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PHILIPPINES: I'm Filipino, not a disease carrier

Danilo Reyes

On 25 February 2009, Filipinos in Hong Kong got the shock of their lives when a local daily newspaper, The Standard, claimed that Filipinos are more liable to contract and are themselves carriers of infectious diseases from the Philippines.

The infectious disease, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), as its name suggests is resistant to antibiotic treatment. It causes skin infections and boils; and persons with open wounds or weak immune systems face a greater risk of contracting the disease. The newspaper report needlessly portrayed Filipinos as disease carriers or as responsible for the rising rate of infection.

On the same day the report came out, I wrote to the Controller (viz. head) of the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) in Hong Kong requesting for further information regarding the basis on which these findings had been arrived at. Being a Filipino in Hong Kong with a wife and little daughter; and travelling to and from the Philippines, the report was disturbing to me.

According to The Standard report, it had been an expert from the CHP who had claimed the disease could be carried by Filipinos from the Philippines into Hong Kong. CHP officials however, in a reply sent to me, denied ¡§the report had expressed their views¡¨. They explained instead that they have yet to study why some ethnic groups¡Xpresumably Filipinos¡Xare overrepresented in the report.

Statistics relating to infections of Filipinos in Hong Kong show:

- There were 37 cases in 2007 representing only 21.5% of the total 173 reported cases which also included other nationals;
- There were 39 cases in 2008 representing 14.2% of a total of 274 cases;

At least 126,000 Filipinos are documented as domestic workers in Hong Kong while there are 23,000 (other categories of) residents.

Percentage-wise, the infection rate did decline over these years, though the number of infected person increased by two Filipinos. Ironically, the newspaper report failed to portray that the infection rate of Filipinos actually declined when compared to other nationalities. Instead, The Standard¡¦s reporter Patsy Moy who authored the article, exaggerated the increase of two cases of infection to perpetuate the idea that infection rates among Filipinos were on the rise.

After receiving the CHP reply, I wrote to The Standard editor Ivan Tong, on March 2 regarding this distortion. But instead of replying himself, it was Patsy Moy who replied me. An excerpt of that response is as follows:

¡§We are only presenting the health facts to our readers, and unemployment or racial discrimination are not issues in my article¡¨.

After receiving both the reply from the CHP and Pat sy Moy¡¦s letter I began pondering: Presenting fact and exaggerating them are obviously two different things¡Xa difference refused to be grasped by many media personnel. In this instance, it was the ¡¥exaggeration¡¦ that took precedence.

Now, since the CHP has already denied 'that the report had expressed their views' The Standard report is rendered rather baseless. To propagate the idea of rising rate of infections by merely referring to the increase of two persons is quite inappropriate. It does not need an expert to understand that this is the epitome of exaggeration.

What negative consequences does this report bring about to us and other Filipinos working and living in Hong Kong¡Xparticularly those employed as domestic workers? First, it must be remembered that in this country, whether diseases are communicable or not, they are taboo amongst the local populous.

Thus in the absence of substantial and scientific data, when Filipinos are accused of carrying diseases into Hong Kong, they run the risk of being discriminated against in the job market. They also needlessly face losing existing employment.

Worst, the reporter, had not interviewed a single Filipino to comment on an issue of immense significance to them. This confirms my earlier suspicions that the possible negative consequences arising from such a report were never even thought about, when the report was being compiled. It was simply ¡¥not an issue¡¦ as the newspaper described it.

My concerns regarding the negative impact of the article on the Filipino community in Hong Kong has been affirmed by several domestic workers with whom I met in consultation a few days after the report was published.

The Philippines Consulate in Hong Kong too shares my view. Its officials appreciated my efforts of writing to the CHP asking for clarifications on the issue; they too are concerned of the possible harm that it could cause the Filipino population in terms of the loss of employment opportunities and otherwise needless discrimination.

In fact the impact may boomerang beyond the realm of employment and social life of the Filipino workers and affect them psychologically. One domestic worker described the intense fear she felt when thinking about the possibility of her employer reading the article. She said she is fully aware of her Chinese employers' often unpredictable reactions; and disease and dirt are taboo to them.

But, never did the CHP, the newspaper nor the experts, realize the other side of the coin: i.e. there are hundreds of Filipinos caring for the sick and ailing elderly among the local Chinese population. They themselves run the risk of contracting diseases from the people they are looking after. But they make no complaints. These Filipinos also accompany sick relatives or their employers themselves¡Xelderly or not¡Xinto hospitals for their treatment.

But The Standard strangely omitted to consider any of these facts in their published report. They seemed only interested in spreading unfounded panic among their readers that Filipinos were associated with disease. One can only wonder about the real objective behind the article.

The journalist and the newspaper have however, refused to concede. It seems they have grown insensitive to the ethnic minorities living in the country on the pretext that they are merely "presenting facts" -- or one side of the facts.

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