An open letter for fellow health workers: Remembering Dr. Lourdes D. Tangco on her first death anniversary
One year after Dr. Lou Tangco’s death at the hands of the fascist AFP, there is much more to say…
Lou was one of us – a health worker. Like us she spent many nights poring over medical textbooks, trying to absorb so many facts about human anatomy, physiology and disease. Like us, she struggled to survive through the Philippine health education system patterned after the American system – this health education that confines us mostly to classrooms, laboratories and hospitals – detached from the realities of the semicolonial and semifeudal system that makes our patients sick.
Like us, Lou struggled to survive the seemingly-endless cycle of hospital duties – these hospital duties where we are overwhelmed by the many things we have to do for our many patients. Hospital duty at the Philippine General Hospital, and at most government hospitals in the Philippines, entails evaluating and monitoring patients, addressing any emergency conditions that arise, and performing a range of medical procedures including blood extractions, inserting urine catheters, suturing lacerations, assisting at major operations, delivering babies and rendering CPR to the dying.
During Lou’s (and every health worker’s) years of training, we render these services to hundreds and hundreds of patients, day in, day out. To us they become ‘Bed 6’, Case #10, or ‘that one with Carcinoma (cancer) Stage IV’ or ‘that one whose IV line needs reinsertion’. We cease to remember that our patients are people. The work load bombards us so we have no time to ponder why our patients flock to public hospitals or why they only come to us when it is too late, when they are already much too sick to be cured. Many times we forget to be kind. We forget that famous line that most of us answered when we were interviewed before being accepted into our health course: “I want to be a doctor (or nurse or medical technologist etc.) because I WANT TO SERVE PEOPLE.”
Lou was a doctor, and not just any doctor. She was a doctor with a pedigree. Her father Dr. Ambrosio Tangco was a renowned orthopedic surgeon and a former member of the UP Board of Regents. She was the niece of former professor Dr. Oscar Tangco of the UP College of Medicine and Dr. Francisco Tangco, a cardiologist. With that kind of pedigree, Lou could have easily gotten in to any hospital and residency training program she chose. She could just as easily have chosen to settle abroad.
But then Lou was not the typical doctor. Just a few months after graduating at the UP College of Medicine in 1977 she headed for Kalinga under the Rural Health Physicians Program of the reactionary government. She was an eye witness and a participant in the struggle of the tribes of Kalinga and the Mountain Province against the Chico River Dam Project being forced upon them by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
The murder of Macliing Dulag, the leader of the Chico River struggle, at the hands of the fascist Armed Forces of the Philippines made a huge impact on Lou. After that incident, it was not enough to be a doctor. It was not even enough to be a doctor rendering health services in a far-flung tribal community. She chose to be a doctor of a chronically ill semi-colonial and semi-feudal society, so Lou joined the New People’s Army (NPA).
Lou was not the typical NPA because of her class background. And yet Lou WAS the typical NPA because she strived to be a proletarian. She embraced the Communist dictum of ‘simple living and arduous struggle’. She dressed simply so that if you were not aware of her class background, you would never guess that this person was ‘anak ng mga diyos ng PGH”. She conversed easily with any comrade, always interested to hear their life stories along with their physical ailments. She seldom ran out of stories to tell about the many places she had been as a revolutionary – from Luzon to Mindanao and back again.
For Lou simple living also meant never wasting anything. Her bags were filled with plastic bags she had picked up here and there, some years old because ‘Sayang, puede pa naman’. She had learned as an NPA that plastic bags were not so easy to acquire in the countryside and that these had a multitude of practical uses for the guerilla, especially during the rainy season. During happy times when the comrades are able to bake bread for merienda, she would never eat her share in one sitting. When everybody else had long finished their bread, she would bring up half a moldy bun she had kept in her pocket and ask “Gusto niyo?”.
Lou was an excellent medic to the NPA and to the masses. She was very popular among the Kalinga masses who at that time never even saw a real doctor in their entire lives, because they could not afford to bring their sick to a hospital. The happiest years in her life were spent living with the peasants in the countryside, serving them fulltime as a medic, teacher, organizer, agriculturist and red fighter.
As Secretary of the Regional Medical Staff Unit, she was part of the collective that developed health training modules adapted to the guerilla setting in the Ilocos-Cordillera. She was a medical Kuya Kim (the popular weather forecaster and TV personality) who had an answer and a loooong explanation for every question that medics under her training would throw at her. She combined Marxist principles, the solid foundation of her modern medical education and the best of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Yet she was humble enough to admit when she did not know something, when we had to teach her how to insert a venous catheter because this had not yet been invented when she was in medical school.
For a few years Lou was also an organizer among the workers of NCR and Southern Tagalog. She was happy to be among the workers, conversing with them about oppression and exploitation at the work place and their other difficulties in life. Her prowess at teaching was not confined to medical knowledge, she was also good at Party instruction work. She was part of a team that conducted the Basic Party Courses among the workers, elevating their practical knowledge and experience to the level of Marxist principles.
Lou eventually became a member of the Regional Party Committees in the guerilla zones where she served. These Regional Party Committees lead in ideological, political and organizational work. They lead the work of the New People’s Army among the masses: teaching the farmers and national minorities about the true roots of their poverty, organizing them to stand up for their rights and to stand up against exploitation at the hands of landlords and money-lenders. The Regional Party Committee also leads in military work – fighting side-by-side with the local militia and organized masses to defend against the reactionary state, and the landlords and big bourgeoisie who appropriate land and natural resources for their personal enrichment.
Lou was also a good proletarian mother to her beloved son. She made the painful decision to leave her son (at a very young age) in the care of close friends and colleagues, in order to continue her revolutionary work. Physical distance did not stop her from loving him though. Time and again, Lou would speak proudly about her son, always updating us about him. The masses and the NPA are forever grateful that Lou’s son shared his mother with us. The many mothers, fathers, sons and daughters in the revolutionary movement know the hardship and heartaches of families who cannot be together. Our families endure this particular sacrifice so that someday all Filipino families can be reunited, free from the shackles of exploitation and poverty.
Lou died just before Duterte declared the nationwide lockdown as a desperate and inutile attempt to prevent the further spread of Covid-19. The spokesperson of the National Task Force to End Communist Local Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) had the gall to tweet: “In times of crisis like COVID 19, Ma. Lourdes Dineros Tangco of the CPP Health Bureau …should be helping our affected communities BUT NO her warped ideological belief tells her that her services are exclusive for NPAs.”
The miniscule minds of the fascist military cannot fathom what the masses have long known – that the NPA, including Lou, has been conducting revolutionary health work long before the outbreak of Covid-19. The masses come to the NPA when they are ill. Sabi nga nila, mas mabisa ang gamot ng NPA kahit simpleng paracetamol lang iyan. NPA medicine is scientific – combining the best of modern medicine, herbal medicine, and acupuncture. NPA medicine is comprehensive – it spans the range from primary health care, to surgery and rehabilitation, to mental health care. It emphasizes prevention rather than cure. The NPA conducts health campaigns for better nutrition by organizing collective work to increase the production of rice and other food. Alongside these food production campaigns, the NPA also launches peasant campaigns against different forms of feudal exploitation in the hands of landlords, big business and the reactionary state, to improve the peasants’ working and living conditions.
First and foremost, NPA medicine is for the masses – always free of charge, delivered in the people’s homes and communities. It goes far beyond conducting medical, dental or circumcision missions. Revolutionary medicine explains to the people the root causes of their illness and works with the people to make sure they remain healthy as they fight against the exploitative ruling system. The NPA organizes and mobilizes the masses for the collective promotion of health and nutrition. In order to develop the capacity of the masses, Barrio Medical Groups (BMG) and Health Committees are trained to render primary health services to their community. These BMGs and Health Committees conduct campaigns for better hygiene and sanitation which involve the construction of toilets and safe water systems. There are campaigns against illegal drugs and other vices such as smoking and excessive intake of alcoholic drinks. Campaigns for the eradication of dangerous chemicals such as pesticides in farming and mercury and cyanide in small-scale mining are also implemented.
If Lou were still alive today, she would be amidst the NPA as we conduct revolutionary health work against Covid-19 nationwide. In contrast to the Duterte regime that seeks to sow panic and terror among the people, the NPA is educating the masses on the nature of the Covid-19 virus. The NPA explains how it is the massive destruction of the environment by the imperialists and capitalist agri-business practices that has brought about this pandemic. The Duterte regime seeks to keep us confined to our homes, isolated from each other. In contrast, revolutionary mass organizations, through their Barrio Medical Groups and Health Committees work together to monitor the health of their barriomates. They conduct mass mobilizations to fight for health services and resources from the reactionary state — including mass testing, personal-protective equipment, antiseptics and vaccines. The Duterte regime has failed to give any substantial economic support to the thousands whose livelihoods have suffered because of the prolonged lockdown. In contrast, the NPA and the masses are working together to increase food production so that everybody stays healthy against Covid-19.
If Lou were alive today, her heart would bleed for her colleagues in the health sector who have died of Covid-19 because they chose to be true to their calling to serve the people, even if it presented a clear and present danger to themselves.
If Lou were alive today, she would be angered that the Duterte regime chooses to prioritize its military and police henchmen instead of the health workers in its allocation of funds and health resources, especially vaccines against Covid-19. This regime has caused a long delay in the procurement of vaccines for health workers and yet Duterte secretly had his personal bodyguards in the Presidential Security Group and favorite minions vaccinated early on. He insists that we have ourselves vaccinated with the less-effective SinoVac because his Chinese imperialist masters have awarded him a huge kickback from its sales. Then he delivers the cheap excuse that he is a senior citizen and is therefore disqualified from receiving SinoVac himself.
While the health workers strive to save lives, Duterte orders his troops to KILL! KILL! KILL! Duterte chooses to spend billions of acquired foreign loans on military airplanes, helicopters, drones and bombs which he uses against the people. In the end it is the Filipino people who are obligated to pay back these loans through their taxes. Duterte imprisons those who dare to conduct rallies against his regime. He murders those who even just criticize him. A few months back, he castigated the health workers for making public their appeal for a break from the overwhelming number of Covid-19 cases they were attending to.
And then he slaughters our colleagues like Lou who chose to take up arms in defense of the people and her fellow health workers.
If Lou were alive today, she would stand with you and demand for just compensation and hazard pay for all health workers. She would stand with you, as we stand with you, in demanding that adequate government funds be allocated for personal protective equipment and vaccines. She would stand with you in demanding that you – the health professionals with scientific know-how, integrity and true concern for our fellow Filipinos – be placed at the forefront of the campaign against Covid-19, instead of Duterte’s generals and cronies whose only interest is to grab more power and money for themselves and their boss.
If Lou were alive today, she would explain how the structural changes we want to make in the Philippine health care system can only be possible through the national-democratic revolution and socialist construction. She would tell you that even today the Communist Party of the Philippines, the NPA, the organized masses and their allies are building this revolutionary health care system in guerilla bases all over the country. She would tell you about the doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists, psychologists, dentists, hospital workers and barangay health workers who have joined the NPA and have become medics of the people.
If Lou were alive today, she would invite you, our fellow health workers – Come and join the NPA! Onward with our commitment to cure a sick society!