PH Red Cross continues serving most vulnerable

MANILA – As we commemorate the World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day, we call to mind the principles that form the foundation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and reflect on how the Philippine Red Cross (PRC) lived up to and continue to live up to these principles.

This year, some 192 national societies around the world celebrate the Red Cross’s unstoppable commitment to make the world a safer and more peaceful place.

The Philippine Red Cross (PRC), in its 74 years of service, has been unstoppable in fulfilling its mandate as auxiliary to the government in alleviating the suffering and uplifting the dignity of the most vulnerable.

Through its volunteers, logistics, and information technology, the PRC has been always first, always ready, and always there to respond to every disaster or emergency be it a typhoon, earthquake, fire, road crash, blood request, health crisis, and even the pandemic.

In 2020, the PRC continuously conducted ongoing response operations for those affected by the Mindanao earthquakes, Typhoon Tisoy (Kammuri), and Typhoon Ursula (Phanfone) in 2019, and supported individuals affected by Typhoon Ompong (Mangkhut), which hit the country in 2018 and the Marawi siege in 2017.

The year 2020, however, proved to be a tumultuous year as the rumblings of Taal Volcano started to be felt just days after the New Year.

PRC swiftly deployed its upgraded logistics of a rescue truck, a tactical vehicle, 4 water tankers, 9 ambulances, and 4 hot meal vans to feed 5,300 families who were displaced to 79 evacuation centers in Batangas a day after the eruption. It also distributed much-needed non-food items such as surgical masks, tarpaulin, mosquito nets, hygiene kits, and tents as temporary shelter.

PRC also provided psychological first aid, conducted child-friendly activities, traced individuals, and assisted 10,300 individuals in restoring family links.

It was at this time that the news of a deadly virus in Wuhan started to set off alarms about the potential worldwide impact of the spread of this disease. The initial, and to this day, reminders to the population were to wear masks, wash hands, and keep distance.

PRC said its response was to source masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) and distribute these to health workers, returning residents, and other “at risk” members of the population.

Not content with this response and fresh from his analysis of the 1918 pandemic, PRC Chairman Richard J. Gordon started to look at the resources available in the Philippines to face this pandemic. What he saw appalled him particularly in the field of testing. All the country had were the manual testing machines of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM).

A study of the testing process in China pointed the way to the testing protocol that was the most appropriate, the machinery and equipment that would be required, the physical facilities that would house these machines, the manpower skills that would operate these machines and produce the desired results and the financial resources that would bring all these together.

PRC was unstoppable in procuring and transporting equipment and materials required in a lockdown scenario where there were no regular flights. The simple solution: charter planes to bring in the machinery, the test kits and the other equipment critically needed.

The first laboratory was built in 10 days. Medical technologists were on board in a matter of days. Initially, medical technologists from PRC’s blood centers were deployed to man the molecular laboratories. They had to be trained. The machines had to be debugged. The operating protocol had to be developed.

All these came to fruition on April 14, 2020 with the inauguration of the first molecular testing laboratory in the country. In what was originally planned to be a demonstration of the capability of the laboratory to Metro Manila mayors, National Government Officers including the Secretary of Health and the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases hailed the establishment of the first automated reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) testing facility in the country. In the words of the DOH Secretary, this was a game-changer, the gold standard in testing had arrived in the country.

The test labs soon got their baptism of fire as tens of thousands of returning residents had to be tested in addition to the tens of thousands who had never left the country but similarly had to be tested. Those who had the virus had to be isolated to prevent its spread. The target for immediate testing set by Gordon then was 13 percent of the population of Metro Manila, which was the positivity rate at that time. These “positives” had to be provided treatment. Their families had to be provided for. PRC did all these in the midst of establishing a nationwide network of molecular laboratories. In November, a little over 6 months after the opening of the first laboratory, PRC had performed one million tests.

At the end of 2020, PRC accounted for about 25 percent of all the tests done in the country with its 13 molecular laboratories in Metro Manila, Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao. The labs were established where they were needed, discounting the financial viability of setting up in such “missionary locations”.

Looking at this accomplishment, Gordon was not satisfied. He wanted testing to be made available to as many of the population that needed it. Testing had to be democratized, to be made more affordable. With the help of scientists from the University of Illinois and University of the Philippines, PRC introduced and developed saliva RT-PCR testing in the country, a less invasive, more economical, but still an effective alternative to oro and naso pharyngeal swabbing.

Apart from PRC Molecular Laboratories, the PRC initiated a whole gamut of Covid-19 responses to alleviate human suffering and uplift human dignity: from the distribution of facemasks, PPEs, and cadaver bags; establishment of the 1158 hotline of PRC; to the provision of negative pressure ambulance services, cash grants, food packs, hot meals, hygiene kits, water, hand washing facilities, and psychosocial support. In 2020 alone, PRC established 72 medical tents to support hospitals and isolation facilities. These tents were able to cater to more than 24,000 patients since they were deployed in March 2020.

In spite of having its hands full with its Covid-19 response, PRC continued to vaccinate for Measles-Rubella and Polio, reaching over one million children vaccinated in one year.

In October and November last year, the country was hit by Typhoons Rolly and Ulysses but not even Covid-19, Measles-Rubella and Polio or its other response and relief operations stopped PRC from providing relief and recovery assistance to those in need. 

Immediately after Typhoon Rolly has devastated Catanduanes, PRC deployed its Humanitarian Caravan consisting of 10 and 6 wheeler trucks, 6x6 truck, ambulance units, food truck, family and alpinter tents, generators, tower light, portable radios, water treatment units, Galmobile (desalination unit), and water bladders in Bicol, ready to respond to the impact of the strongest typhoon in 2020. These assets allowed PRC to immediately assist in the relief and clearing operations of the province.

Through its satellite phones, Chairman Gordon was the first in the country to establish communication lines in Catanduanes, enabling PRC to assess the situation and identify immediate needs. Gordon also ordered the deployment and installation of a VSAT in Catanduanes to provide the people access to the internet enabling the PRC Catanduanes Chapter to provide timely reports and the public to contact their relatives in other parts of the country or abroad to update them of their situation.

Gordon himself flew to Catanduanes to inspect the area and immediately provided food and non-food items in San Andres, a third-class municipality badly hit by the typhoon.

Because of limited access to Catanduanes at that time, the PRC chief sent off the M/V PRC Amazing Grace on November 25, 2020 to bring in thousands of non-food items such as hygiene kits, blankets, sleeping mats, mosquito nets, 10-liter and 20-liter jerry cans and galvanized iron sheets to be used for roofing repair -- part of PRC’s recovery efforts for those whose homes suffered damages due to the typhoons. It was also loaded with three additional vehicles -- a Willys jeep, a Toyota Hilux and a payloader, to be used during the operations and relief distributions in Catanduanes and other affected areas in the Bicol Region.

The MV PRC Amazing Grace delivered to Catanduanes not only relief items but hope--that there is deliverance from despair through the mercy of God and through the thousands of people who are with the survivors of Typhoon Rolly.

PRC provided livelihood, cash assistance, shelter repair assistance, hot meals, water, and psychosocial support in the provinces of Catanduanes, Albay, Camarines Norte, and Camarines Sur.

Just as the country was reeling from typhoon Rolly, typhoon Ulysses devastated the provinces of Cagayan and Isabela. Immediately the PRC also deployed a humanitarian caravan to Cagayan and Isabela to intensify the rescue and relief efforts. The caravan consisted of a 10,000 liter-water tanker, a food truck, an ambulance, a rescue boat, a Land Cruiser for assessment, and two 10-wheeler trucks for non-food items namely sleeping kits, jerry cans, and hygiene kits, and tarpaulins.

PRC also assisted in the clearing of debris and mud in both provinces to provide access to cities or municipalities which could not be accessed for aid at that time.

To help people desperately looking for a hospital where they can bring their loved ones who are in need of medical attention, the Philippine Red Cross (PRC) built the first emergency field hospital (EFH) in the Lung Center of the Philippines (LCP) compound with 18 tents. The EFH acts as a step down facility where those who are already recovering from Covid-19 in hospitals can be admitted to make available hospital beds to more serious Covid-19 cases. PRC also mobilized doctors and nurses for the EFH.

The EFH was established near the hospital so those who tested positive and have to be admitted have access to doctors, nurses, X-ray, T scan, and other medical facilities.

PRC also established isolation facilities in universities that agreed to partner with the PRC out of humanitarian spirit namely Ateneo de Manila University, University of the Philippines, De La Salle University College of Saint Benilde, and Adamson University. The isolation facilities of PRC address the problem in the surge of Covid-19 cases by isolating asymptomatic spreaders in multi-generational households.

The Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have gone a long way from 158 years ago, when the Red Cross was established by Henry Dunant following the battle of Solferino. Now, the 192 Red Cross National Societies provide humanitarian services not only during times of war but also in disasters, emergencies, and pandemics.

The Philippine Red Cross under the leadership of Gordon has done well. Despite limited resources, it has graduated into the big leagues of super Red Cross Societies that are able to effectively alleviate human suffering and assist the most vulnerable at all times. Together with our corporate partners, partner national societies, the IFRC, and the ICRC, the PRC can do a lot more for humanity. (PR