Tala Leprosarium: from lepers’ paradise to perdition
First of two parts
by Gina Mission

L-R: Mang Tony Mercado, Rolando Dizon, and Rudy Dizon pose against a backdrop of protest banners.

t 60, Antonio Mercado, Mang Tony to his friends, has stopped dreaming of a well-to-do life. All he wants, according to him, is to be able to spend his remaining years in "peace." Peace being, as he said during an interview with CyberDyaryo, in his paradise – the Tala Leprosarium.

___Shortly after society and even his own family abandoned him when he contracted the disease, Mang Tony has become one of those people who adopted the Leprosarium as their home, their community. A community where they would not be ridiculed or frowned upon, a community where their illness doesn’t matter, and where they can live like the "normal" people they once were.

Eugenio Moreno sits in front of his 'kubo' in Tala

___But if things go as the government would have them, Mang Tony and his friends will soon be back to the very society that disowned them, or worse, on the streets. Unless, of course, something is done.

___Tala Leprosarium is one of the eight sanitaria mandated to serve patients afflicted with Hansen’s Disease, popularly knows as leprosy. Along with two other leper colonies in Luzon, it was established in 1940 by virtue of Commonwealth Act No. 161, which declared the Leprosarium as a reservation and settlement area for hansenites and their immediate families. Located in Caloocan City, it has a total land area of 130,000 hectares. At present, it is now referred to as the Dr. Jose Rodriguez Memorial Medical Hospital and Sanitarium (JNRMHS) after it opened to non-hansenite patients in 1970. It maintains facilities for the ambulatory, disabled and aged leprosy patients.

___It is estimated that there are 20,000 people in the area, 3,000 of which are leper patients. More than a thousand registered hansenites have their own private residence inside. A number of them are self-employed, some are gratuity workers assisting regular staff and doing maintenance chores. The hospital has almost 400 regular staff and more than 200 patient assistants. It has an authorized bed capacity of 2,000, while the actual implementing bed capacity is 1,616.

___By Mang Tony’s account, life in Tala used to be "so smooth and so good." Services in the hospital were excellent, food rations were aplenty, medicines were ‘more than enough’. But in 1991, things changed as rumors spread of a phaseout of the Leprosarium. From then on, in the words of Mang Tony, "Life in Tala has not been the same."

___"Medicines are not enough, the food is running out, and hospital services are very irregular, sometimes even absent," described Mang Tony of the present situation in Tala.

A boys' dormitory within a decaying structure: how much longer?

___Critics say that Tala’s downhill trend is a result of the government’s privatization policy which started in the early 90’s. This policy, they said, naturally translates into working plans to privatize government-owned or -controlled agencies, establishments, institutions, corporations, etc., as a result of budget cuts. Even the Department of Health (DOH), basic as its services are, could not escape this policy.

___"Slowly the government is phasing out Tala Leprosarium," said Rudy Dizon, Secretary General of Panata, a people’s organization of Tala patients and residents. "This is because the government wants to decrease the subsidy to social services while accommodating private capitalists to supposedly improve its health services. If we let this happen, eventually the government will turn its back on its health responsibility to the citizenry," he added.

___The management of Tala, however, denied such allegations. "Every time we hold a dialogue with the management, they always say there’s no plan to privatize the Leprosarium," said Dizon.

___Government’s major programs for Tala include Republic Act 7999 which was signed into law by then-President Fidel Ramos in 1995, and the DOH’s Succession Plan, copies of which were made available by Panata to CyberDyaryo. Along with these are the DOH programs "kutis kilatis" and "elimination of leprosy as a public health problem by the year 1998."

___RA 7999 declares that 70 hectares of the 130 hectares reserved for the leprosarium and settlement site of the hansenites and their families under Proclamation No. 843 are alienable and disposable for use as a housing site for the bona fide residents, hansenites and their immediate families and for qualified employees of the Department of Health. Among other things, RA 7999 will give Tala residents titles to the land they occupy – but not without payment. The Succession Plan, on the other hand, is a proposal to make the 2,000-bed JNRMHS into a 200-bed tertiary general hospital.

___In the words of patient Rolando Dizon, brother of Rudy, RA 7999 is "legalized eviction and land-grabbing. Tala Leprosarium was given to the lepers and their immediate families as well as the hospital’s employees – for free. With our united efforts, we were able to put up a community in the area. Why would the government want to change that?" he asked.

___Eugenio Moreno, President of the JNRMHS Employees’ Union alleged that the Health department’s policy on leprosy elimination is actually a preparation for the consequent privatization and commercialization of Tala. "With ‘kutis kilatis’ and ‘eliminate leprosy by the year 1998’, the government want people to believe that leprosy is a curable disease, that leper patients in Tala have been cured. It’s a grand public deception," Moreno said.

___The truth, according to Dizon, is that not a single leper patient has voluntarily left the Leprosarium after being completely cured. "The management cannot claim that it has discharged even one totally healed patient. There have been those who left the hospital, but who came back after a while, because society outside Tala was hostile to them. They could not get themselves a decent source of living and not long after, their ailment would relapse and they would have to return to Tala. It’s just and in-and-out movement. They can’t survive out there with the kind of treatment people give them," said Dizon

___To bolster the leprosy elimination drive, the Tala management, in 1996, paid P10,000 each to "dischargeable" patients who are already "cured." The amount is supposed to help the "healed" leper patient start a "new" life and invest in a livelihood activity. A total of 300 patients, including Mang Tony, received payments. But when the stories of forced payments broke out, and the media began investigating and running stories on alleged incidents of patients’ harassment, the management stopped "discharging" patients.

___But according to Mang Tony, what actually happened was that the management just posted a random list of names in the Leprosarium’s bulletin board with the instruction for them to report to the management within a week, otherwise, the patient would be discharged without payment. Out of fear of being out on the streets and penniless, Mang Tony went to claim his money and was discharged. However, when he ran out of money and his skin started showing symptoms of relapse, he went back inside and convinced the management to take him in.

___"The money was actually in exchange for stopping the accommodation, food, and medication of the patient in the Leprosarium," claimed Dizon. "People were made to believe that they were already healed, and therefore ready to get out of Tala. And since the government supposedly cares for them, a P10,000 start-up capital is even given to the patient. That’s the kind of impression they wanted to project. But of course, the patients themselves know the truth," he added.

___Such mind-conditioning and deception of the public by the Health officials, according to Moreno, the Dizon brothers, and Mang Tony, is being used by the government to justify its claim that there is no need for an institutionalized medication of hansenites, as treatment can already be done at home, or in health centers, as is shown by the 300 discharged patients. "In this way, there will be no obstacles when the grand design to privatize Tala is finally started," said Moreno.

___After all, with only a few remaining leper patients, who will still need a 2,000-bed Leprosarium?

To be continued


Photos by Gina Mission

CyberDyaryo | 1999.02.18