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HIV stigma and discrimination and official indifference?

Outrage Magazine takes a closer look at alleged discrimination experienced by some Filipinos living with HIV at some government agencies. This begs the question of whether it is time to re-visit “official” policies to ensure that they do not violate the rights of PLHIVs, and even end up promoting stigma and discrimination of those living with HIV.

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Time to revisit ‘official’ approaches to HIV?

The Bureau of Quarantine’s (BOQ) form specifically states that it “encourages” those who will get the yellow fever (YF) vaccination (to get their “yellow card”, which is needed by those traveling to/from select Latin American and African countries, among others) to be “honest” to “avoid possible medical complications”. But honesty, in this case – and as relayed by a Filipino living with HIV, Xander* – came at a price.

“The first step is to fill in a form that expects one to detail his/her medical condition. This form is then checked by a nurse (the second step), who will decide if you can proceed to the third step, which is the actual vaccination. If he/she has doubts about your entries in the form, you will be sent to one of the doctors on duty; he/she will determine if you can get vaccinated,” Xander relayed to Outrage Magazine.

The problem, said Xander, is in the handling of HIV-related cases.

When he went to the BOQ in the City of Manila, first, “my filled-in form was handled by at least three people who passed it around before I was forwarded to the doctor on duty (that day).” And because this section of the BOQ did not have partitions that could have afforded him privacy, Xander deemed what happened to him as “invasive, as it failed to respect my right to privacy,” he said. “In fact, by the time I was forwarded to the doctor on duty, even the other people who were also only there to get vaccinated already knew of my HIV status.”

And then the doctor on duty “was not even familiar with HIV-related cases,” Xander alleged, basing his assumption/observation on this doctor’s “lack of knowledge about CD4 and ARV (antiretroviral medicines) – he kept saying ‘Kailangan ko yung CD-CD ba ‘yun (I think I need that CD thing)?’ and ‘Dalhin mo lahat ng gamot mo sa akin. Hindi ko masyado alam ano yang Lamivudine-Tenofovir-Efavirenz (You have to show me all your medicines. I’m not very familiar with Lamivudine-Tenofovir-Efavirenz).” The doctor’s table was, by the way, right beside the waiting area (where people who were already vaccinated were awaiting their yellow card) and the cashier (where those who get vaccinated pay for the services received), so that everything discussed was done in public.

Xander – with head hanging low – left the BOQ sans knowing that the vaccination he desired; but also shamed because of his HIV status.

HIV AND YF VACC

The doctor on duty when Xander went to the BOQ was – in a way – right to be cautious when he asked for more information about Xander’s health condition.

In a study titled “Yellow fever vaccination in HIV-infected patients”, published in HIV Therapy, Olivia Veit, Christoph Hatz, Matthias Niedrig and Hansjakob Furrer stated that “millions of HIV-infected individuals are at risk to YF, a severe hemorrhagic disease which is endemic in tropical areas of Africa and Latin America.” To deal with this, “the 17D YF vaccine (17DV) is the most effective preventive strategy.” The World Health Organization (WHO), in fact, recommends that all people aged ≥9 months living or travelling in areas where there is a risk of YF transmission to be vaccinated.

Particularly in relation to HIV, there are some things worth stressing here.

First, “data regarding safety and immunogenicity of 17DV in HIV-infected individuals are limited to small studies, mainly in travelers with CD4 cell counts above 200 cells/mm”.

Second, even with sparse information, “according to current recommendations, 17DV should only be given to asymptomatic HIV-infected individuals with a CD4 cell count above 200 cell/mm” since “rare serious adverse events cannot be excluded”. As per WHO, “the vaccine is contraindicated for people who are severely immunocompromised”.

And third, at least according to some studies, “yellow fever vaccine did not result in any serious adverse events in HIV-positive individuals. However, people with HIV responded less well to the vaccine than their HIV-negative counterparts, and the protective effects of the vaccine wore off more quickly.”

All in all, though, there is still “a special need for further studies to investigate the safety and efficacy of 17DV in HIV-infected individuals”.

Section 41 of the IRR (implementing rules and regulations) of the RA 8504 states: “Medical confidentiality shall protect and uphold the right to privacy of an individual who undergoes HIV testing or is diagnosed to have HIV."

Section 41 of the IRR (implementing rules and regulations) of the RA 8504 states: “Medical confidentiality shall protect and uphold the right to privacy of an individual who undergoes HIV testing or is diagnosed to have HIV.”

LAW OF THE LAND

But again, as Xander stressed, YF vaccination isn’t his issue, per se; instead, it is the handling of his situation by a government office as a Filipino living with HIV.

Republic Act 8504 (or the Philippine AIDS Prevention and Control Act of 1998, otherwise known as the AIDS Law) states (in Section 3b): “The State shall extend full protection of human rights and civil liberties to persons living with HIV.” Part of the protection clause of the existing law is ensuring that “the right to privacy of individuals with HIV shall be guaranteed.”

Section 41 of the IRR (implementing rules and regulations) of the RA 8504 states:

“Medical confidentiality shall protect and uphold the right to privacy of an individual who undergoes HIV testing or is diagnosed to have HIV. It includes safeguarding all medical records obtained by health professionals, health instructors, co-workers, employers, recruitment agencies, insurance companies, data encoders, and other custodians of said record, file, or data.

“Confidentiality shall encompass all forms of communication that directly or indirectly lead to the disclosure of information on the identity or health status of any person who undergoes HIV testing or is diagnosed to have HIV. This information may include but is not limited to the name, address, picture, physical description or any other characteristic of a person which may lead to his/her identification.

“To safeguard the confidentiality of a person’s HIV/AIDS record, protocols and policies shall be adopted by concerned officials, agencies and institutions.”

Section 44 of the IRR, in fact, details the sanctions against violators, i.e.:

“Penalties for violating medical confidentiality, as provided in Sec.s 30 and 32 of RA 8504, include imprisonment for six (6) months to four (4) years. Administrative sanctions may likewise be imposed…”

FAILURES OF THE SYSTEM

YF vaccine can only be had in three BOQ offices in the Philippines – i.e. BOQ – Manila, 25th Street, Port Area, Manila (Monday to Friday, 8am to 2pm); BOQ – Cebu, General Maxilom Avenue (Wednesday and Thursday, 8am-9am); and BOQ – Davao, Chavez St. (Fridays 8-9am).

Xander went to BOQ – Manila.

(Outrage Magazine sent on two separate dates two representatives to observe the processes of BOQ – Manila; and we can verify the same – Ed)

The BOQ “system” is somewhat different in Cebu City, still another place where the YF vaccine can be had; though there, forced HIV disclosure could still happen.

(Outrage Magazine also sent a representative to observe the processes of BOQ – Cebu; and we can verify the same – Ed)

In Cebu, people who intend to get the YF vaccine are first asked to “register”. Then those who will be given the vaccination for the first time are ushered into a private room where they are given a mini-lecture by the resident doctor re YF (and in our undercover representative’s case, sermon re HIV). During this mini-lecture, the resident doctor also asked the group if any one of them is HIV-positive. Not surprisingly, none openly admitted his (as there were only males in that batch) HIV status.

Emails were sent by Outrage Magazine to Dr. Janette L. Garin, Secretary of the Department of Health (since BOQ is under DOH), and to Dr. Ferdinand S. Salcedo, Director of the BOQ.

Specifically, Outrage Magazine sought for more information on:

  1. The intake forms of BOQ – e.g. if these rely on self-disclosure of HIV status, and who handles these forms since (as was reported to Outrage Magazine, these were just left on tables so that everyone could see them; and
  2. The set-up of BOQ – e.g. if the doctors on duty were trained to handle HIV-related scenarios, and if people living with HIV are allowed to get more private consultation (instead of discussing the cases in public).

As of press time, however, NO RESPONSES WERE RECEIVED FROM BOTH GARIN AND SALCEDO.

BOQ's Ferchito Avelino is hopeful that stakeholders “work together and disseminate information on HIV and correct myths that breed unnecessary fear that results to stigma and discrimination.”

BOQ’s Ferchito Avelino is hopeful that stakeholders “work together and disseminate information on HIV and correct myths that breed unnecessary fear that results to stigma and discrimination.”

On May 30, however, Ferchito L. Avelino, M.D. of the BOQ responded to Outrage Magazine, stating the bureau’s appreciation of “your effort to communicate to us your concerns. These information is important to us as we continue to improve client-to-doctor engagement (to) make sure that such engagement is within the bounds of medical confidentiality.”

Specific to the first concern raised by Outrage Magazine, Avelino stated that, “yes, the answer to the query on HIV status is based on self-disclosure of the client… although we strongly encourage client to disclose their status as this information is vital prior to the administration of any antigen. Also, our doctor may request the client to secure a certification from their attending physician on the needed for vaccination.”

(The HIV status is based on self-disclosure because of the confidentiality clause in the law – Ed)

Pertaining the possible breach in confidentiality that Xander noted in BOQ, Avelino stated that “aside from the doctor, (the) nurse on duty handles the information that are inputted in the BOQ form.” He added that “actions are made and continuously being updated to put in place systems and processes to make sure that other clients and service providers will have no access to this information.”

Avelino also stated that “the Bureau has medical doctors trained in internal medicine and in public health”, and that “to be updated on clinical practices, we conduct sessions in handling medical cases. In the past, we had sessions on HIV with representatives from the positive community.”

Avelino is hopeful that stakeholders “work together and disseminate information on HIV and correct myths that breed unnecessary fear that results to stigma and discrimination.”

a person living with HIV (PLHIV) was given a PWD (person with disability) card by the City Social Welfare and Development (CSWD) that identified the bearer as a “PLHIV”. After a complaint was filed, the card was replaced; though the replacement now stated that the bearer of the ID is “mentally ill”.

A person living with HIV (PLHIV) was given a PWD (person with disability) card by the City Social Welfare and Development (CSWD) that identified the bearer as a “PLHIV”. After a complaint was filed, the card was replaced; though the replacement now stated that the bearer of the ID is “mentally ill”.

While the BOQ is used here as a sample government office, it is – incidentally – not the only office (and a government office, particularly) that has issues when dealing with HIV-related cases.

Humphrey Gorriceta, a Filipino living with HIV, once recalled how he was “forced” to disclose his HIV status in the Land Transportation Office (LTO). Upon renewing his license in the LTO in Rosario, Cavite, Gorriceta had to take a drug test (a requirement).

“I just took my ARV about an hour or two before the testing (before giving my urine specimen), and the drug test result turned out positive. They asked me the routine questions if I have consumed alcohol recently or have taken any prohibited drugs. I said no. I asked why, and they said that they will have to send it to the DOH for confirmatory (drug test). I told them no need for that. I confessed that I am on ARV, and possibly the false-negative result is due to my ARV. I showed them my ARV caplets. They asked what ARVs are. I was surprised they didn’t know. I told them I have a lifetime condition that required me to take ARV, and that ARVs are like very strong antibiotics for a specific infection. They still didn’t get it and continued to ask about the meds. So I told them that ARVs are maintenance medication for HIV. I had to make the disclosure. I ended up explaining about HIV and ARV,” Gorriceta said.

Gorriceta added that he “felt it was uncalled for. I felt I was pushed against the wall to do the disclosure. For them to have a drug testing service means that they should be educated or at least be oriented of the possible scenarios why a person would come out (false) positive to drug testing.”

The mandatory drug testing for driver’s license applicants was scrapped after the Republic Act 10586 (Anti-Drunk and Drugged Driving Act) took effect in June 2013.

In another case, this time in Cagayan de Oro City (CDO), a person living with HIV (PLHIV) was given a PWD (person with disability) card by the City Social Welfare and Development (CSWD) that identified the bearer as a “PLHIV”. After a complaint was filed, the card was replaced; though the replacement now stated that the bearer of the ID is “mentally ill”.

For Stephen Christian Quilacio of the Northern Mindanao AIDS Advocates (NorMAA), this highlights “the lack of knowledge in handling an issue that continues to be very sensitive,” he said.

Stephen Christian Quilacio: Voice from Northern Mindanao

NorMAA now helps provide support to the CDO PLHIV.

“While we say that there is no shame in being HIV-positive, as it is supposed to be only a medical condition, we remain cognizant of the fact that society as a whole continues to not be accepting of PLHIV, who are often stigmatized and discriminated. Care should therefore be given in handling HIV-related cases; and this is not always provided even by those in government offices,” Quilacio said.

NorMAA: Safe space for PLHIVs in Northern Mindanao

According to Ico Rodulfo, president and CEO of Project Red Ribbon, “discrimination among PLHIVs in government offices is still rampant. Project Red Ribbon has encountered a lot of reports and from personal experiences in the PLHIV community, where PLHIVs were bullied, not given chances to be promotion or are talked into quitting their posts. The Foundation also had an experience with one government agency which has an HIV program, but where the staff didn’t respect the confidentiality of the PLHIV and disclosed the status of the client to the neighborhood where she resides. This eventually caused her to be bullied and pressured to move out as her neighbors feared that her HIV might infect the entire barangay.”

Project Red Ribbon: Responding to a growing need

CONFRONTING STIGMA AND DISCRIMINATION

Yet another example happened back in Cebu City, with the handling of the cadaver of a PLHIV who passed on. There, after the demise of the PLHIV, his family was allegedly told to “ilubong dayun ang patay kay basin makatakod (immediately bury the dead as it could infect others)”. His casket was also tightly wrapped in layers of plastic.

Outrage Magazine contacted the office of Dr. Ilya Tac-an, head of Cebu City’s Epidemiology Center and STD Detection Center, who said she will refer the publication to the one in charge with the cadaver section. Tac-an, nonetheless, stated that as far as she knows, the City Health Department is following the provision on the proper disposal of dead persons as mandated in the Presidential Decree 856, s. 1975, or the Code on Sanitation of the Philippines.

IRR of Chapter XXI (Disposal of Dead Persons) of PD 856, s. 1975, states that when the death due to “dangerous communicable diseases”, including HIV, the following are the requirements:

  1. The remains shall be buried within 12 hours after death;
  2. The remains shall not be taken to any place of public assembly;
  3. Only the adult members of the family of the deceased shall be permitted to attend the funeral;
  4. The remains shall be placed in a durable, air tight and sealed casket; and
  5. No permit shall be granted for the transfer of such remains.

As of press time, Outrage Magazine did not receive the referral from Tac-an.

However, according to Nenet Ortega, R.N., a licensed embalmer who is with the International Development Leadership and Learning Corporation now as one of its technical experts on health system strengthening/health sector reforms, as long as Universal Precautions (standard infection control guidelines) are followed, the risk of infection from a dead body is very low.

Hindi naman gaya ng Scarlet Fever or diphtheria ang AIDS para ilibing (AIDS is not like Scarlet Fever or Diphtheria that requires for the body to be buried) within 24 hours. It also does not require hermetically sealed coffin,” Ortega said.

Ortega added that “TB, polio, hepatitis and HIV can effectively be killed by formaldehyde and other embalming chemicals. Also, embalmers are trained to protect themselves from getting any infection during embalming process. You know what, as long as there are no microorganism that is resistant to formaldehyde and other embalming fluids and chemicals, and as long as embalmers have the means to protect themselves, embalmers can and will always be able to serve the public.”

The fear of the dead PLHIV infecting others is also baseless, Ortega said. “Remember that the virus need a living cell as its host in order to replicate. When the body dies, all the cells die, so therefore the virus dies as well kasi patay na din ang mga white cells (because the white cells also die) within 24 hours. And by exposing it to formaldehyde earlier than 24 hours, the faster the cells are preserved, but the virus dies.”

Ortega added: “That incident in Cebu exposed the immediate family of the person who died to further stigma and discrimination. That action indirectly tells people na namatay ang taong nasa loob ng ataul na nakabalot pa ng plastic sa isang nakakahawa, nakakadiri at (that the person inside the coffin that is wrapped in plastic died from a contagious, disgusting and) fatal kind of disease.”

For Ortega, “that incident in Cebu is a gross discrimination. As if balutin ng plastic ang coffin (by wrapping the coffin in plastic) would be a protection enough to keep HIV. That is bullshit! Ignorance spreads stigmatization and discrimination, including ignorance of the simple Universal Precaution. And Universal Precaution is basic. It is practiced in all clinics, lying in, hospitals of all levels, in schools with anatomy, physiology, clinical and chemistry laboratories, in morgues, in all places where exposure to bodily fluids may happen.”

For Dr. Jose Narciso Melchor Sescon of the AIDS Society of the Philippines, “the City Health Office is handling and tracking these cases through the death certificate filed by relatives prior to the burial. Hospitals are required by DOH to report the types of infections borne as part of surveillance (PIDSR, or the Philippine Infectious Disease Surveillance Response). Take note what is discriminating is what you put in the death certificate and not necessarily the process or handling as there are funeral parlors highly competent to handle such cases (e.g. Funeraria Oro).”

For Sescon, “the reality is that not all funeral parlors are trained or are competent to handle bodies with infectious diseases. Yes, I agree that standard precautions must apply, but the reality is, not all abide by this. Add to this the reservations of the owners of embalming establishments if they are not trained to deal with such cases.”

In cases where there are no experts that can handle the cadaver of PLHIVs, “there are DOH memorandum or administrative orders that the city must follow that within 24 hours, the body should already be cremated or be buried. If only there are a lot of trained embalmers to handle highly infectious diseases, not only HIV but also the likes of meningococcemia and chicken pox, then it will not be a problem.”

Sescon added that “this may be why a PLHIV’s body had to be cremated or buried within 24 hours, particularly if there are no trained embalmers around, most especially in far-flung areas.”

He added, nonetheless, that “the manner of relaying the correct information is also important so that the situation is better understood.”

Both Ortega and Sescon advocate the further professionalization of the funeral industry for the people in it to know how to properly handle sensitive cases, such as when involving a dead PLHIV.

“I agree with the need to professionalize the profession for only then will this issue be somehow resolved. Professionalizing increases the quality standards of operations, provision of licenses and permit will depend now on meeting the quality standards in embalming bodies and or running a funeral parlor,” Sescon said.

RAMPANT STIGMA AND DISCRIMINATION

HIV-related stigma and discrimination has long been reported in the Philippines by the likes of Remedios AIDS Foundation and Pinoy Plus Association in a study called Exploring the Realities of HIV/AIDS Related Discrimination in Manila Philippines, published in 2005; APN+, Pinoy Plus Association and UNAIDS in AIDS Discrimination in Asia: From the Perspective of Persons Living with HIV/AIDS,

Published in 2002; and GNP+, Pinoy Plus Association and UNAIDS in The People Living with HIV Stigma Index in the Philippines, published in 2010.

These studies, in fact, note that the area where PLHIVs experience most discrimination is the healthcare setting (both public and private), with instances cited including: refusal to treat on the grounds of HIV status, different treatment on grounds of HIV status, testing for HIV without the knowledge of the individual, breach of confidentiality and denied of health insurance.

Eddy N. Razon of the Pinoy Plus Association, in his report AIDS Related Stigma and Discrimination in the Philippines, also noted the “non-availment of redress mechanisms” of PLHIVs. Among the reasons provided include: lack of understanding on what constitute human rights violations; lack of knowledge on available redress mechanism; unwillingness to come out and be identified in public in the course of seeking redress; and the cost of legal action.

And so – back to the access to the YF vaccine at the BOQ – Xander said it is a “Catch 22 situation. We’re damned if we disclose, and damned if we don’t disclose.”

In his case, Xander is first to admit the good of knowing how he may react to what will be injected into his body. He is now seeking medical clearance from his personal doctor, just so he can present some documentation to the BOQ.

But Xander said that he isn’t a “special case – there are others like me who also had YF vaccination, and who opted not to admit their HIV status just to be done and over with with the YF vaccination”.

And Xander said he understands the other PLHIVs, stressing that “unless protections are given to those who openly admit their HIV status, then expect PLHIVs to lie instead to protect themselves from stigma and discrimination.”

In CDO, NorMAA’s Quilacio believes in the need to revisit the approaches in the delivery of services of government offices, among others; though this time, “these need to be informed by the very people they claim to serve. Otherwise, if they persist as if it’s all business as usual, then they’re just going to continue doing things insensitively, and maybe even against the laws that ought to be upheld.”

Rodulfo said that “the challenges are aplenty. First, we need to educate the government offices and agencies about HIV and the law. Second, we need to implement the HIV in the workplace policy as required by RA 8504 and the DOLE mandate, so all government offices educate the workforce re respect of the rights of the workers with HIV. And third, we need to continue to push for anti-discrimination ordinances and policies.”

Rodulfo is, nonetheless, hopeful that change will come soon. “As change is coming with the next President, we are hopeful that reforms will be implemented to finally stop stigma and discrimination of members of the PLHIV community,” he said.

“We may still have a very long way to go when dealing with HIV-related issues,” admitted Xander. “But we’d have an even longer way to go if the very institutions that swore to uphold our rights – i.e. the government – are the very ones that violate them.” And so, “change needs to happen. And they need to happen fast.”

*THE INTERVIEWEE REQUESTED FOR HIS REAL NAME NOT TO BE USED TO PROTECT HIS PRIVACY

THIS IS A DEVELOPING STORY, AND OUTRAGE MAGAZINE WILL CONTINUE PURSUING LEADS THAT HIGHLIGHT NOT ONLY ERRONEOUS PRACTICES BUT BEST PRACTICES WHEN DEALING WITH HIV IN VARIOUS OFFICES

The founder of Outrage Magazine, Michael David dela Cruz Tan is a graduate of Bachelor of Arts (Communication Studies) of the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia. Though he grew up in Mindanao (particularly Kidapawan and Cotabato City in Maguindanao), even attending Roman Catholic schools there, he "really, really came out in Sydney," he says, so that "I sort of know what it's like to be gay in a developing and a developed world". Mick can: photograph, do artworks with mixed media, write (DUH!), shoot flicks, community organize, facilitate, lecture, research (with pioneering studies under his belt)... this one's a multi-tasker, who is even conversant in Filipino Sign Language (FSL). Among others, Mick received the Catholic Mass Media Awards (CMMA) in 2006 for Best Investigative Journalism. Cross his path is the dare (read: It won't be boring).

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Proposed ‘comprehensive anti-discrimination bill’ called oxymoronic, removes need to protect LGBTQIA Filipinos

A proposed “Comprehensive (sic) Anti-Discrimination Act” is being considered in the House of Representatives (HOR), though the bill eliminates LGBTQIA people among those in need of protection. According to Rep. Geraldine Roman, by eliminating SOGIE in the CADB, it contradicts the very claim that it’s CADB. “By eliminating us, you are discriminating against us.”

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A not-so-comprehensive anti-discrimination bill after all.

A proposed “Comprehensive (sic) Anti-Discrimination Act” is being considered in the House of Representatives (HOR), though the bill eliminates LGBTQIA people among those in need of protection.

In a virtual meeting of the technical working group of the Committee on Human Rights of HOR, Rep. Jesus Suntay presented “An act prohibiting discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, race, religion or belief, sex, gender, language, disability, HIV status, educational attainment and other forms of discrimination”.

“If you eliminate SOGIE, you can’t call it ‘Comprehensive ADB’. It’s an oxymoron.”

Rep. Geraldine Roman

Another proposed bill, the SOGIE Equality Bill, is getting criticized because it is supposed to be limited to a specific class of people – i.e. LGBTQIA people. And so there is a proposal for it to be included, instead, in the more and supposedly comprehensive anti-discrimination bill (CADB).

According to Rep. Bienvenido Abante Jr., himself a pastor cum politician: “We are trying to avoid approving any bill that would be classified as class legislation… This is why it is CADB.”

Abante – nonetheless – believes in the inclusion of sexual orientation in the CADB, just not gender identity and expression.

However, the move to exclude “discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression” from the CADB is a win for anti-LGBTQIA people by eliminating SOGIE Equality Bill and then excluding LGBTQIA people from the CADB.

According to Rep. Geraldine Roman, the first transgender congressperson in the Philippines: “If you eliminate SOGIE, you can’t call it ‘Comprehensive ADB’. It’s an oxymoron.”

The proposed bill also removes SOGIE in Sec. 2: Declaration of Policy, and in the definition of terms.

Defending the erasure of SOGIE in the bill he presented, Suntay said that there are already 15 SOGIE-related bills filed with the Committee on Women. For him, if SOGIE is also included in the CADB, it “may be deemed also as SOGIE Equality Bill.”

But Roman does not agree with this.

That argument, she said, “is totally irrelevant… By eliminating SOGIE (in the CADB), it contradicts the very claim that it’s CADB. By eliminating us, you are discriminating against us.”

Roman added: “We have to be brave enough and recognize that there is discrimination happening against people like me who has a gender identity that is considered as different from what’s considered as conventional.”

Suntay noted that an anti-discrimination bill has been passed since the 13th Congress; and he hopes to eventually “steer this to success”, apparently even with LGBTQIA exclusion.

WRITE TO, OR CONTACT THE OFFICE OF REP. JESUS SUNTAY. INFORM HIM OF THE NEED TO KEEP SOGIE IN THE COMPREHENSIVE ANTI-DISCRIMINATION BILL.
FB Page: https://www.facebook.com/congsuntay/
Email provided in FB: congressmansuntay@gmail.com
Mobile no.: 09190847873

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Those opposing SOGIE Equality Bill claim to be ‘pro-human rights’… but not for LGBTQIA people

Parties opposing the passage of the SOGIE Equality Bill frame themselves – and their arguments – as “for equality” and “for human rights for all”, but stress all the same that they do not support granting LGBTQIA people human rights.

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Different parties opposing the passage of the SOGIE Equality Bill frame themselves – and their arguments – as “for equality” and “for human rights for all”, but stress all the same that they do not support granting LGBTQIA people human rights because any anti-discrimination law will grant LGBTQIA people “special rights”.

This – along with the imposition of religious beliefs – was repeatedly stressed during the August 28 virtual hearing on the SOGIE Equality Bill of the Committee on Women & Gender Equality of the House of Representatives.

Rep. Benny Abante of Manila’s 6th district, for one, stated that “the LGBTI are human beings like all of us… I might not agree with their lifestyle (sic), but I will defend their rights to express themselves.”

But while he stated that “nobody in this country is a second-class citizen,” he reiterated his “refusal to be included as a co-author (of the SOGIE Equality Bill) does not speak of opposition” to it. Instead, it is to uphold what’s in the bible.

Abante also misgendered Rep. Geraldine Roman of Bataan’s First District, referring to the first transgender woman to win a seat in Congress as “congressman” and using the male pronoun “him”. Roman is a co-chair of the Committee on Women & Gender Equality.

Abante’s position was similar to many others who spoke at the virtual hearing.

Stanley Clyde Flores of Jesus is Lord (JIL) religious group stated: “Hindi kami bulag sa katotohanan na maraming miyembro (ng LGBTQIA community) ang nakakaranas ng diskriminasyon.” But JIL does not support the SOGIE Equality Bill because “it rids others of their rights.”

In fact, JIL believes that “God gave gender”, and the fringe religious group believes that members of the LGBTQIA community who want to “welcome God and change their gender” should do so.

JIL’s anti-LGBTQIA position was established by its founder turned politician, Rep. Eddie Villanueva, his position itself a slight on the concept of the separation of Church and State.

Presbyterian Sec. Gen. Nelson Dangan similarly stated the church’s supposed support for non-discrimination. But Dangan stressed that the anti-discrimination bill “supports approval of homosexual behavior”, assaults the truth of Biblical sexuality, does not focus on procreation as human’s key reason for existence, and is “anti-God because God opposes homosexuality.”

Dangan also refuted the existence of intersex people because the word does not exist in his bible.

“Philippines will be like Sodom and Gomorrah if we pass (this bill),” he said, also insinuating that Covid-19 is a wrath of God and that passing a law for the human rights of LGBTQIA people will further anger this God. “We respect all people created by God… but we oppose this bill… because we violate the will of God and invite the wrath of God.”

GOD’S NAME IN VAIN?

Bishop Leo Alconga, the national president of the Philippines For Jesus Movement, similarly stated that they stand “against any form of discrimination”, but that God does not agree with this, quoting an antiquated Catholic perspective that homosexuality is “an act of great depravity”.

Alconga similarly linked the SOGIE Equality Bill with marriage equality, which is not at all part of the bill.

For Bro. Ramon Orosa of Philippines For Jesus Movement, one of the most notorious sins in the scripture is homosexuality and lesbianism. And for him, “the question is not whether they exist, but not giving in to them.” Using the punitive Old Testament God, he said that “God is not tolerant of any sin.”

Orosa also said that “this is being imposed on everybody else” and that “we will be discriminated upon if we disagree.”

For Iglesia ni Cristo’s Edwil Zabala, everyone is entitled to all human rights. But for him, SOGIE is “not a fundamental right” and does not even exist. Like the others, he said that laws should not be made to favor select/special beneficiaries.

HATE FROM GOV’T BODIES?

But church people were not the only parties opposing the SOGIE Equality Bill.

From the side of the government, for instance, Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Usec. RJ Echiverri echoed the right-wing religious perspective. After claiming he, too, is against discrimination and the provision of equal opportunity for everybody, he questioned if the proposed law will give special rights to others.

Echiverri also had issues with trans women joining competitions for those assigned female at birth; as well as the “blurring of identities”.

Meanwhile, an Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) resource person stated that while AFP – as a government institution – does not discriminate, it also “does not support protection of special groups at the expense of others.”

HATE HIGHLIGHTS NEED FOR THE LAW

But other parties also expressed their support for the passage of a law that has been pending in Congress for 20 years now.

Philippine National Police (PNP) head of PNP Women and Children Protection Center (WCPC), Colonel Alessandro Abella, for instance said that they support upholding the rights of all people irrespective of SOGIESC. However, the PNP position that Abella read at the hearing, which is contrary to AFP’s, has yet to be officially vetted by his higher ups.

Still, he said, PNP is lobbying to rename WCPC to “Women, Children and Gender Rights Protection” as it’s more generic and will cover all forms of gender-based violence.

PNP’s recruitment process at present is already SOGIESC-sensitive, focusing on “merit and fitness”, he said, so “PNP supports this.”

Other government officials who also expressed support were Esmeralda Amora-Ladra from Commission on Elections; Sandy Montano of the Philippine Commission on Women; Elizabeth Angsioco of the Department of Social Welfare and Development; and Paul Moreno of the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.

For Prof. Evelyn “Leo” Batad of UP GLLP, this is a long overdue law that “recognizes the long-standing struggle of people due to their SOGIESC.”

The 1987 Philippine Constitution, in fact, stipulates the value the dignity of all human persons. But the country does not have executory laws for this; and so “a legislation providing for the protection of people with diverse SOGIESC is overdue.”

Batad added that “religion is not meant to support specific beliefs”, and that “morality referred to in law is public and secular, not religious.” The Supreme Court already stated that if the government relies on religious beliefs in the making of laws, then this will require conformity in particular religious programs and the concept of morality of those managing them. This – by itself – becomes an imposition, which violates the very concept of freedom of religious affiliation by making some more dominant than others.

“We cannot impose religious beliefs on others,” Batad said. “Religious belief is distinct from what is spiritual.”

LGBTQIA PEOPLE EXIST

Rep. Roman, for her part, said that “you cannot treat the Bible like a science book.” For instance, the intersex condition is a biological fact; so citing the bible to question the existence of intersex bible is erroneous.

“As St. Agustine said: If you want to convince other people, you cannot ignore empirical data,” she said.

Roman helped push the SOGIE Equality Bill’s passage in 2017, when the bill got the nod of 198 congresspeople, with none opposing it.

“Despite the promise of equality, vulnerable groups are still discriminated,” said Rainbow Rights Project Inc.’s Atty. Jazz Tamayo. “Must we undergo discrimination before we (are able to) access the law? The State needs to (deal with) this.”

For her part, Lagablab Network’s Atty. Claire de Leon said that “discrimination still persists”, with LGBTQIA students refused entry to schools, LGBTQIA people excluded from social support, and the prevalence of workplace discrimination due to people’s SOGIESC, among others. “LGBTQIA people remain vulnerable,” and this ought to push for the passage of the SOGIE Equality Bill that has been wallowing “for over 20 years now.”

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73% of Filipinos think ‘homosexuality should be accepted by society’

Among the countries surveyed in the whole of Asia (i.e. India, Indonesia, Japan, Philippines and South Korea), the Philippines had the highest number of respondents who said they were accepting of homosexuality.

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Constant rainbow support?

While people in the Asia-Pacific region continue to show little consensus on the subject, at least 73% of Filipinos surveyed say homosexuality should be accepted. This is the same figure as the one reported by a similar survey conducted in 2013, making the Philippines the only participant country that did not change its perception from 2013 to 2019.

This is according to a new Pew Research Center report conducted in 2019 involving 38,426 people in 34 countries. This is a follow-up study to the one made in 2013.

To ask them how they perceived homosexuality, the participants were asked: “Which one of these comes closer to your opinion? ‘Homosexuality should be accepted by society,’ or ‘Homosexuality should not be accepted by society.'”

People who said they don’t accept homosexuality was pegged at 24% (versus 26% in 2013).

Among the countries surveyed in the whole of Asia (i.e. India, Indonesia, Japan, Philippines and South Korea), the Philippines had the highest number of respondents who said they were accepting of homosexuality.

But countries in Asia-Pacific (and Oceania) showed extreme results – e.g. aside from the Philippines’ 73%, more than three-quarters of those surveyed in Australia (81%) say homosexuality should be accepted, but only 9% of Indonesians agree.

According to Pew Research Center, the survey shows that “while majorities in 16 of the 34 countries surveyed say homosexuality should be accepted by society, global divides remain.”

Mimicking the figures from APAC (and Oceania), other parts of the world also highlighted this global divide re homosexuality – e.g. 94% of those surveyed in Sweden say homosexuality should be accepted, but only 7% of people in Nigeria say the same.

Now, if it’s any consolation, across the 34 countries surveyed, a median of 52% agree that homosexuality should be accepted (versus 38% opposing it).

Other findings include:

  • In 17 years, Pew Research Center found that many of the countries surveyed showed a double-digit increase in acceptance of homosexuality, such as in the cases of South Africa and South Korea.
  • Those in Western Europe and the Americas were found to be more accepting than those in Eastern Europe, Russia, Ukraine, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa.
  • At least for a number of countries, more women than men support homosexuality.
  • Younger generations were found to be more accepting. In 22 of 34 countries surveyed, younger adults are significantly more likely than their older counterparts to say homosexuality should be accepted by society.
  • In most countries surveyed, those who have greater levels of education are more likely to say that homosexuality should be accepted in society than those who have less education.
  • Religion plays a role in the response of those surveyed (e.g. in some countries, those who are affiliated with a religious group tend to be less accepting of homosexuality than those who are unaffiliated). As per the research, in most cases, the affiliated comparison group is made up of Christians; and yet “even among Christians, Catholics are more likely to accept homosexuality than Protestants and evangelicals in many countries with enough adherents for analysis.”
  • Political ideology plays a role in acceptance of homosexuality (i.e. those on the political right are less accepting of homosexuality than those on the left).
  • Attitudes on this issue are strongly correlated with a country’s wealth (i.e. people in wealthier and more developed economies are more accepting of homosexuality than are those in less wealthy and developed economies) – e.g. in Israel, 52% of higher income earners say homosexuality is acceptable in society versus only three-in-ten of lower income earners.
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At what cost? HIV service disruptions at the time of Covid-19

One of the biggest casualties of Covid-19 may be the delivery of other services, such as HIV testing. In the Philippines, HIV prevention services were reduced by 20% to 30%, and HIV testing services reduced by 20% to 80%. And sans clear B&W guidelines, community-based service providers continue to be at a loss.

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Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán from Unsplash.com

Ashley Galvinez, board member of the Sta. Catalina Active LGBT Organization in Zamboanga in Mindanao, used to get screened for HIV every month (to every three months). “I’ve been doing this since I became sexually active,” she said to Outrage Magazine via video interview.

But then the world was struck by Covid-19, and the country was placed under lockdown. And this already-regular part of her health monitoring was stopped.

Kaya sa bahay na lang muna; tiis-ganda,” she said, adding that she was still scared she could get infected with HIV or get sexually-transmitted infections.

The fear of Galvinez isn’t unfounded.

This May, UNAIDS noted with the World Health Organization (WHO) “the need for urgent efforts to ensure the continuity of HIV prevention and treatment services in order to avert excess HIV-related deaths and to prevent increases in HIV incidence during the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be important for countries to prioritize shoring up supply chains and ensuring that people already on treatment are able to stay on treatment, including by adopting or reinforcing policies such as multimonth dispensing of antiretroviral therapy in order to reduce requirements to access health-care facilities for routine maintenance, reducing the burden on overwhelmed health-care systems.”

“Every death is a tragedy,” said Winifred Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS. “We cannot sit by and allow hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young, to die needless deaths.”

This is in no way limited to the Philippines, too.

UNAIDS similarly noted that “if efforts are not made to mitigate and overcome interruptions in health services and supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic, a six-month disruption of antiretroviral therapy could lead to more than 500,000 extra deaths from AIDS-related illnesses, including from tuberculosis, in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020–2021.”

In 2018, approximately 470,000 people died of AIDS-related deaths in that region.

“The terrible prospect of half a million more people in Africa dying of AIDS-related illnesses is like stepping back into history,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General was quoted as saying. “We must read this as a wake-up call to countries to identify ways to sustain all vital health services.”

To be specific, disrupted HIV-related services could include:

  • Difficulty in accessing antiretroviral medicines
  • Reduced quality clinical care owing to health facilities becoming overstretched
  • Suspension of viral load testing
  • Reduced adherence counseling and drug regimen switches
  • Interruption of condom availability
  • Suspension of HIV testing
Ashley Galvinez used to get screened for HIV every month (to every three months). Covid-19 stopped this.

ALSO IN NEED OF FOCUS

According to Ms Jaya L. Jaud, community HIV outreach worker for the Zamboanga City-based Mujer LGBTQ+ Org., HIV is also a pandemic, and this is something “na dapat ding tutukan.”

Jaud added that there is a need to face reality that HIV cases are increasing in the Philippines.

From October to December 2019, there were 3,029 newly confirmed HIV-positive individuals reported to the HIV/ AIDS & ART Registry of the Philippines (HARP). Sixteen percent (474) had clinical manifestations of advanced HIV infection at the time of testing.

By end-2019, the country was registering 35 new HIV infections per day, up from only one case per day in 2008, seven in 2011, and 16 in 2014.

EMPHASIS ON COVID-19

In Antipolo at the outskirts of Metro Manila, Darwin Tenoria, case manager at Antipolo Social Hygiene Clinic, said that they are already trying to return their HIV-related services to how they were before Covid-19.

“It doesn’t mean that our (HIV-related) services stopped,” he said, but these services were instead only modified. For instance, the actual HIV testing is the same (e.g. blood extraction, et cetera); but the pre- and post-test counseling were amended (via installation of dividers, practice of social distancing, as well as use of face shields and/or masks) so that the counselor and the client are protected.

But at least, Tenoria said, “we have some foot traffic.”

According to Ms Jaya L. Jaud, community HIV outreach worker for the Zamboanga City-based Mujer LGBTQ+ Org., HIV is also a pandemic, and this is something “na dapat ding tutukan.”

HALTED COMMUNITY-BASED SCREENING

Tenoria, at least, works in a health facility.

But – as far as HIV testing and/or screening is concerned – it is the community-based screening (CBS) that has been greatly affected, many actually stalled.

CBS is the HIV screening process done by the likes of Jaud, wherein a volunteer/screener goes to communities to offer HIV testing and screening. This is particularly beneficial to those who live far from a testing facility or those who may not have the time to visit a testing facility.

In idea, this seems like a good idea particularly at the time of Covid-19 because the lockdowns meant people have no means to access health facilities.

But according to Gregory Rugay from the CBS team of Northern Sanctuary MCC in Baguio City, “screening itself has totally stopped at the moment.”

Instead, the focus has been to link to treatment, care and support those who have tested reactive or positive before Covid-19 lockdowns.

“It is kind of tricky,” Rugay said, “because those who have been calling us, wanting to be tested right away, are people who have symptoms (akin to Covid-19) like fever, colds… and difficulty of breathing. With the pandemic going on, you are at a loss on how to treat this kind of issue because their symptoms can also point to (having) Covid-19.”

Darwin Tenoria, case manager at Antipolo Social Hygiene Clinic, said that they are already trying to return their HIV-related services to how they were before Covid-19.

WANTED: COMMUNITY-BASED SERVICE PROVIDERS

Rugay’s fear has merit… even if, obviously, the services he used to be able to freely offer is still needed.

On May 18, UNAIDS stated that “the role of community-led organizations must be appropriately recognized and supported in the context of COVID-19. They must be factored into all aspects of planning, design and implementation of interventions to combat both COVID-19 and the efforts required to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on other health areas, including HIV and tuberculosis.”

And so UNAIDS recommended, among others:

  • Including community-led health care service providers into lists of essential service providers
  • Policies allowing community-led services to continue operating safely
  • Ensure that community-led organizations are provided with personal protective equipment and training to protect them and their clients in service delivery

LACK OF CLARITY?

In terms of CBS, “they do not have specific guidelines,” Tenoria said. “There’s no clear guideline on how to mobilize CBS.”

This is even if three months have passed since the Covid-19 lockdown has started.

Jaud agrees, saying that “there’s no protocol – e.g. in using personal protective equipment (PPE).” What happens now is – at least in her case – they rely on the practices of the city health office, as well as the practices of NGOs.

Still waxing positive, Jaud said that the Department of Health (DOH) may have not focused on this because – obviously – Covid-19 was the focus for a while, and because there may have been this assumption that because there are a lot of NGOs/CBOs in this field already, they may already know what to do.

In Baguio, Rugay himself was told by someone offering CBS that CBS is actually stalled.

He admitted, though, that he can’t imagine himself offering CBS now particularly if doing so would mean he would be exposing himself to Covid-19, and thereby exposing his loved ones to the same when he returns home.

Tenoria said that “perhaps we need (something written in black and white), on what will be the direction (under) the ‘new normal’.”

He admitted that there were shortcomings particularly when the country – and the world – was initially responding to Covid-19. “Medyo napag-iwanan talaga yung HIV program.”

But now, there ought to be guidelines (beyond the initial one developed by DOH, though that one only focused on accessing antiretroviral medicines). For Tenoria, clearer guidelines will also provide clarity to both service providers and those accessing the services particularly as these may align protocols.

HIV BOOM ABOUT TO HAPPEN?

As it is, all lung-related cases in Antipolo are now considered as suspected Covid-19 cases, said Tenoria.

This is worth noting because tuberculosis (TB), for instance, is an opportunistic infection (OI); and it occurs more often/more severe in people with weakened immune systems (like someone with HIV).

So even if a person with HIV who may not have Covid-19 may have lung-related issues, he/she is required to be isolated. This, then, leads to another (and related) issue: The limited capacity of health facilities in the Philippines.

Tenoria admitted as much, saying that looking for facilities for PLHIVs is harder because isolation rooms are being dedicated to Covid-19 patients.

Of course: Those who test reactive but who have no OIs are luckier, as they are automatically enrolled into the system so they can immediately access ARVs.

For Rugay, “at this moment, there’s nothing we can do for (PLHIVs whose detection is late).” But for him, what the HIV arm of DOH should do is “step up in preparing itself for (a possibility of a) barrage of late detections once they figure out how we do screenings again. Are they prepared/equipped to have all those patients come in?”

FROM THE D.O.H.

A June 10 letter signed by Usec. Dr. Myrna Cabotaje from Department of Health (DOH) to Outrage Magazine noted the impact of Covid-19 on HIV program implementation. Specifically: Prevention services were reduced by 20% to 30%; HIV testing services reduced by 20% to 80%; viral load testing reduced by 42%; and ARV refill services reduced by 5%.

These impacts were due to: geographic concerns, transportation issues and strict checkpoints.

As Tenoria already noted, a guideline was actually developed by DOH. But its main focus was on PLHIVs (particularly, access to ARVs by those already diagnosed to have HIV), and not on those who have yet to be tested.

But Cabotaje’s letter stated that data from HARP for January-March 2020 shows 552 new HIV cases. Meaning, according to HARP, “HIV testing, mostly facility-based, were still provided.”

For January-March 2020, 682 PLHIVs were also initiated on ART.

Asked about protocols re HIV testing, DOH stated that “at this point, HIV testing protocol based on current capacity of both the government and CBOs is centered on ether facility-based testing or community-based HIV screening. Our current HIV projects, e.g. Global Fund HIV grant, thru Save the Children, provided essential PPE to our field workers for them to continue performing their prevention and testing work.”

The likes of Jaud in Zamboanga and Rugay in Baguio are, obviously, not recipients of the aforementioned PPEs.

Moving forward, DOH is also looking at self-screening as an approach to HIV testing, although “the country is still currently testing this approach in a limited manner.”

No timelines were mentioned in the letter.

GOOD PRACTICES

Exactly because HIV-related efforts seemed to have relied on localized practices, some good practices have emerged.

In Naga City, for instance, Tenoria noted that HIV testing is offered with Covid-19 testing.

Still in Zamboanga, when goods are distributed, safer sex kits are included.

And still in Zamboanga, Jaud started tapping clients online; and this is even if this effort remains limiting because not everyone is active online.

“It’s difficult because gatherings of a big number of people are not allowed,” said Jaud. Her target population – i.e. transgender women in Zamboanga – frequently avail of HIV screening when they have gatherings. But now, “tapping social media has been helpful.”

Worth noting is how this immediately limits Jaud’s service delivery – i.e. because she know of the risks related to Covid-19, the clients she now serves are limited to people she knows/are friends with.

“It is kind of tricky,” Gregory Rugay said, “because those who have been calling us, wanting to be tested right away, are people who have symptoms (akin to Covid-19) like fever, colds… and difficulty of breathing.”

PROGRAMS STILL NEED TO CONTINUE

In the end, Tenoria said that people in power hopefully realize that there are still programs that need to be run. “Just as we say in HIV (advocacy), ‘No one should be left behind’.”

This is because sans the needed support, Rugay said people involved in CBS are limited. And so he urges those who want to get tested to, instead, go to health facilities, particularly if they may also have symptoms linked with Covid-19.

Konting pasensya lang sana,” he said, until “we have clear protocols and figure it out how to make it safe for everyone concerned.”

“We (still) encourage everyone to get tested for HIV,” Tenoria said. But those who want to get tested will have to coordinate first with health facilities to schedule testing. Still, this “should not be a hindrance for you to access services (even during this pandemic).”

For Jaud, “we have to capacitate outreach workers (like myself)”. This may be via supplying with gears (e.g. PPE), training, and – yet again – laying down of protocols to use.

Back in Zamboanga, Galvinez said that government offices should give attention to community-based health workers like Jaud, who’s also “a frontliner. They’re ready to help, and serve the community.”

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Outrage Mag’s MDCTan recognized for ‘Art that Matters for Literature’ by Amnesty Int’l Phl

Outrage Magazine head Michael David dela Cruz Tan was cited by Amnesty International Philippines as a human rights defender whose works help bring changes to peoples’ lives, particularly via the establishment of the only LGBTQIA publication in the Philippines.

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Outrage Magazine head Michael David dela Cruz Tan was cited by Amnesty International Philippines as a human rights defender whose works help bring changes to peoples’ lives, particularly via the establishment of the only LGBTQIA publication in the Philippines.

Tan – who received “Art that Matters for Literature” – is joined by co-awardees Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Most Distinguished Human Rights Defender – Organization; Bro. Armin Luistro, FSC, Most Distinguished Human Rights Defender – Individual; and Lorenzo Miguel Relente, Young Outstanding Human Rights Defender.

These awards are part of “Ignite Awards for Human Rights”, given to human rights defenders (HRDs) in recognition of the impact their work bring in changing peoples’ lives through mobilization, activism, rights-based policy advocacy and art. First of its kind, it is Amnesty International Philippines’ top honor given to human rights defenders in the country.

According to Tan, getting the recognition is an honor, particularly as “it recognizes our work in highlighting the minority LGBTQIA community in the Philippines. But this also highlights that for as long as there are people whose voices are ignored/left out of conversations, those who are able to should take a stand and fight for them.”

In a statement, Butch Olano, Amnesty International Philippines section director said that “this season’s recipients come from varying human rights backgrounds, from press freedom and right to education to gender equality and SOGIESC rights, but they share one dedication, that is to fight for basic rights of Filipinos. They truly ignite the human rights cause, speaking up against injustices and exposing inequalities on behalf of those who, otherwise, will not be heard.”

Olano added: “Amnesty International Philippines strongly believes that our individual and collective power as a people working towards transforming and uplifting each other should be given due recognition and appreciation despite the political turmoil the country has been experiencing for a few years now. It is necessary to shine a spotlight on those individuals who continue to pave the way for collective action.”

Michael David C. Tan – who received “Art that Matters for Literature” from Amnesty International Philippines – at work while providing media coverage to members of the LGBTQIA community in Caloocan City.

The nominations for Ignite Awards 2020 was opened exactly a year ago (May 28), and it took the organization a year to finalize the nominations and vetting process together with its Selection Committee and Board of Judges chaired by Atty. Chel Diokno.

May 28 also marks Amnesty International’s 59th anniversary.

“When people lead in taking a stand for human rights especially in difficult situations, it emboldens many others in their struggles against injustice. Our Ignite Awardees’ commitment is all the more remarkable because of the alarming levels of repression and inequality that ordinary people are experiencing amid this pandemic. Throughout and certainly beyond the immediate crisis, these human rights defenders will continue to stand up on behalf of the most vulnerable in our society. Together, we will call on the government to ensure access to universal healthcare, housing and social security needed to survive the health and economic impacts of Covid-19, while ensuring that extraordinary restrictions on basic freedoms do not become the new normal,” Olano said.

Michael David C. Tan – also a winner for Best Investigative Report in 2006 from the Catholic Mass Media Awards (CMMA) – has continuously tried to highlight “inclusive development”.

Tan – who originated from Kidapawan City in Mindanao, southern Philippines – finished Bachelor of Arts (Communication Studies) from the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia. In 2007, he established Outrage Magazine, which – even now – remains as the only LGBTQIA publication in the Philippines.

Among others: In 2015, he wrote “Being LGBT in Asia: The Philippine Country Report” for UNDP and USAID to provide an overview on the situation of the LGBTQIA movement in the country, and where the movement is headed; and in 2018, he wrote a journalistic stylebook on LGBTQIA terminology to help media practitioners when providing coverage to the local LGBTQIA community.

Tan – also a winner for Best Investigative Report in 2006 from the Catholic Mass Media Awards (CMMA) – has continuously tried to highlight “inclusive development”. For instance, speaking at a 2019 conference on human rights and the Internet organized by the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and the Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA), he said that “there is a disconnect between what’s online and what’s happening on the ground. And this stresses one thing: The need to not solely rely on making it big digitally, but also go beyond the so-called ‘keyboard activism’.”

Michael David C. Tan – seen here giving SOGIESC and HIV 101 lecture to over a thousand students in Quezon Province – said that “for as long as there are people whose voices are ignored/left out of conversations, those who are able to should take a stand and fight for them.”

Along with Tan, this year’s awardees join 2018’s recipients: Sen. Leila De Lima, Most Distinguished Human Rights Defender-Individual; DAKILA Philippine Collective for Modern Heroism, Most Distinguished Human Rights Defender – Organization; Floyd Scott Tiogangco, Outstanding Young Human Rights Defender; and Cha Roque, Art that Matters for Film.

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Covid-19 and the freelancer’s dilemma

The Philippines is home to a “vibrant gig economy”, with an estimated 1.5 million freelancers in the country. But Covid-19 responses actually do not include them, so what happens to them now?

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Kate is a visual artist. She resigned from her day job to pursue her passion two years ago. Painting and creating origami, her income mainly came from the sales of her artworks; supplemented by home-based art classes to elementary and high school students.  

Nicole is a freelance makeup artist. Her clients varied from celebrities to socialites to brides and debutantes… and everything in between. Nicole used to earn a minimum of P3,000 per client, with the amount increasing depending on the type of service being offered.

Lumina is a drag artist, a common face in dance clubs and in events. Aside from her “talent fee”, she also used to get “tips” from customers.

But when the Covid-19 related Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) took effect in Luzon starting last March 17, their capacity to earn a living was also put on hold. And people like them – a.k.a. “freelancers” – are many.

In May 2019, PayPal (the payment system company) reported that the Philippines is home to a “vibrant gig economy”, with an estimated 1.5 million freelancers in the country. In fact, this is a segment that is fast becoming an influential part of the Filipino workforce and a key engine driving the growth of the country’s economy.

The terms used to refer to them may vary – e.g. In October 2019, the Philippine Statistics Authority reported that of the 73,528,000 population in the Philippines, ages 15 years and over, 95.5% are employed. And 25% of them are “self-employed workers”. Freelancers also fall under PSA’s categorization.

And ECQ has been devastating to these Filipinos.

“The current lockdown left us, freelance workers, in a complete halt — events and shows were cancelled. It technically made us jobless since we do not have the option of working from home,” Lumina said.

Like Lumina, Kate said freelancer workers are “so tied to the situation.”

“Even if I want to sell my work or earn a living, I cannot do anything right now,” Kate added.

Painting and creating origami, Kate’s income mainly came from the sales of her artworks; supplemented by home-based art classes to elementary and high school students. Everything was affected by Covid-19.
Photo by Fallon Michael from Unsplash.com

What gov’t support?

There are supposed to be government support for workers affected by the ECQ.

In a statement released last March 17, for instance, the Department of Labor and Employment stated that they “may be able to address the pressing needs of the rest of the affected workers in the quarantined areas.” 

DOLE developed the following mitigating measures: “Covid-19 Adjustment Measures Program” (CAMP), “Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers” (TUPAD), and “DOLE-AKAP for OFWs”.  

CAMP will serve “affected workers regardless of status (i.e. permanent, probationary, or contractual), those employed in private establishments whose operations are affected due to the Covid-19 pandemic.” TUPAD “aims to contribute to poverty reduction and inclusive growth.” The program is “a community based (municipality/barangay) package of assistance that provides temporary wage employment.” And the DOLE-AKAP specifically caters to overseas Filipino workers who have been displaced due to the imposition of lockdown or community quarantine, or have been infected with the disease.   

DOLE reiterated that the only qualified beneficiaries are the underemployed, self-employed and displaced marginalized workers. To help these people, “employment” is offered – i.e. the nature of work shall be the disinfection or sanitation of their houses and its immediate vicinity, and the duration will be limited to 10 days. The person will be receiving 100% of the prevailing highest minimum wage in the region.

Pre-Covid-19, Nicole could earn from P3,000 per client; nowadays, she relies solely on what her barangay provides: relief goods and minimal ayuda.

Another government body eyeing to supposedly help is the Social Security System (SSS), where employees of small businesses may apply to be considered for the Small Business Wage Subsidy (SBWS) Program. 

To add, the government agency is also geared up to pay some 30,000 to 60,000 workers projected to be unemployed due to possible layoffs or closures of Covid-19 affected private companies.

Some arts-focused institutions like the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) also developed their own “disaster-triggered funding mechanism” to help address the “lack of support from the government.” In FDCP’s case, the program aims to help displaced freelance audio-visual workers—from talents, to production staff and technical crew members.

But note how all efforts are mum on freelance workers.

For drag performer Lumina, Covid-19 “technically made us jobless since we do not have the option of working from home.”

Making ends meet

And so many are left to do something they never did – i.e. rely on others just to survice.

In the case of Nicole, she relies solely on what her barangay provides: relief goods and minimal ayuda

Sobrang hirap ng sitwasyon ngayon. Hindi ko alam kung saan ako kukuha ng panggastos. ‘Yung ipon ko paubos na, tapos kailangan ko pa magbayad ng renta sa bahay at ibang bills (The situation now is very hard. I don’t know where to get money to spend. My savings are almost gone, and yet I still have to pay for my rent and the bills),” she said.

Lumina, for her part, is “lucky” because she still lives with her family, and “they have been providing for my basic needs since the lockdown started.”

Her luck isn’t necessarily shared by many – e.g. Human Rights Watch earlier reported that “added family stresses related to the Covid-19 crisis – including job loss, isolation, excessive confinement, and anxieties over health and finances – heighten the risk of violence in the home… The United Nations secretary-general has reported a ‘horrifying‘ global surge in domestic-based violence linked to Covid-19, and calls to helplines in some countries have reportedly doubled.”

To add: “In a household of six members, I think the goods that we are receiving from the government is not enough,” Lumina said, hoping that “every freelance worker also receive benefits from the government that would in a way cover the earnings that we lost.”

Bleak future?

In 2017, when PayPal conducted a survey of over 500 freelancers in the Philippines, the results showed that the country had a “very optimistic freelancer market”, with 86% of freelancers claiming they anticipate future growth in their businesses. In fact, at that time, 23% of the respondents said their business is growing steadily, while 46% said their business is stable.

But Covid-19 turned everything upside-down for many.

There are rays of hope.

Toptal survey, for instance, pointed out that 90% of companies depend on freelancers to augment their professional workforce, and – get this – 76% of surveyed executives intend to increase use of independent professionals to provide expertise either to supplement full-time talent or to access skills and experiences they lack in their workforce. 

This may be particularly true to those whose works do not involve face-to-face engagement (e.g. graphics design, BPOs).

And so for the likes of Kate, Nicole and Lumina — and many other freelance workers for that matter, whose works rely on being with people — the way to get through now is to just to make do with what they can grasp on… while trapped inside and hoping for a better future, where reliance (including in a non-responsive government) is not in the picture… 

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