Caballo: delicate balance | Inquirer Opinion

Caballo: delicate balance

/ 02:03 AM November 12, 2014

When the dreaded Ebola outbreak, which has now claimed nearly 5,000 lives in parts of Africa, spread to Liberia, the Philippine government decided in August to pull out Filipino troops stationed with a United Nations mission in that country. The 108 soldiers, plus 24 policemen and one jail officer, were serving as peacekeepers under the UN program, which seeks to help Liberia rehabilitate its civil and defense institutions after many years of war.

At no time during their stint were any of the soldiers and policemen reported to have been detailed to hospitals treating Ebola patients, or in communities where they could conceivably have come in close contact with those infected. Local and international health workers were at the forefront of the fight to contain the disease; the soldiers under the UN mission were tasked to keep the peace. But before repatriation to their home country, all Filipino peacekeepers were required to undergo an Ebola screening test conducted by UN doctors as a precautionary measure. And all of them tested negative for the virus.

That assurance, however, is not enough for the Philippine government, which has decided to quarantine the returning soldiers for three weeks on Caballo Island, a spit jutting out of the mouth of Manila Bay some 2.6 miles east of Corregidor Island. Caballo hosts a base of the Philippine Navy, and as such is not barren and uninhabited. The military has put a happy spin to the peacekeepers’ quarantine by saying that they will have a relaxing time on the island; they can swim in the pristine waters, go fishing, or just wander about. They will have Internet access in their bunkers, and good food and accommodations. “They risked their lives. They were at risk of being shot or stabbed by conflicting groups. They were sent there to keep the peace, risking their lives and limbs. When they return, let’s reward them. We will follow the quarantine procedures while making our soldiers happy,” Gen. Gregorio Catapang Jr., the Armed Forces chief, was quoted as saying.

No one would quarrel with the government’s decision to put the soldiers in quarantine upon their return from a country struck by a deadly virus. But it’s a proposition that must be handled delicately; at the very least, it risks giving rise to misplaced conjecture and panic among the populace, and subjecting the returning peacekeepers to possible discrimination and stigma, even though they are not considered “high-risk personnel.” As explained by the AFP public affairs chief, Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc, “the high-risk personnel include health personnel or doctors treating Ebola patients, people who bathe those who died of Ebola, and those who kiss patients. [The peacekeepers] are not part of the category.”


Was the military swayed by unfounded hysteria in agreeing to isolate the returning soldiers on a remote island? The original plan was reportedly to quarantine them at the AFP Peacekeeping Operations Center in Capas, Tarlac, but it was scrapped when local officials protested that having the soldiers in their midst might harm the province’s tourism and pose health risks to its populace. By caving in to such uninformed fears and prejudices—despite the Ebola-negative status uniformly held by the peacekeepers—the military might have added to the perception that the soldiers are, in fact, high-risk and dangerous when placed near population centers.

Of course, all reasonable precautions must be taken to protect the country from a highly lethal disease such as Ebola. The Philippines is in a particularly vulnerable state given the presence of thousands of overseas Filipino workers in countries and nearby areas affected by the outbreak. Imposed temporary quarantines strike a rational enough balance between the imperatives of public health safety and the personal freedoms of returning citizens.

But it is a delicate balance, one that the government must ensure does not contribute in any way to inaccurate perceptions that could lead to misjudgment and prejudice—especially, in this case, against valiant Filipino soldiers returning from a humanitarian mission. Caballo must not become Culion, where Filipino lepers of long ago were exiled and ultimately ostracized by society. Already, a grossly irresponsible false story saying that a city in Metro Manila now has 18 Ebola patients has gone viral online. The country’s response to Ebola must include countering such criminal rumor-mongering.

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TAGS: Africa, Armed Forces of the Philippines, Caballo Island, Corregidor Island, Ebola Outbreak, Ebola Virus, Filipino peacekeepers, Gen. Gregorio Catapang Jr., liberia, Philippine government, Philippine navy, Philippine Peacekeepers

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