ALL sorts of rumors are floating around about President Rodrigo Duterte’s state of health. This has to be expected. At 73, he has accumulated various medical ailments, of which he openly talks about. He says he’s got Buerger’s disease, Barrett esophagus, a continuing migraine, and in his latest direct quote in one banner headline, he said, “I am in perpetual pain (from a previous motorcycle accident), but not seriously sick.” Yet he has not allowed an authoritative medical bulletin to intervene, thereby encouraging the rumor mill to spawn its own “garbage.”
Reports about him allegedly coughing blood before and after his last State of the Nation Address (SONA) have not been denied. And the former founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and his quondam political science professor, Jose Maria Sison, recently announced from Utrecht that his former student had gone into “a coma.”
This was convincingly denied by Malacañang, after special assistant Christopher “Bong” Go said in Filipino that the former mayor was resting in bed (“nasa kama”), instead of being “in a coma.” Then the conversation shifted to the unusual darkening of DU30’s face as a symptom of an undiagnosed illness.
A sunburnt face
DU30 explained that he got his face sunburnt from having to climb mountains without the snow caps of Mt. Everest. Many laughed at this, and internet activists quickly offered their own medical diagnoses. They rattled off a number of disorders — “cirrhosis” of the liver; “polycythemia” — a medical condition in which a person is said to produce excessive red blood cells, causing an enlargement of the spleen or the liver, and making his skin “ruddy” in color; and Addison’s disease, a medical condition in which the adrenal glands fail to produce enough hormones, and one gets easily fatigued, and so on and so forth.
This has created an unhealthy and ugly situation in which the nation’s most important person of interest is reduced into a “non-person” or an “inanimate object” and his physical condition restlessly speculated upon by not necessarily qualified, and not always responsible, analysts. Although B.S. Aquino 3rd used to say the president is the “servant” and therefore “public property” of the people, his basic dignity as a human being remains inviolable, and deserves respect and protection from idle speculation and gossip. The people may want to know the President’s real state of health at all times, but they do not deserve to be fed with every kind of garbage.
Under Marcos, rumor-mongering became a punishable offense. I am not sure that prohibition still stands, but I do not believe any law is strong enough, or could be strong enough, to prevent the most salacious political rumor from spreading under any circumstance. The best way for government to stop such rumors from going viral is for the President to be forthright about his actual state of health. Timely and adequate correct information should preempt the fake news.
Section 12, Article VII of the Constitution provides: “In case of serious illness of the President, the public shall be informed of the state of his health. The members of the Cabinet in charge of national security and foreign relations and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, shall not be denied access to the President during such illness.” Yet the President does not have to be seriously ill to prompt a regular bulletin on his state of wellness or health. An elevated temperature should be enough.
Let us have those regular medical bulletins on the President’s state of wellness then. Instead of letting DU30 talk about his own physical and mental state, let an authorized medical expert do it for him. This is the best way to protect the truth and build public trust and confidence.
Before and after Marcos
Before Marcos, Filipino presidents did not mind standing naked inside their glass house, as it were, and letting the public know if anything was wrong with them. There was little or no effort to fudge the facts. There was no attempt to hide the fact that Manuel L. Quezon was ailing in the US and ultimately died of tuberculosis in Saranac Lake, New York. Subsequent presidents, while living in the Philippines, traveled to the US for regular medical checkups, and had themselves examined at the Water Reed General Hospital in Washington, D.C. with no attempt at cover-up.
This policy and practice vanished under Ferdinand Marcos, mainly for reasons of national security. From the time he declared martial law in 1972 until he fell at the 1986 EDSA revolt, Marcos ruled without a constitutionally designated successor — no vice president, no senate president, no speaker with a right to succeed. There was also no constitutionally designated “survivor” (as in the Netflix series) should an accident or a terrorist attack take down the entire government.
This compelled Marcos to exercise utmost caution in sharing any sensitive information about his state of health, even with trusted members of his Cabinet. Any information that he had fallen ill could trigger a power play among those who had an eye on the leadership, so Marcos tried to keep his various infections — from the most common flu to his kidney transplant — a tightly guarded personal or family secret.
DU30 lacks FM’s excuse
DU30’s case is nowhere like this. His line of succession is clearly and permanently established. Should he ever be compelled, for any reason whatsoever, to leave the presidency before 2022, the sitting vice president automatically and compulsorily takes over, unless the law of constitutional succession is unlawfully disrupted or overwhelmed. It is not therefore DU30’s duty to worry whether this successor is going to be Leni Robredo, who now occupies the office, or former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., who is contesting it before the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET).
Even the ungodly and the unbeliever know our lives are all in the hands of God. Despite this, DU30’s most important duty is to make sure, to the extent within his mortal power, that he remains alive, and that the question of presidential succession does not arise before his time is up. It should not matter then if the whole world knew that he has gone to Fuda Cancer Hospital in Guangzhou, to Dr. Farrah Agustin-Bunch Natural Medical Center in Tarlac, to Cardinal Santos Medical Center at Greenhills, or anywhere else, and that he would be flying to Israel and possibly to the US soon — in search of a cure for his known and unknown maladies. The only thing that matters is that he does everything to get himself cured.
In the last few days, we have been bombarded with the news story that DU30 would be leaving for Israel soon, to reward a group of retired military and police officers for their past services, by taking them on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Foreign travel has become the primary activity of the DU30 presidency, and he obviously wants to win the allegiance and loyalty of the uniformed sector by giving them various freebies. So, he does not have to put up an elaborate production to justify his latest junket. But certain arbitrary acts of his against innocent and defenseless officers have created strong resentments in the ranks.
The V. Luna scandal
One such act involves the summary firing of the officers running the Armed Forces Medical Center, previously known as the V. Luna General Hospital, without any prior investigation. DU30 sacked Brig. General Edwin Torrelavega and Col. Antonio Punzalan after the doctor-wife of an important Cabinet member reportedly ratted on them for alleged but unverified ghost transactions amounting to P1.4 million. It turned out that the papers covering the alleged transactions had already been completed when DU30 sacked the officials for an alleged crime that did not happen and which they did not commit. A total disgrace.
V. Luna rank and file apparently uniformly regard Torrelavega as an outstanding doctor, a highly respected soldier and a genuine public servant. He is loved by his co-workers. There is no pending charge against him, no suspicion of wrongdoing, in the AFP or elsewhere, but he stands disgraced by DU30’s arbitrary action. And the men and women at V. Luna, together with their friends in the other services, are demoralized and pissed off. They are the ones DU30 should probably invite on his next trip.
Magdalo partylist Rep. Gary Alejano has effectively punctured the President’s Israel balloon by saying the real purpose of the announced trip is medical in nature. He would like to consult some of the best Jewish doctors. Alejano is probably right, but I would not blame DU30 for it. For Jews, Christians and even Muslims, Israel is not only the birthplace of the great Abrahamic religions; it is also the meeting place of ancient wisdom and modern science; its health care is one of the best in the world, and its best known doctors take good care of the health of its leaders.
In the late 1990s, as a senator, I made a couple of pilgrimages there with my family. Some years later, I traveled there with then former vice president Jejomar Binay, then presidential adviser on overseas Filipino workers’ concerns, and met with the late President Shimon Peres in his office. There I asked Peres, in light of the rise of terrorism and other disorders in the world, if he would care to revisit a statement he had made earlier, that “the hunting season is over.”
It was one of the most illuminating conversations I ever had.
Peres struck me as the biggest intellectual I have ever met, in the tradition of Pope St. John Paul 2nd and Pope Emeritus Benedict 16th. He described Israel as a small country whose primary export was “knowledge,” and which employed Filipinos as the only foreign “caregivers” in their hospitals, hospices, and other health institutions.
Should DU30 decide to visit any of these places, he would likely bump into some Filipino caregivers. We should not therefore begrudge him the opportunity; he may even learn some enduring Christian values and virtues from his own countrymen there.
Ultimate stop: US?
Some of my usually reliable sources in Davao insist that DU30 is also exploring the possibility of going to the US for medical consultation and treatment. Ms. Honeylet Avanceña, DU30’s well-known common-law partner, Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio’s chief of staff, and the President’s own brother Bong are reportedly in the US trying to make the necessary “arrangements.”
No one in the US Embassy in Manila seems aware of any forthcoming DU30 visit to the US. But DU30 has a standing invitation from President Donald Trump to visit him in Washington, D.C. or New York. Despite announced threats by anti-DU30 and anti-Trump groups to meet such a visit with noisy street demonstrations, it cannot be completely discounted, the sources said.
The fact that DU30 has begun to criticize China’s position in the South China Sea territorial dispute, and to soften his position on the US on a number of issues, could be the clearest indication that the speculation on a possible medical furlough in the US is not entirely without basis, the sources added.
DU30’s recent loud unfiltered talk that the “CIA is out to kill him” is perhaps his way of forcing the US government to assure him of maximum protection and comfort should he finally decide to visit, the sources explained.
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