An ironclad lockdown due to COVID-19 meant Father Donardo “Dandi” Bermejo had to close his health clinic in the Philippines.
But it couldn’t stay that way.
“After a month, we had no choice but to reopen, as people were flocking to our clinic for treatment,” said Fr. Dandi, who previously served in the Jefferson City diocese for nine years.
His Works of Charity Center and St. Joseph the Worker Clinic for the indigent sugarcane plantation workers of the Negros Occidental region receives funding from the diocese’s Mission Office.
The plight of many of the people seeking treatment was so pitiful that the clinic staff saw it as their Christian duty to take care of them, consequences or not.
Fr. Dandi said the Philippine government’s strict lockdown resembles martial law. Nonetheless, the government has allowed the clinic to do its work unabated.
“The staff exercises extra care while attending to the sick, as the virus is very contagious,” he stated, noting that some of the staff are very concerned about contracting COVID themselves.
He said that as of July 31, 20 people had tested positive in the town of Manapla, which has about 55,000 residents.
Some offices, businesses and modes of public transportation have begun reopening under a recently modified lockdown order.
“But wearing facemask and social distancing are obliged for everyone and everywhere,” the priest stated.
Heartbreak in the family
In a July 31 letter, Fr. Dandi said he has been working long days while praying for his mother and mourning for his sister.
His mother was admitted to a hospital in the Philippines in late July.
“She is 90 years old, and physically she is not in good shape,” he stated. “I hope and pray that the Lord will prolong her life even a little bit, but whatever happens, we surrender her to the Lord.
“And we know that the Lord and the Blessed Mother will take good care of her,” he said.
His sister had contracted pneumonia two years ago, which contributed to a heart condition.
She had not been to see a doctor since March, due to the pandemic and resulting lockdowns.
“Traveling from one place to another was very hard to do, and going to the hospital for check-ups was almost impossible,” he said.
She had a heart attack and died in July. Her earthly remains were cremated and interred on July 26.
Fr. Dandi could not attend the funeral, because air and sea transportation to Manila had been halted due to the pandemic.
“So sad indeed, but our faith is always our source of joy and consolation in times like this,” he stated.
He called to mind St. Paul’s exhortation that nothing — not trials, persecution, suffering or even death itself — can separate God’s people from His love.
“And Christ promised that everyone who believes in Him, even if He dies, will rise once more and enjoy eternal life,” said Fr. Dandi. “I believe she is in heaven right now, enjoying her eternal rewards.”
Moved by childhood memories of the indigent and mistreated sugar plantation workers that lived on his home island of Negros Occidental in the Philippines, Fr. Dandi in 2014 moved back there with his bishop’s blessing to start a Catholic outreach to them.
The free clinic, staffed with five doctors and four nurses, went from serving about 400 patients per month to about 1,000, free of charge. The dental clinic, open one day a week, serves about 100 patients.
The staff also makes medical missions to isolated villages, last year helping an additional 1,000 people free of charge.
In Fr. Dandi’s hometown of Manapla, where his clinic and charitable outreach are headquartered, the pandemic has been coupled with widespread hunger.
People have not been able to leave home to work for over four months.
“And since the government itself cannot provide food for everyone, starvation ensues,” said Fr. Dandi.
Some employers around the country have begun to reopen, “but widespread hunger still pervades.”
The priest’s Works of Mercy Center has been providing as much assistance as it can, mostly distribution of rice and other food staples.
“This has become an endless activity,” he said. “Lots of my time is devoted to it.”
He noted that it was becoming impossible to impose social distancing when throngs of people from various communities and haciendas were flocking to the Works of Mercy Center in search of food.
So the center’s staff has made two trips out to various communities to distribute food packs to the people there.
“This proved to be easier and effective,” said Fr. Bermejo.
During the most recent round, they distributed about 600 food packs to 600 families.
“The people were so happy and grateful,” he said. “We always start the food distribution with a simple prayer and especially asking the Lord’s grace for the total defeat of coronavirus from the face of the earth.”
Compounded by pollution
The characteristically affable priest’s tone turned angry and despondent as he wrote of a third crisis affecting the people he serves.
Already shockingly poor and unable to procure life’s necessities, hundreds of people Fr. Dandi ministers to are now getting sick due to pollution from a local distillery.
“The Victorias Milling Company (VMC)Distillery plant pollutes our air, our land and our water, causing so much sickness and suffering to the people here,” he said.
VMC dumps chemical waste from production into a nearby river, killing fish and other marine life and contaminating local wells.
The company has doubled and at times tripled production since the pandemic began, causing further environmental degradation and sickness.
The “slop,” which contains high levels of toxic ammonium nitrate, smells terrible and has sickened hundreds of people.
“Several people here actually died because of these deadly fumes, and the death toll continues to rise,” said Fr. Dandi.
He noted that out of about 1,000 people treated each month at the St. Joseph the Worker Clinic, about 300 are suffering from chronic respiratory illnesses brought on by the pollution.
“This third crisis is the one that takes so much of my time, gives me so much work, pressure, headaches, sleepless nights and stress and drains me physically, day after day,” he said.
Fr. Dandi himself has suffered from bouts of asthma brought on by exposure to the distillery’s fumes whenever he visits the sugarcane plantation workers in their communities.
“I have to be careful because my asthma may recur if I expose myself too much again to the same foul odor,” he said.
Nowhere to turn
For years, the people have been complaining to various levels of the Philippine government about the pollution, but nothing changes.
Fr. Dandi surmises that the company has too many friends in high places.
People keep coming to him to ask for help, so he takes up their cause as part of his mission.
“This issue of pollution affects their health, their life and their future,” he noted. “I have no choice but to help them and have tried to be their voice.”
That is precisely why he returned to the place of his birth, to help some of the poorest and most underserved people in the country escape from the circumstances that keep them poor.
“This is the reason why I put up the Works of Mercy Foundation, this is the reason why I am doing this mission work,” he said, “... to care for people, to bring mercy, hope and compassion to those who are suffering especially those who are abandoned, oppressed, downtrodden, and forsaken — all to save lives, and to glorify God and further His kingdom.”
He asked for prayers for wisdom and courage as he goes about trying to change the hearts of the distillery’s owners.
“This is indeed an institutionalized corruption that we are fighting here,” he said. “I hope and pray that we win this battle at the end.”
He also asked for prayers for God to keep him safe and “embrace me all the time with His grace and protection.”
“It is really good to believe,” he stated. “It is a blessing indeed to be a Catholic.”
If you wouldd like to help support the works of Fr. Dandi, please contact the diocesan Development Office at email@example.com or (573) 635-9127, ext. 227.