By Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, CM

Last Sunday, in our weekly reflection in Payatas to assess our relief operation, our BEC leaders, who are mostly mothers, expressed an urgent need as we enter the fifth week of the enhanced community lock down: we need milk for babies. Society, in cramming for its own survival, has forgotten the really voiceless -- our babies. All that government and charity organizations have given are kilos of rice, sardines, noodles, coffee, etc.. And there is nothing for infants.

One mother said: "Kaya kung hindi kumain ng ilang araw. Pero hindi ko matiis na walang gatas ang anak ko." Another father said: "Kahit huwag na akong tumanggap ng bigas, sana gatas na lang. Kakaawa baby ko." So, we asked the mothers in these communities to write the brands that they use. The list shows familiar names: Bear Brand Fortified, Alaska Fortified, Nestogen, Bonna, Bonamil, Bonakid, etc.

But when we started planning to ask for donations, we were confronted with a challenging legal obstacle --- a longtime painful dilemma among relief workers in disaster situations. The Philippine Milk Code of 1986 (Executive Order 51), its IRR and other related documents which are still in effect until today. It is a long read but in short it says that breastfeeding is the ideal for babies; breast milk substitutes are dangerous, discouraged and quite strictly forbidden. https://www.officialgazette.go...

A related DILG document (2008) stipulating on which donations can be accepted in times of disasters reads: "Infant formula, breast milk substitutes, feeding bottles, artificial nipples, and teats shall not be items for donation. No acceptance of donation shall be issued for any of the enumerated items."


The intention is good and noble. The world knows the long term health benefits of breastfeeding. There is also the need to protect "breastfeeding" itself from the onslaught of aggressive business enterprises which, with big money, try to drown its benefits through advertising and giving hefty incentives to health workers, if they promote their brands among their clients. We are all for these advocacies. And in ideal times, we should fight for it.

Beyond the ideal, however, is the real painful situation: that the babies have nothing to eat during the lockdown --- when their fathers could not go to work, when there is even nothing to eat. The mothers are begging for these breast milk substitutes (kahit wala na silang bigas, may makain lang ang bata).

Like all principles, these laws fall flat when confronted with actual realities on the ground. There are many of these during the COVID crisis: social distancing, enhanced home quarantine, etc. Though ideal in their intentions, they are not quite feasible on the ground, at least, in many of the poor communities. This means that these principles come from social locations of their innovators which are quite detached from the situations of many people.

To give one example: handwashing. An advertisement says that we should wash our hands at least for 20 seconds, while singing the "Happy Birthday" song twice. If you try it, you can almost fill up one pail. Do you know what that means for a family without running water?

Let me go back to the milk issue. One mother said: "Gusto ko mang i-breastfeed ang anak ko, hindi na po pwede. Saan ako kukuha ng sustansiya kong sardinas at noodles ang kinakain namin buong buwan?"

In the midst of all these, I remember something in my philosophy days. I paraphrase what the French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, says: it would have been nice if we achieve what is "most humanly desirable". But since all of it is not really attainable, we settle for the "most humanly possible".

Now to my call: if there are people who are willing to donate breast milk, the mothers would gladly accept. Breast milk is said to be the "most powerful defense" against illness in situations of disaster.

But if there is no such supply which is understandable in these difficult times, the mothers would actually know how and what to feed their babies. Only that they have no means.

I do not know if you want to help them --- in whatever way you can. I am not only talking of the mothers in Payatas. I am also talking of those in your neighborhood.

Daniel Franklin E. Pilario, C.M.
St. Vincent School of Theology
Adamson University