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Mary Rose and Edwin

If you ever find yourself wondering what it means to live a life of service, don't look to high-ranking officials of the current Philippine government for examples. Consider instead the doctors who chose to stay in the country instead of going abroad for better pay and a higher quality of life. In a country where the healthcare system is in shambles, the act of staying is nothing short of courageous.

Even more courageous is the decision to become a public doctor. Imagine this: In the Philippines, there are 31,000 patients for every public doctor. 31,000 people, many of whom are extremely poor and live in remote areas with no public transport, are under the care of a single doctor who normally also acts as the administrative officer of their community's health programme.

Mary Rose Sancelan was the only public doctor in Guihulngan, a city in Negros Oriental with a population of 100,000 mostly farmers and fisherfolk, scattered among 33 impoverished villages. This meant that her workload was three times as heavy as that of the average public doctor. She ran a clinic where she did pretty much everything, from suturing wounds to administering contraceptive implants. She supervised the city's vaccination programme, travelling to schools in remote villages and holding clinics where she and her staff would vaccinate hundreds of residents coming from all parts of the city in a single day.

She was a beloved doctor, someone people knew they could trust. But if there's anything we've learned in the time of Duterte, it is that goodness will not shield you from a government that's intent on sowing fear and cultivating silence among its citizens.

In 2019, a local anti-communist vigilante group circulated a list of 15 Guihulngan residents that it accused of being members of the National People's Army (NPA). Mary Rose's name was the first one on the list. Her fault? She had expressed concern about the growing number of extrajudicial killings in her city.

The red-tagging forced Mary Rose to take a leave from her job. In a forum on the killings in Negros in 2019, Mary Rose said that she was mostly worried that she could no longer go to remote areas to vaccinate schoolchildren because of the threats she had received.

Despite the fear and worry, Mary Rose resumed her work with renewed vigour. A devout Catholic, she celebrated each task done and each day completed. Her social media page is filled with photos of her at work or serving at mass, paired with words of faith and gratitude, always acknowledging the hard work of the people she served with, and those of her patients who had to traverse long distances in order to avail of free medical services. She posted about every gesture of kindness towards her and gushed about her son, her only child.

When the pandemic struck, she headed the city's efforts to stop the spread of the disease. With another medical doctor joining her team and a group of volunteers to help her, Mary Rose worked tirelessly to make sure that her indigent neighbours were seen and treated as quickly as possible.

But not even a pandemic could stem the bloodlust of those responsible for the killings of tens of thousands of Filipinos. On 15 December 2020, on the same day that the then-chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Fatou Bensouda declared that there was reason to believe the Philippines had committed crimes against humanity through Duterte's fake war on drugs, the murderers went after Mary Rose. She and her husband Edwin were on their way home from work aboard their motorbike when two men on a motorbike rode up alongside theirs and fired at the couple.

Eight bullets for Mary Rose, five for Edwin. A beloved doctor and her equally loved husband were gone. A young man was orphaned, and 33 villages of indigent people lost one of the few people they knew they could trust.

Mary Rose was the sixth person on the red-tagged list to be killed.

She was 60 years old.




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