Who killed Baby River?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a medical doctor, it is that diseases are neither the sole nor the ultimate explanation for people’s death and suffering. People may die of tuberculosis, but at the heart of their illness are poor living conditions and malnutrition which were caused by corruption, poverty, and lack of access to quality health care. Regardless of how effectively the immediate, antecedent, and underlying causes of death listed in death certificates may obscure these factors, they are woefully incomplete.
In medical school, this lesson is powerfully illustrated through a case study called “Kuwento ni Rosario.” Provincial migrants in search of better life in the city, Rosario’s parents are mired in poverty and as a result, her mother is not able to eat much during her pregnancy. Deprived of breastmilk, immunization, and good nutrition, she becomes sickly, weak, and malnourished. Given her family’s inability to afford hospital care and get good medical advice, Baby Rosario will die after weeks of diarrhea.
I cannot help but think of Rosario in light of Baby River, who died just last week. Officially, the cause of death was “pneumonia,” but just like Rosario, she might as well have been murdered through the circumstances of her short life.
In the first place, her fetal life was in the most fraught of circumstances. Arrested in November 2019 allegedly for illegal possession of firearms, her mother Reina Mae Nasino would spend much of her pregnancy in Manila City Jail, under, in her own words, “cruel and inhumane conditions.” Her appeals for freedom, both on humanitarian and legal grounds, went unheeded, even as the judicial process itself was further delayed.
Against all odds, Baby River was born on July 1 at Dr. Fabella Memorial Hospital, her low birth weight reflecting the difficult pregnancy. But only a few days later, mother and child were compelled to return to jail. And on Aug. 13, at barely six weeks old, Baby River was separated from her mother.
The mother was “inconsolable,” and the baby, transferred to the care of her grandmother, deteriorated, developing diarrhea and eventually pneumonia. Yet not even her ensuing hospitalization would move the courts to permit a reunion. On Oct. 9, Baby River died, having lived most of her 100 days of life away from her mother. And even in death, even as the court granted a three-day furlough, even as a belated Supreme Court ruling called for relief, jailers would further curtail Nasino’s opportunity to mourn her child by imposing restriction after restriction on her.
In rejecting her appeals, judges and jailers alike cited the law and the lack of facilities and human resources. They invoked the coronavirus, and the rights of the other detainees who are “entitled to equal health care.”
But what makes the separation of Baby River and her mother particularly vexatious is the fact that powerful individuals accused of far worse crimes have been accorded much better treatment in the name of the same “compassion” and “humanitarian grounds” that were denied them. Detained for charges of plunder, Bong Revilla was able to visit his sick father in 2017. Detained for multiple charges of murder, Zaldy Ampatuan was allowed to attend his daughter’s wedding in Sofitel a year later.
Rightfully, there is cause for indignation when we see this glaring double standard. But it will be a mistake to think that the injustice ends in not granting Nasino a furlough. It will be a mistake not to see those same marks of injustice in Baby River’s very death, and how it has been caused not by pneumonia alone, but by the factors that led to it.
Who killed Baby River? At the very least, this question should point to the social and political determinants not just of health but also of justice, and how the two are inseparable. Can we not at least demand that women deprived of liberty be given access to sexual, reproductive, and maternal care, and be allowed to stay with their babies for much longer, as in many other countries? Can we not put an end to the over-incarceration, red-tagging, and yes, the drug war, that end up congesting our jails and destroying our families?
Who killed Baby River? This question will surely lead to many inconvenient truths, but we must insist on asking it, because like that of Rosario before her, the story of Baby River—illness in the absence of health, suffering in the absence of loved ones, and violence in the name of justice—is the story of countless Filipino children.
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