Giving traditional Chinese medicine a bad name

April 27, 2020

by Jose Lorenzo Lim

The Department of Health has recently stated that it is looking into traditional Chinese medicine as a means to treat the country’s over 7,700 COVID-19 patients. This was the statement of the Secretary of Health during the visit of 12 Chinese health care experts who recently provided technical assistance to the country’s COVID-19 hospitals. However, the government’s attitude towards the otherwise renowned traditional Chinese medicine is closely tied up to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which some researchers say is bad for the environment.

The BRI is an infrastructure connectivity push by China that has goals of policy dialogue and communication, cooperation on trade and investment, financial cooperation, and socio-cultural exchanges. The Philippine government has been open to the BRI initiative since it jives with our very own Build, Build, Build program. The revised 100-project Infrastructure Flagship Program (IFP) of the Duterte administration is looking to around Php720 billion in loans and grants from China official development assistance (ODA).

Duterte’s courting entry into the BRI began when the Philippine government attended the first BRI forum in May 2017, and the second BRI forum in April 2019. In November 2018, the Philippines signed a memorandum of understanding with China to cooperate on the BRI.

One of the China-funded infrastructure projects listed in the IFP is the Php12.1 billion Kaliwa Dam project. Kaliwa is a large dam funded by a China ODA loan with a 2% interest rate. The ongoing construction of the Kaliwa Dam project poses a threat to the environment because the large dam inundates and destroys farms, communities, and watershed areas.

So, where does traditional Chinese medicine come in? Well, one of the components of the BRI is to promote “people to people cultural exchange.” Cultural exchange meaning people-to-people interactions, cultural cooperation, education, travel, and encouraging stronger communication between China and the Philippines. Cultural exchanges are in fact good since this can increase technical knowledge of people through knowledge sharing.

But could it be that these good practices are now being invoked to make onerous deals acceptable? China’s cultural exchanges may also include the active promotion of traditional Chinese medicine in BRI countries that include the Philippines. In fact, a recent event to promote traditional Chinese medicine and the BRI was done in Cebu last December 2019.

Some advocates however warned that there are components of BRI-associated traditional Chinese medicine that may be harmful to the environment, particularly the use of endemic species. Could it be that traditional Chinese medicine, known to have promoted the harmony of humanity and the environment for ages, is now also being bent to serve profit-oriented ends?

A study published in Nature Sustainability warned that the active promotion of traditional Chinese medicine in BRI countries could increase the demand for animal wildlife that are used in its practice. One example of an endemic species being used in traditional Chinese medicine is the pangolin. In fact, the high demand for pangolin scales for use in traditional medicine has driven all eight species of pangolin to near extinction due to illegal trade. This includes our very own Philippine Pangolin found in Palawan.

The practice of using endemic species to treat various illnesses is destructive and puts traditional Chinese medicine in a bad light. As for the Philippine experience, we know how traditional Chinese medicine in the country is being practiced in far flung provinces particularly the use of acupuncture. Traditional Chinese medicine is used by community health workers where our healthcare system is scarce or even absent.

Community health workers like Vilma Yecyec gave basic training on acupuncture, acupressure, ventosa, and moxibustion to communities in Mindanao as early as the 1980s. However, Yecyec was targeted by the military in 1985 when she was included in the “order of battle” or a list of people considered as “enemies of the state”. Even the Morong 43, a group of health workers in the Philippines, were red-tagged by the military and were alleged to be members of the New People’s Army (NPA) for having acupuncture needles.

Now that the government is looking into traditional Chinese medicine, I can’t help but wonder about the health workers featured in IBON’s research Guns Against Needles and how the military has been targeting and red-tagging them for using alternative medicine like acupuncture to treat various illnesses in the province.

In the end, promoting traditional Chinese medicine in the Philippines won’t change the current state of our healthcare system if it remains overlooked and health workers are targeted by the military. Just as the illegal trade of Philippine pangolins won’t stop unless government addresses why people continue to poach them.

A good economy not only delivers economic growth with investments and infrastructure. Primarily in fact, it favors the rights and welfare of people over profits to reduce inequality and ensures the provision of basic social services. It also ensures environmental conservation, protection of ecosystems and biodiversity with balanced use of the country’s natural wealth.