Amid increasing COVID-19-related cases and deaths, the United Methodist Board of Church and Society in the Philippines is urging government action and coherent direction.
The board issued a statement accompanied by a reminder to the church to focus on hope.
“As a faith community, it is incumbent of us to be the voice of Filipinos who go through severe devastations brought by the pandemic,” said the Rev. Aniceto R. Villalon Jr., executive director of the board. “The government, through its power and authority, is mandated to manage and distribute all available resources to protect and serve peoples’ right to health and life.
“While we collectively pray for complete healing of the sick and adhere to the strict protocols of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases Resolutions,” he added, “we should make noise in calling the attention of our government leaders. Let us raise our voices for them to faithfully fulfill that mandate.”
According to Johns Hopkins University data, there have been more than a million COVID-19 cases in the Philippines, with over 17,000 deaths. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranked COVID-19 cases as “very high” and urged the public, even those fully vaccinated, to avoid all travel to the Philippines. Even those who have received their shots may be at risk of getting and spreading COVID-19 variants.
The Philippines had one of the longest and strictest COVID-19 lockdowns in the world. Mobility was restricted, and mask wearing and social distancing were strictly enforced. It was reported that violations were met with punitive action. The government relied on the police and the military to ensure order and adherence to health guidelines.
Still, the Philippines is far from returning to normal.
Filipinos have witnessed “very strict, yet double-standard, enforcement of the quarantine rules; selective COVID-19 testing instead of mass testing; and iron fist for quarantine violators instead of compassion,” the board of church and society statement said.
“Due to restrictions imposed, lost jobs resulted in hunger for millions,” the statement continued. “Assistance from the government is not sufficient to address food insecurity.”
Signers also noted that as virtual classes replaced in-person instruction, students were vulnerable to online sexual exploitation. Mental health became an alarming issue as well.
“While we recognize the importance of the vaccine,” the statement said, “we uphold that the total well-being does not solely rest on this; a cure shall encompass economic and political life. Care with humility and not an iron fist is needed.”
The statement encouraged providing COVID-19 tests to the most vulnerable, strengthening contact tracing, prioritizing and developing health care facilities, and expanding living wages and hazard benefits for health care workers.
It called for faster acquisition of vaccines in sufficient quantities, free for all Filipinos, as well as continued assistance to jeepney (bus) drivers and employees in certain industries such as factories, restaurants and tourism/hospitality.
Dr. Glen Roy Paraso, executive director and CEO of United Methodist Mary Johnston Hospital in Tondo, Manila, said implementation of strict health protocols is being sacrificed. Testing and contact tracing are lagging. He pointed out that while 100,000 people should be tested daily, “we are only at 20,000, leaving a huge gap. Vaccination supplies were not anticipated to cover for 70% herd immunity.”
The church, Paraso believes, should be a channel of health and hope.
Webinars, as well as online services, can share messages of health and hope from bishops and health leaders, he noted. The church could have a central education and information dissemination center to communicate health messages, spiritual care and mental health support.
Dr. Nezer A. Soriano, health board coordinator for the Davao Episcopal Area and a member of Southern Isabela Medical Center’s COVID-19 task force, said the pandemic “exposes our weak health care system. In this context, health is not one sector but integrated in all aspects of society.”
An Enhanced Community Quarantine, he said, is an appropriate response to a health emergency, but it comes with economic, transportation, academic and other social implications.
“It's time to review our health care system,” he said.
Soriano emphasized the need to empower local health workers with enough resources to protect them.
As a clergy physician engaged in COVID-19 ministry, Soriano believes churches and other agencies could work better together.
“I truly believe the churches can make a significant impact and contribution to stop this pandemic,” he said. “The church is called to be a steward of that health or shalom. An abundant life is caring for the least, the lost and the last.”
The increasing number of cases has affected United Methodist church workers. Two clergy members from the Manila Area succumbed to COVID-19.
“We are so sad,” Manila Area Bishop Ciriaco Q. Francisco said. “I wish their conditions had been addressed earlier. We honor and remember their commitment and contribution to the kingdom of God.”
The Rev. Orly Veron, Quezon City Philippines South East District superintendent, said four church workers in his district tested positive for the virus, and one died. “I am very sad about the loss of a companion pastor,” he said.
Veron encouraged following health guidelines.
“Should you feel any symptom,” he said, “please keep your family informed.”
The Rev. Glen Mendiola, South Bulacan District superintendent, is a COVID-19 survivor. He is eager to embrace life again but mourned the loss of one clergy in his district.
“I have three workers who tested positive for COVID-19 — two pastors and a deaconess,” he said. Mendiola asked United Methodists to pray for the whole world.
“I believe our God will give us strength to endure,” he said, “and by the power of our prayers, this pandemic will come to an end.”
Paraso emphasized the importance of financial and human resources to the church’s response.
“Holistic health, considering the physical and spiritual aspect, should be made available so that we can continue to be whole,” he said. “It is important that we continue to communicate faith and not fear in the hearts of our members as we look to the hope of abundant health through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Mangiduyos is a communicator from the Philippines.
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