After highlighting "health crisis" in the country, doctor-unionist hounded by death threats - Karapatan

Human rights alliance Karapatan vehemently condemns the recent death threats sent to Dr. Gene Nisperos, UP College of Medicine Faculty and President of the All UP Academic Employees Union - Manila Chapter (AUPAEU-Manila), his wife Dr. Julie Caguiat, Executive Director of health group COMMED, and their children. According to reports, at around 8:58pm on October 21, 2019, Nisperos received a text message from an unknown number threatening him and the members of his family: “Both of you (referring to Nisperos and Caguiat) will line up with cottons on your nostrils in due time.” The same text message indicated that the perpetrator knew of Dr. Nisperos' residence and even threatened his whole family.

Karapatan secretary general Cristina Palabay noted that the attacks came a few days after groups of health workers, including Dr. Nisperos, expressed that there is indeed a ‘health care crisis’ in the country. It was a press conference where health workers slammed the huge slash on the budget of the Department of Health and the Philippine General Hospital - institutions that cater to the dire needs of Filipinos for medical support and assistance.

"Amid the frustrated killing, illegal arrest and harassment against teacher-unionists in the past week, this recent incident targeting Dr. Nisperos and his family is indicative of the closing civic space in the country. The death threats were triggered by the recent statement of Dr. Nisperos and other health workers who directly coined the current situation of the health system as a "health crisis." For speaking out and pointing the structural defects of our health system, a doctor-teacher-unionist and his family are being harassed. Instead of hearing and addressing the failures of our health system and governance, there are those, whom we suspect are State agents, who would rather shoot the messenger," said Palabay.

"This government is a failure in many aspects, even in its own flagship policies. Yet those who point it out and recommend an alternative are immediately castigated. There is no tolerance for criticism under this regime, as it only prefers to hear echo chambers which repeat praises from blind followers," she added.

The Department of Health has responded that the health system is not in a crisis, but rather it is just suffering from a lack of investment. "Not only is the public healthcare system underfunded by government, several outbreaks of otherwise preventable diseases and conditions are plaguing the nation. Even the government's populist move to pass the Universal Healthcare Law has failed to deodorize the dire and worsening situation of our health system. The DOH should ask its own Doctor-to-the-Barrio (DTTB) volunteers or doctors undergoing internship in public hospitals so they can grasp the realities on the ground," Palabay explained. 

The Karapatan official said that these bold statements that directly point out the government's failures are what triggered the targeting of Dr. Nisperos. It was explicitly mentioned in the death threat that the victim was "very arrogant to challenge us to line up in government hospital." This was a challenge addressed to the government. 

“We attribute this harassment to the Duterte government and their band of militarist ilk. There is a concerted effort to perpetrate atrocious hate and attacks against rights advocates who tirelessly and courageously speak out against injustices and anti-people policies that generate killings and human rights violations," Palabay added.

Palabay also emphasized that the same trend of harassment was also done against teacher-unionists who showed a strong force to urge the government to increase their salaries: "This regime has no solutions to the problems being faced by this country. They only try to silence those who raise legitimate concerns and demands by threatening them into silence, submission, or cooptation."

The rights group leader also raised that while the health budget is underfunded, the Office of the President is being showered with discretionary funds: “Despite the current situation, this government is not interested in uplifting the quality of medical care in the country, especially in government hospitals. They decided to cut the budget of the Health department, while giving confidential funds to the Office of the President and to other militarist government agencies. The huge slash of amount from the Health department’s budget already deserves condemnation, but the attacks that come after rights advocates raise concern on such issues are all the more enraging,” she said.

“The Duterte government is flimsy. It cannot take the criticisms raised by its own teachers, doctors and unionists. We would like to remind this government that there is nothing wrong with groups’ expressions of concern. It is the right of every Filipino to petition the government for redress of grievances. When voicing out of legitimate demands are punished, it is indicative that there is something wrong in the country's system and its understanding of human rights," Palabay concluded.