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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

With current controversy kicked up by Dengvaxia vaccine in this rainy season, it would be best if Senators Dick Gordon and Tito Sotto conduct a hearing on this most crucial health issue. Just how safe is Dengvaxia vaccine? Let's have that public hearing---NOW NA---to settle this issue once and for all.



Chief of the Public Attorney's Office, Persida Rueda Acosta, and Health Secretary Francisco Duque
With the current controversy kicked up by the Dengvaxia vaccine even as the rainy season’s full fury is already upon us,  it would be best if Senators Dick Gordon and Tito Sotto conduct a hearing on this most crucial health issue. Just how safe is this vaccine? Let’s have that public hearing----NOW NA---to settle this issue of the safety of the vaccine once and for all.

My radio partner, Cecile Guidote Alvarez, and I had a predictably fiery session last Sunday night in our regular nationwide dzRH program, “Radyo Balintataw,” with the Chief of the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO), lawyer Persida Rueda Acosta, over the issue of the safe or unsafe use of the vaccine manufactured by Sanofi, the “Dengvaxia Vacine.

Recall that employment of this vaccine was discontinued during the term of former President Benigno Aquino III as a good number of children injected with it either fell ill or even perished. Now Dengvaxia is making headlines again as it’s being recommended for use by some quarters, even as some others are questioning its return with vehemence.

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In our interview of PAO Chief Acosta last Sunday, she vigorously  objected to its use for the Filipino public, citing some episodes that she deemed as having already jeopardized lives. From the looks of it, however, the controversy refuses to peter out and will drag on, until a more authoritative and definitive source could stamp approval or outright disapproval of this controversial vaccine.

 PAO Chief Acosta argued that in its current way of being administered to an ailing public, the vaccine is liable to cause more harm, especially if used on patients who have never had dengue before---like a regular vaccine would operate.  Acosta opined that “lalong lalala ang sakit pag zero negative ang patiente for dengue.” Morover, she cited an 11-page report from the vaccine’s manufacturer, Sanofi, showing some cases’ increase in severity, as well as a conflict of interest situation in that the current Health Secretary, Dr. Francisco Duque, had served as consultant to former Health Secretary Garin from May 2015 to June 2016.

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During our interview over nationwide DZRH, I showed the PAO Chief two successive headlines of the Inquirer last week, citing that as dengue cases rise, the Palace is “open to Dengvaxia use.” The headline the day after cited “Docs, Scientists Urge Lifting of Dengvaxia Ban.”  Atty. Acosta admitted that the medical world is currently divided over its use, with the document allegedly certifying its use by the World Health Organization never having been presented to the public.

“Where is that paper certifying the WHO approval,?” The feisty PAO Chief asked.  She also cited an 11-page report by the vaccine manufacturer, Sanofi,  that declared four dengue cases that have increased in severity.

On the other hand, Atty., Acosta claimed that her office had autopsied some 143 cases of deaths from dengue after use of the vaccine. She also pointed out that there are 34 civil cases as well as 44 criminal cases against former Health Chief and now Rep. Janet Garin.  The PAO Chief also stressed that just as there are those who support use of Dengvaxia in the current epidemic involving dengue, there are just as many medics who are against the vaccine and experts who have issued position papers vs. Dengvaxia.

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Recall that there was indeed a lot of controversy swirling around the use of this vaccine imported from the French pharmaceutical company Sanofi during the administration of former President Noynoy Aquino---forcing his administration to withhold use of the vaccine. Apparently, until now  the local medical profession still appears to be divided over this issue.

Thus, it would be a good  move on the part of the Duterte administration to seek the World Health Organization’s recommendations before deciding on whether or not to use the Dengvaxia vaccine anew in its campaign to curb the dengue upsurge especially in this rainy season.

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Just as the Health sector is divided over the Dengvaxia issue, apparently the politicians are just as divided over it.  While fomer Health Secretary Janet Garin is already a member of the House of Representatives, having won in the recent elections in Iloilo, and may be expected to push for the Dengvaccia vaccine's use, senators like Richard Gordon and Vicente Sotto are said to be against bringing it back to public use. 

I submit that the best way to settle this issue---and ease up the extreme anxiety that parents across the nation are suffering  owing to the  reported dengue epidemic brewing---is to hold a congressional hearing on this very vital issue.

Senators Dick Gordon and Tito Sotto should bring it upon themselves to conduct an extensive hearing on the suitability of the Dengvaxia vaccine for cure of dengue---calling on authorities on both sides, as it involves the lives of perhaps thousands of Filipinos. The earlier the better and no holds barred.


Friday, July 26, 2019

Mayweather tipped off Pacquiao to punch Thurman in body, enabling him to win handily. But far from being just helpful, Mayweather obviously aspires for another bout with Pacquiao, who now commands bigger bucks. But there's also clamor for Manny to retire now---as a champ and as age creeps on him. Confusion over China's status in WPS caused by PH regional accents--is China in "possession" or "position?" Confusion could bring us to unwanted war.

In a recent FB post I opined that our champ Manny Pacquiao ought to retire already while he's on top of the world, inasmuch as  continued fights endanger him as age catches up. Nothing would be more heartbreaking for Manny's adoring compatriots than his fall from his pedestal. This stance that I raised in FB got so many favorable reactions---all expressing the same feeling for our champ: hang up your gloves while you're ahead. .

But what's this story about US champ Floyd Mayweather watching the Pacquiao fight vs. Keith Thurman, and how he passed on a  suggestion to our champ in the midst of that fight. Mayweather's message: hit Thurman in the body---which Manny did, sending his foe reeling to the floor. 
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The question among Manny's fans: why did Mayweather offer him that unsolicited advice to hit Thurman in the body? The answer: to disable Thurman, so that thereafter, Mayweather gets to fight our Pinoy champ. Mayweather defeated Manny a few years ago, but  perhaps because Manny is now in tip-top shape, Mayweather feels that if  he could defeat the Pinoy champ NOW,  his own stock would rise further. More mega-bucks. 

Fighting our champ and possibly defeating him is a master strategy for Mayweather---but Filipino fans would not relish this as they know Manny is getting older and such fight would only endanger his legend. Better to retire undefeated than to crumble to the floor as an over-aged boxer who didn't know that his time was up. Manny Pacquiao shouldn't fall for wily Mayweather's trickery. He should retire while he's ahead, and the fact that many Facebook fans share this feeling is a good weather-vane of public opinion.

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President Duterte tackled a lot of nitty-gritty in his Fourth SONA last Monday in what he termed "the period of consequence" of what should have been done but was not.  His nearly two-hours speech---delivered quite late as he was almost two hours delayed in arriving by chopper at the Batasan grounds---sounded more like a rambling fireside chat rather than the grand State of the Nation Address of the Chief Executive. But after three SONAs, we have gotten used to presidential eccentricities, his thick diction and mumble, and folksy jokes which his Batasan audience lapped up.

On the West Philippine Sea issue, the President was quite candid in admitting that he preferred to negotiate the problems we have with China diplomatically, as he did not want to make "more widows and orphans of our soldiers' families." "We have to temper (this issue) with reality," he was quoted as saying, insisting, however, that "national honor and integrity will be recognized."

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Interestingly, the President does not seem eager to expound on this issue at the moment, as he probably realizes that there seems no clear solution at the moment;  hence, he'd rather leave the verbal tussles over the WPS to Justice Antonio Carpio, former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales in one corner, vs. his spokesperson and legal adviser, Salvador Panelo (who came in an embroidered jacket that he told this admiring writer was "from Paris") and his loyal political allies.

To show how muddled the China issue could get, I had a big laugh to myself when the day after the SONA, administration officials were debating about the Philippine "position" on China while some members of Congress actually were denouncing that big bully country's "possession" of parts of the West Philippine Sea.  Uttered by various speakers with heavy, mainly Visayan, ethnicity, these two vital words in the national debate on China---"position" vs. "possession"---for a moment looked like dreary potentials for war.

Baka makipag-barilan tayo sa Tsina dahil sa ethnic mispronunciations:  China's "possession" of the WPS, when actually what is meant is its "position" on the conflicted waters?

(Next: the bishops' uproar over proposed revival of the death penalty,  Duterte's mulling of a proposed "Overseas Filipinos Commission" and his laying the burden of un-bundling traffic on the mayors, atbp.)

Saturday, July 6, 2019

As Inquirer headlined recently, foreign vessels have been poaching in our rich waters for marine resources, leaving our marginalized fishermen to fish in nearby shores. Over the years, vital AFP resources have been marshaled to combat communist insurgency and rebellion in the South. Result: a Philippine Coast Guard frightfully ill-equipped to handle piracy in PH waters.

One month after the "allision" between the Filipino fishing boat and the Chinese trawler in the West Philippine Sea, controversies continue to hound both sides. In fact the central issue---the right or the absence of it of the Chinese trawler to fish in PH's 370-km EEZ---continues to be debated. Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. raised the issue in the United Nations in New York City, but as the Chinese side put it, the allision happened as the Filipino fishing boat had no lights while parked in the sea.


Of course the fact of the Chinese boat fishing in PH waters was our  supervening argument, but this fact of the PH boat without lights puts us on the defensive and considerably weakens our claim for damages. This is a small detail but it should be a great lesson for Filipino fishing crew---you need perimeter lights around our boats if another collision is to be avoided at sea. 

The Philippine Coast Guard should be alert in enforcing proper safeguards on PH vessels such as ensuring their being well-lighted. The fact, however, is that many of our fishing boats come from marginalized regions in PH and are operating under-budget---so that perhaps perimeter lights would be the least of most Filipino  fishermen's concerns. But it has now become an absolute must.

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Still and all,  the central issue that continues to jar Filipino sensibilities---six weeks after the allision---is that the Chinese crew of the colliding trawler quickly abandoned the scene of the crime, and did not bother to help save the 22 Filipinos thrown in the sea.  The Chinese crew's excuse was that they were afraid of being mauled---given that, according to their spokesperson in that colliding boat, there were around five other Filipino boats in the vicinity of the allision. 

The implication is that because there were other Filipino boats in the area, the Chinese crew was afraid to come to the rescue of the imperilled Pinoys. This palusot cannot be credible, for if there were a good number of Filipino boats in the area, then there would have been no need to make a distress signal to a passing Vietnamese vessel. It was the Vietnamese boat that rescued our fisher folk, who struggled to survive for nearly four hours in the water. Thank God no one perished.

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But a bigger reality has surfaced, as bannered by the Inquirer yesterday, Friday, July 5, 2019. This is the fact that as PDI put it , "thousands of foreign fishing vessels encroach on Philippine waters and their activities, if left unchecked, could result in a devastating depletion of the country's marine resources." PDI published seismic maps in the West Philippine Sea over a three-year period in the Recto Bank in the Kalayaan Group and the Panatag Shoal, that showed whole areas shaded in red, indicating innumerable foreign vessels in the WPS.  

According to the PDI account, since April 2012, an average of 11, 261 foreign vessels have been invading those waters rich in marine resources and high-value fish in the WPS. The legitimate fear here is that if this continues unchecked, the Philippines stands to suffer from depletion of high-value marine resources and Filipino fishing communities would be deprived of meaningful livelihood. 

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I think that we all have exhausted this allision tragedy in our EEZ to the hilt and the thing is to learn some truly expensive lessons from it. Our fishing boats must be well equipped--- and lighted well enough, so as to avoid collision at sea, which could be most hazardous to the Pinoy crew.

Politically the sea accident has exhausted the adverse consequences to the Duterte administration. To many Filipinos, it was irritating to see  President Duterte sounding quite subservient to the Chinese powers. This perception actually commenced when he began allowing tens of thousands of undocumented Chinese to enter the country and compete with Filipino labor. In many people's perception, this seeming deference of Mr. Duterte to the Chinese---Premier Xi Jing Ping is his very good friend---has lost him quite a lot of political mileage, as far as his countrymen are concerned.

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Our country faces a terrible problem in our West Philippine Sea due to the seemingly unimpeded and limitless access of foreign vessels in our part of the world.  This was highlighted with the allision that happened last month when the Chinese trawler smashed into the smaller fishing boat operated by Filipinos in Recto Bank, and then scooted away without coming to the rescue of the Filipinos scattered in the sea. 

But as things turn out now, that allision accident was just the smaller problem. The bigger headache is how to enforce our sovereignty in our waters, to prevent the Chinese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese vessels from poaching in our waters and thereby seriously depleting our marine resources. 

The foreign encroachments of superior vessels of our wealthier neighbors have gravely affected the livelihood of our own fishermen, who cannot afford to go into deeper areas because of the lack of sophistication of their boats. In turn, this has serious impacted on the welfare of their fishing communities and ultimately on the country that's highly dependent on marine resources. 

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The biggest problem at the moment, however, is the fact that through the years, the Philippine Coast Guard---a vital enforcement organ of the Philippine Navy---which has the duty of protecting our seas from foreign encroachment, is the least developed of our various armed services. 

Over the many decades that our armed forces have been battling local insurgency as well as the secessionist movement in the South, it's the Philippine Army that has cornered the biggest chunk of  resource allocations. As a result of this, of the three major services, the Philippine Navy became the least endowed, despite the fact that we are an island nation.

 Now we see how this reality has crippled the Coast Guard that should have the sophisticated boats to drive away encroaching foreign fishing vessels---but which it doesn't have. 

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