SOMEWHERE in Zamboanga del Sur there is a public elementary school where 26 of 154 students suffer from severe malnutrition. Apparently severe enough to die as happened to one of the students, Jonathan Oya, 12 years old, weighing 15 kilograms (the ideal weight for a four-year-old).
This is a story from the Philippine Daily Inquirer by Leah Agonoy published last Monday, February 19.
The story claims that Jonathan’s case is not an isolated one and that health workers were trying to deal with malnutrition in the town of Labangan, Zamboanga del Sur. Glab Elementary School where Jonathan was a student had the 26 students with severe malnutrition, of which Jonathan was one. On the dismal news of Jonathan’s passing, the Labangan municipal health officer, Dr. Marilyn Manupac, said that cases of malnutrition had actually declined since 2015 when it was 14 percent. Citing government statistics, Dr. Manupac said that it was now a little more than 7 percent in 2017.Obviously, this last needs help now and malnutrition is still rampaging in Labangan. And a 7 percent malnutrition rate should be unacceptable.
Malnutrition in the hinterlands of Labangan where Subanen (an ethnic minority known generically as lumad) is prevalent and government resources that should have been available, like the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4P’s), to avert this heartbreaking tragedy obviously wasn’t.
Jonathan Oya, dead at 12, used to walk more than three hours a day from home to school. He is said to have wanted to learn and did not miss class. He also did get one decent meal a day when he came to school through the school’s feeding program. His teachers noted his ambition to study so that when he missed school for more than a week, they looked for him and found him at home so weak he could not stand. The news item had an accompanying photograph of Jonathan lying on a mat virtually on a dirt floor while his father looked at him. The hut was almost a lean-to made of leaves. His teachers rushed him to a government hospital in Pagadian City (a trip that took eight hours) but it was too late. After two days in hospital, Jonathan died.
This is not to indict anyone. In fact, it is to acknowledge the care and concern of his teachers, the attention of the municipal health officer and barangay health workers who as we speak struggle to help. But in truth, they themselves are poor and struggle to survive. Help has to come from outside.
This is the face of poverty in Mindanao’s hinterlands and among its lumad. It has to be addressed as an emergency, resources have to be obtained, funds and agencies to disperse them have to be allocated now.
Jonathan was one of 13 children of very poor Subanens living in the mountains of Zamboanga del Sur.
Possibly environmental destruction, land grabbing and peace and order issues are pushing the lumad with their inability to compete or adjust to these factors farther and farther into remote areas. They probably have compromised their food sources. This is the effect of modernization in areas of indigenous people that has brought this unsustainable situation to pass. It seems modernity has not brought a better world to the lumads but put them on the brink of extinction.
In cases like the above, affirmative action must be taken by government agencies, from the schools to the rural health units to the social welfare department which would require massive funding. School feeding, health awareness workshops and clinics, the subsidy through the 4 P’s that has proven a lifeline to families that are in dire poverty, must be provided efficiently. All in all, it has to be government attention focused on reversing the situation because the problem is massive and the resources needed equally so.
Indeed, this story puts a face to the much talked about and discussed degree of abject poverty in Mindanao, from which its many social problems spring. Poverty is also the face of injustice and neglect by our society of the rest of us who are mired in it.
More organized government concern through allocation of resources can do a lot of good. There are good, hardworking people on the ground who can help out. The teachers, government workers, local government units only need a helping hand in the form of resources and encouragement to make them assist their neighbors in need. Compassion is present, resources are absent.
A government school feeding program bill has just passed the Senate. We hope that it will or has passed the House too and will be signed into law soon. Whatever the cost, more than giving out free tuition to state university students, defraying the costs of government celebrations and parades and travel, ad infrastructure spending, the investment to do away with malnutrition takes precedence. We have to save the future. We must care and attend to those who are in dire need like the people of Labangan, Zamboanga del Sur and farther more into Mindanao and the rest of this country where such conditions prevail. There should be no more tragedies like that of Jonathan Oya.