For decades only one state-paid doctor took care of tens of thousands of residents in the city of Guihulngan in the central Philippine province of Negros Oriental.
Then the witch-hunt
against suspected leftists started in the province, considered one of the poorest in the country. Gunmen started a killing spree from mountain hamlets to coastal areas.
In between joint police and army raids on villages and executions by motorcycle-riding assassins, leaflets and posters circulated, showing faces and names of "suspects."
The victims came from all walks of life: peasants, teachers, priests and pastors, lawyers, trade union leaders, businessmen, former local government officials, and medical professionals.
The red-tagging (accusing people of being communist sympathizers) was no joke.
You could map the killings in the urban areas according to the release of the posters.
In ten days of July this year, 21 people were gunned down. Many of their names had been on those posters.
Among the dead were a lawyer known for helping farmers and two of the city’s most respected educators.
"A climate of violence, fear and impunity grips our island," said Bishop Gregorio Alminaza of San Carlos on Sept. 12.
That fear affects more than the targets.
The bishop shared that a doctor in the city's health office found her name on the list. "Fearing for her life prevented her from providing health services to 33 villages," said Bishop Alminaza.
Archbishop Antonio Ledesma of Cagayan de Oro, head of the Philippine Ecumenical Peace Platform, and Benedictine nun Mary John Mananzan shook their heads as they listened to Bishop Alminaza.
Archbishop Ledesma described the red-tagging as a serious human rights violation. "It arbitrarily assigns guilt and there is no way for the target to defend one’s self," he said.
"Demonizing people also paints the killings as a form of public service," added the prelate.
The absence of the lone doctor to a population nearing 100,000 is a tragedy in the province of Negros with a 45 percent poverty incidence, double that of the 21.6 percent national average.
"I was the only doctor servicing Guihulngan," said city health officer Mary Rose Genisan Sancelan, 60, in a brief message to a gathering in Manila on Sept. 12.
It was only early this month when the city finally got its second doctor.
"My workload is very heavy," Sancelan said, adding that other than her medical practice she also has administrative tasks.
One day, the doctor found her face and name on a pamphlet accusing her of being "JB Regalado," a nom de guerre of a communist rebel spokesman in the region.
The allegation sounds funny, but doctors have died in Guihulngan, such as on Nov. 20 last year when armed men shot dead a visiting doctor from the city of Canlaon.
Dr. Avelex Salinas Amor had stuck to his youthful dream of being a doctor in villages despite offers of work abroad and in the cities. His killers have not been caught.
"I feel so helpless," said Sancelan. "Every time I go out to work, I feel paranoid. Of course, you are scared to die," she said.
She is no longer free to visit patients in mountain villages where children have still to be immunized.
The Facebook page of the city health office is full of earnest pleas for parents to allow children to be vaccinated for dengue, measles, polio, and other contagious but preventable diseases.
Guihulngan recorded 104 dengue
cases this year and the provincial health office has urged a more intense and consistent "search and destroy operation" of mosquito lairs.
Aside from dengue, the Philippines is also grappling with a surge in incidence of measles
The World Health Organization ranks the Philippines, which had a zero-measles rate two decades ago, third worldwide in measles incidence, with 45,847 cases over the course of a year.
The military and police are saying that they are "just stating facts" when they tag people as communists — although it is not a crime in the country.
The consequences of these pronouncements, they told a Commission on Human Rights hearing, is not their problem.
The military and the police account for more than two dozen killings, insisting they shot rebels in clashes, a claim disputed by victims’ families and witnesses.
Meanwhile, unidentified teams of motorcycle-riding assassins have killed the rest — close to 60 victims in Negros.
Most of the slain were involved in helping farmers stake claims to land promised to them after former president Corazon Aquino’s government passed an agrarian reform law in 1988.
More than three decades after the law was passed, farm workers in Negros still earn an average of less than a dollar to US$1.24 a day.
Conditions are still serf-like, with many of the workers having to pay for lodgings in hovels and having to purchase their own farm implements.
Of the 424,130 hectares of land used for farming sugar in Negros, 1,860 big landlords own 40 percent, while 30 percent is owned by 6,820 small landlords.
More than a quarter of the 427,656 hectares of land in the region earmarked for distribution remain in the hands of their old lords.
In October 2018, nine sugar farmers in the city of Sagay were gunned down
when they occupied land they had been tilling.
The glaring disparities between the haves and have-nots in Negros continue to draw recruits to the communist insurgency, but attacking professionals who try to help the poor has become the worst tactic to use against a rebellion fuelled by anger over injustices. Inday Espina-Varona is editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.com.