A time for heroes
Seventy-nine years after Filipino and American resistance forces tenaciously held their ground against the Japanese in Bataan on April 9, 1942, their heroism finds a parallel in today’s war-like situation. This time, the formidable enemies are the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic hardships brought on by the government’s response to the crisis, and China’s naked aggression in the West Philippine Sea.
Renamed Araw ng Kagitingan (Day of Valor), today’s holiday honors the courage and fortitude of those soldiers who, for three months and despite disease, malnutrition, and limited arms and supplies, stalled the advance of occupying Japanese forces. After the surrender of over 60,000 Filipino and 15,000 American soldiers, the Japanese instituted the infamous Bataan Death March—later classified as a war crime—where thousands perished on the arduous six-day trek from Mariveles, Bataan, to Capas, Tarlac, a distance of some 100 kilometers. Only 54,000 of the original prisoners reached Capas; many would die of exhaustion, starvation, disease, maltreatment, or outright execution by the Japanese.
The bravery and sacrifice of ordinary Filipino citizens conscripted into war against a superior enemy finds its match in the unfaltering efforts of today’s health workers and medical frontliners who struggle to defeat a virus that has so far infected at least 800,000 and felled more than 14,000 since it invaded the country last year.
Like those intrepid souls in Bataan, doctors, nurses, and health personnel have paid, and are paying, a high price for their resolute efforts to save lives as they risk constant exposure in the course of their daily work. The toll in the medical community has compelled several hospitals to close their doors to new admissions or suspend operations, citing the depletion of their workforce to the infection. The Philippine Orthopedic Center alone reported that 117 of its 180 swabbed health personnel have tested positive for COVID-19.
The overall casualty count is heart-wrenching. As of March 30, some 15,907 health workers have been infected, or 1,038 more than February’s count and 821 higher than in January’s figure, according to the Department of Health. An earlier breakdown, as of March 27, showed that the virus had infected 5,681 nurses, 2,585 doctors, 1,171 nursing assistants, and 806 medical technologists. The Alliance of Health Workers, meanwhile, put the figure of COVID-19 cases in its ranks at 15,200, with 82 of them succumbing to the severe respiratory disease.
Despite their heroic efforts to contain the surge of infections, health workers have found their needs often ignored by the government, from inadequate protective equipment to measly or delayed hazard pay, to being berated outright by the President when they protested their lot. In this, they again echo the experience of war veterans who had to spend their post-war years fighting anew—this time for basic recognition of their service to the American-led war effort, along with their pension, death and disability benefits, medical coverage, etc. Until lately when their entitlements were finally granted by the US government, it had been a lopsided battle, with the war vets’ fading years an unequal match to the labyrinthine politics and bureaucracy of a long-ungrateful America.
Another front that’s been begging for heroes—for men and women of principle, patriotism, and steadfastness—is the continuing assault on the country’s sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), where China has been aggressively building artificial islands and constructing military installations to strengthen its baseless claims over nearly the entire South China Sea. The latest flashpoint involves some 200 Chinese militia vessels moored since March 7 at the Julian Felipe Reef, well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
China has brazenly ignored diplomatic protests filed by the Department of Foreign Affairs, while President Duterte has only expressed indifference to longstanding calls for more decisive action against China’s belligerent actions, such as harnessing greater international support for the arbitral ruling in 2016 that decisively resolved the WPS issue in the Philippines’ favor.
The recent pushback from Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who described as “appalling” China’s “utter disregard of international law,” is a welcome change of tone, but whether that rare outburst can be sustained by an administration that has cultivated a meek, obsequious stance toward Beijing is the question. As the superpower fortifies its grip on the region, China’s continuing foray into Philippine waters, and inevitably into Philippine politics and policymaking, is bound to be a drawn-out battle. It’s certainly one that can use more latter-day Filipino heroes and patriots, in and out of government. Where are the worthy heirs to our Day of Valor?
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