsies of these executioners? Community doctors struggle to vaccinate, diagnose, and treat children in the community, only for the children to be struck parentless by senseless crime. An entire emergency room can drain its resources in trying to save one precious life, but one poor life is just one life among many, easily snuffed, for these faceless killers. “I never even pinched or slapped my son,” one mother says on camera about her murdered child, “and then one day this happens to him.” The novel coronavirus is a real and present enemy, but before it came and long after it’s gone, we did and will continue to feel the effects of impunity and terror.
This declaration of the Year of Filipino Health Workers is yet one more performance, sidestepping—along with the clear disregard for human rights — real issues of poor resource management, ignored calls for mass testing and better compensation for health workers in private and public sectors. Until we come to a point where human rights and due process, rather than being objects of disdain, are actually valued, the mission and purpose of health workers — a respect for human life and human rights — continue to be invalidated, and what the presidential proclamation calls “acts of heroism” and “selfless compassion” by our health workers are rendered moot.
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