No, I’m not quoting the well worn joke: World ends, women and minorities affected most.

I’m just observing how the economic downturn is affecting those in our area of the Philippines.

One of my medical journals (registration required) says the World Health Organization is worried that the worldwide recession will result in people chosing to wait for preventive medicine, while poorer countries will lack funding for their public health systems, which often are the only source of medical care for the poor and working class.

That sounds about right. Who has money for preventive medicine (e.g. prenatal care, immunizations for kids) or medicines that aren’t used for emergencies (e.g. blood pressure medicine, heart medicines) when you can barely afford food? But if the kid’s fever doesn’t go down after a few days, you can manage to borrow some pesos to go to the government clinic and wait there half a day to get him checked for Dengue or pneumonia…

So what caused the world wide recession?

Last year, there was a sudden rise in the price of rice, caused by the rapid increase in the price of oil…and many people, including Bill O’Reilly points fingers on “greedy speculators” for the spike in oil price that quickly snowballed into a major recession: for when oil and gasoline prices increased, so did the price of food and transportation, and a lot of people who could barely afford their mortgages couldn’t make their payments, and this snowballed…

This is my take too. Yes, last year when the prices soared, a lot of columnists explained it as simple supply and demand. But then why suddenly is oil is now below $40 a gallon?

Well, anyway, conspiracy theories aside, the plain fact is that when oil skyrocketed, so did the price of rice here in the rural Philippines: From 19 to 22 pesos/kg for low quality white rice to 30-34 pesos/Kg. (a rough conversion is one peso equals two cents American, or 48 pesos per dollar).

But many poor farmers and workers couldn’t afford that price. Wages are low. And small farmers tend to sell much of their rice harvest (which after all has to be milled before eating) then they buy what they need, often from cheaper imported Vietnamese rice, when they run out of their own grain.

The price of rice is driven by oil: Diesel for handplows (although some farmers still use water buffalo), fertilizer has to be imported, water pumps use diesel (especially for the dry season planting) and then there is the cost of transportation and processing the rice.

When the prices skyrocketed last year, the government promptly started arranging vouchers and food terminals for the poor to buy rice and other daily commodities at subsidized prices.

But then came the “recession” and the drop of oil prices…and the price of rice at the local markets fell to 22 to 30pesos per Kg.

But now the price is going up again, but not as dramatically as before.

One result of all of this is borderline hunger.

Usually Filipinos help each other in times of crisis, but when the price of rice goes up, that means there is less money to buy fish, eggs, or other “cheap” sources of protein. (Talapia, 60 to 80 peso per kg, eggs, 3.5 peso per egg). A lot of people have hens in their homes for meat and eggs, and many keep roosters for use in the cockfights (a major source of entertainment), but still when you are living on the edge, a small increase in prices can make “luxury” items for the schoolchildren (pencils, paper, uniforms) too high for ordinary folks.

We live, of course, in a rural area. I have no idea how folks in Manila will cope….as for those in Mindanao, all I can say is God bless them: especially those caught in the double whammy of war (between the ethnic cleansing of the MILF and the government soldiers fighting back)…  or those fleeing the terrible floods that caused half a million to be homeless in Mindanao and the Visayas.

Of course, this being the Philippines, the floods didn’t get much coverage overseas, (we are not “sexy” enough to make the headlines unless hundreds die, and luckily this time “only” a few dozen were killed).

The good news is that, this being the Philippines, a lot of the displaced families found refuge with relatives or in local schools or offices, and the local churches, UN food program and various NGO’s have stepped in, preventing massive starvation among those displaced.

But with the recession, the real worry right now is that a lot of Filipino OFW (overseas foreign workers) will be sent home from their host countries who no longer need them to work as maids, drivers, caregivers, or oil field workers.

The Philippine economy is kept alive by their remittances sent back to families. And the dirty little secret is that cheap Chinese goods have discouraged manufacturers from setting up factories here, where wages are higher and corruption more obvious.

In summary, so far the recession is causing problems here in the Philippines, but so far things are under control.

This might not be true, however, in other countries such as China, whose factories see their orders going down, and are laying off some of their workers. Many worry that the unemployed workers will cause civil unrest despite a government that is quick to crack down on signs of dissension.

As for here in the Philippines, 2010 is election year, so expect lots of hot air and lots of demonstrations, but no revolution. As long as people feel they can change things peacefully, they won’t resort to revolutions.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She blogs at Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket.

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