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Why we honor centenarians

“Excessive and unreasonable”.

“Patently oppressive”. That’s how President Aquino describes the bill he vetoed, a bill that would have given centenarians a 75 percent discount on goods and services, among other benefits.

“The discount exceeds the usual mark-up rate of most businesses and will obliterate profit margins and result in capital loss,” he claims in his veto message.

Those statements were really astonishing. He stopped short of warning that the bill would lead to the country’s economic collapse.

Mr. Aquino just doesn’t get it. Or his veto is so typical of a black-and-white —or monochromatic yellow —kind of dogmatic thinking that doesn’t bother to check the facts.

How many Filipino centenarians are there in the first place that their 75 percent discount would even make the slightest ripple on business profits?

A Finance official speaking at a committee hearing for the bill stated there were 8,000 Filipino centenarians, “based on the 2010 estimate of the National Statistics Office.”

I can’t find any NSO estimate on the number of centenarians, with available population statistics only showing Filipinos “84- years-old and above.” The determination of the number is difficult since many old people simply do not have birth certificates. In our country, many birth records were lost or destroyed during World War II.

The 8,000 figure seems to be a high estimate since that means there are about 9 Filipinos centenarians for every 100,000 people. That’s nearly double the 4.5 world average and very near the 12-per-100,000 average for 26 developed countries. Life expectancy in developed countries is at least 80 years, compared to our 68, so logically and statistically we should have less centenarians.

I haven’t met a single centenarian, nor have I heard a relative or a friend say he knows one. Of course, I’ve heard of or read about Joseph Estrada’s mother Mary, who died at 103, but that’s about it. A Wikipedia writer attempting to identify Filipino centenarians could come up with only six, and one of them was the revolutionary heroine Melchora Aquino, the most famous. All six are deceased.

I doubt if there would be a hundred centenarians who would be able to make an appointment with authorities to present to them their birth certificates or passports that state they’re 100 or older.

But even assuming that there are 8,000 centenarians who would avail of that discount, how much would that cost business?

Assume a P10,000 monthly consumption of goods and services by a centenarian—very few will go to fine-dining restaurants or buy new suits, unlike senior citizens in their 60s—that would mean a cost to business of only P7,500 a month. And that cost certainly won’t be borne for long. But Aquino is worried the discount would obliterate—yep, that’s the word he used—profit margins of, and result in capital loss for, Philippine capitalism?

And all the while I thought it an excellent idea that a centenarian going to a restaurant should be gifted with a complimentary meal, since he has taken superhuman efforts to taste, probably for the last time, that outlet’s excellent cuisine.

To belabor the point, the notion of a 75 percent discount obliterating profit margins is reflective of Aquino’s dogmatic “tuwid na daan” thinking, which is a modern version of moralistic Christian fanaticism in the medieval ages, when priests burned heretics and “sodomites”at the stake.

The centenarian bill, which Albay Representative Edcel Lagman, has heroically championed, is symbolic in essence, one of sublime importance.

The very existence of centenarians is a triumph of the human species. It gives us hope that humanity may enjoy 200, 300, or even 500 years of life in the future. That’s not a pipe dream as the human lifespan has remarkably increased as civilization progressed, from just 28 years in ancient Greece to 30 during medieval times to the 2010 world average of 67.2 (roughly the Philippines’ too).

There are certain groups of people in the world that have per capita more centenarians, notably Okinawans, who pushed up Japan’s figure to a high 35 centenarians per 100,000 people. This has been attributed – inconclusively — to their hardy and healthy lifestyle and nearly all-fish diet. Some studies claim though that Okinawans have unique features in their DNA that could explain their longevity. (Some scientists claim Luzon in prehistoric periods was populated by migrants from Formosa and Okinawa. The Ilokanos do have facial features similar to these migrants, and they have the same long lifespan, as Marcos mother Josefa, who died at 96, demonstrated.)

Surprisingly, Cuba has a high number of centenarians, a remarkable 26 per 100,000. That baffles scientists, as Cubans are known to be avid consumers of cigar and coffee, which have been linked to a variety of fatal diseases such as lung cancer and arteriosclerosis. One study reports that these Cuban centenarians has, surprisingly, active sex lives, and that which could be one reason for their longevity.

Research on different groups of centenarians all over the world claim different factors for their longevity: high levels of vitamin A and E among Italians, high levels of glutathione reductase and catalese in their red blood cells in Poland as well as in Denmark.

Such studies have prompted scientists to foresee a time when genetic engineering could expand the average human lifespan to over 100 years.

However, as in the case of longevity, the number of centenarians in a country is an indication of how much it has progressed not just in terms of economic growth but also in terms of the quality of life of its people, a big part of which their governments can claim credit for.

Thus, most of the developed countries in the world have more centenarians per 100,000 of their populations than poor countries: the United Kingdom with 20; France, 27; Canada, 22; the US, 17; Sweden, 19; and Australia, 19. Surprisingly though, two rich Asian countries have few centenarians: Singapore has only 1.5 centenarians per 100,000 of their citizens while South Korea, 1.9. An intriguing fact is that 80 percent of centenarians are women, and some 80 percent of those are widows.

Because a country’s centenarians are gems representing not only of humanity’s hopes for longevity as well as a particular nation-state’s success in creating a society that extends human’s life, they are specially honored.

The American President sends each centenarian a birthday greeting congratulating him for his longevity. The Queen of England similarly sends every centenarian not only in the UK but Commonwealth countries her greetings. The Prime Minister of Japan sends them a silver cup and a certification on their 100th birthday. The Irish government gives them a “Centenarian’s Bounty” of 2,540 euros (P140,000).

The Philippine President on the other hand doesn’t care about them. He even worries publicly that a discount Congress has proposed for their benefit, which very few of them would actually be able to claim in the first place, would obliterate businessmen’s profits.