MindaNews focuses on RHU’s initiatives in combating COVID

CHEERS TO MindaNews for a story that should be a model for national media. Featuring a rural community’s response to COVID-19, it described measures   to arrest the spread of the illness undertaken by a Rural Health Unit (RHU) in Mindanao. 

Bong Sarmiento’s special report “May COVID pa po ba, Doc?” highlighted the cautious but reassuring answer of Dr. Bidasari Sulaik, chief of the RHU of Datu Hoffer Ampatuan, Maguindanao del Sur. She emphasized that the disease “still poses a clear and present health danger” although “morbidity is becoming less since a lot of people have been injected against COVID-19.”

Sarmiento reported that residents have been asking Sulaik if COVID is still a threat since restrictions have been lifted, and face-to-face classes and work have resumed. The article cited local COVID data which shows that 29 percent of the population of Maguindanao del Norte and Mindanao del Sur remain unvaccinated.

Sulaik told Sarmiento that despite house-to-house visits  by the local government and by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the vaccination campaign had met  some resistance in the beginning due to misguided beliefs that the shots could kill and “turn them into zombies.”

The RHU responded by mobilizing its health workers and religious leaders to convince those who were hesitant to be jabbed. Sittie Husaifah Baliwan, acting Head Municipal Nurse, told Sarmiento that due to the continued awareness campaign, an average of 10 individuals weekly come voluntarily to the health center for vaccination. Still, Baliwan admitted that five out of 11 barangays of Datu Hoffer are geographically isolated and disadvantaged areas (GIDA), affecting the accessibility of the vaccine to these communities. 

Baliwan told Sarmiento that during the early months of the pandemic, the RHU was greatly challenged as it only had “one doctor, five nurses, five midwives, 11 barangay health workers and 11 barangay nutrition scholars.” They were compelled to think of innovative ways of communicating information on COVID-19. They used Maguindanao language and held “health drills,” which taught residents what to do to avoid infection and how to respond if they or family members get infected.

The RHU also focused on the use of a blue plastic drum for handwashing. Donated by the Philippine Red Cross, the drums were deployed to communities during the drills to emphasize that handwashing is a simple and cost-effective practice that saves lives.

Sulaik told Sarmiento that  NGOs and humanitarian agencies augmented the lack of resources and manpower of the RHU. She expressed the hope that they will continue to receive aid as COVID remains a threat.

MindaNews’ report called attention to the community-based approach that has proven effective in addressing any public health issue. It highlighted the proactive response of a health unit in a remote municipality which can be replicated in other far-flung areas in the country. National media should be as interested in the experience of the RHU in Maguindanao and other places like it as this is how so many Filipinos live. 

Focusing on the local response, the article should spark discussions on how well the national government has provided supplies and other forms of assistance to  local health units. With many  municipalities perennially underfunded, well-intentioned health workers do all that they can, but  can only do so much. 

The pandemic exposed the weak links in the national health system even in urban areas. As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, media should continue to track the continuing threat of COVID-19 and other threats to public health; emphasizing the needs of communities where government is, more often than not, absent and invisible.