The President’s Conspicuous Absence: Questioning Duterte’s Health
“SINO BANG walang sakit dito na 72 years old? Liars. Ibig sabihin healthy kayo lahat? (Who here is aged 72 with no illness? Liars. Are you saying that all of you are healthy?)” Rodrigo Duterte asked the audience attending the Grand Harvest Festival of SL Agritech Corporation in Nueva Ecija last April 5.
Even as presidential candidate, Rodrigo Duterte, perhaps because of his age, has had to respond to questions about his health. He enumerated his afflictions during the campaign: Buerger’s disease, Barrett’s esophagus, bronchitis and spinal pain. As president, he has complained about experiencing daily migraines. His need for an oxygen concentrator while sleeping is now public knowledge. His health problems have not prevented him from being an active and very visible president during his first year in office, traveling to foreign capitals, holding press conferences and attending public engagements where he usually delivers long rambling speeches.
Not surprisingly, Duterte’s absence from the public eye for five whole days raised questions. On June 12, Vice President Leni Robredo was asked to stand in his place at the annual Independence Day ceremonies. He was not seen until June 17, when he told reporters that he had to go on a trip “incognito.”
Giving no substantial answer to questions on his whereabouts, the president disappeared again from June 21 to 26. The press reported on the lack of information about the president’s health, citing evasive answers from officials, fueling further public speculation.
An Uncoordinated Cabinet
The questions were inevitable and the speculation not entirely unfounded. Duterte’s own cabinet officials gave conflicting statements and tended to dismiss questions from reporters as though these were impertinent.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said on June 12 that Duterte was not feeling well as he had been “working 24/7.” Speaking in Filipino, Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said the president was attending to matters in order to fix the challenge confronting us. (“Meron siyang hinaharap na ilang bagay upang maayos talaga ang ating hinaharap na challenge.”)
In a Palace briefing the following day, Abella was eager to assure the public that there was nothing wrong with the president. He told reporters that the president was in “excellent good health”, but needed rest since his “schedules have been brutal.” Asked whether Duterte “received medical advice,” the spokesperson said, “Frankly you don’t need medical advice in order to tell you that you should rest. Your body tells you that, you know.”
Commendably, the Malacanang reporters continued to press the spokesperson for answers. During the June 15 Palace briefing, Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Philip Tubeza asked whether Duterte had already seen a doctor. Abella answered, “I am not privy to those matters. But I am sure he has checked with his own experts.”
Rappler’s Pia Ranada asked Abella, “Sir, you keep saying he’s in excellent health, he’s well, but you also say he’s resting. So it’s not totally true that he’s in excellent health?” This prompted Abella to respond, “Don’t you ever rest?”
GMA News’ Joseph Morong noted more contradictions in the statements made by Health Secretary Paulyn Ubial, who had said during the 7th ASEAN Dengue Day Seminar that Duterte was well and currently in Davao while Abella said that the president was still in Malacanang.
Responding to the press’ request for photographs of the president wherever he was, Bong Go, who serves as a kind of special assistant to the president, provided two photographs of Duterte taken inside Bahay Pagbabago: one showing the president standing and another showing him seated reading documents. These were released late in the afternoon of June 15.
The persistence of the media in trying to get the truth about the president’s health was entirely appropriate and fulfilled their function to search out the truth. Media reports preceded the call issued by opposition lawmakers for the president to disclose his present condition. The president’s health is not a private and personal matter. It is always a matter of public concern and national security. At his age, the public should be informed when he is suffering even an ordinary cold or fever.
Previous presidents have instructed their physicians to issue public bulletins about their condition as in the case of Fidel V. Ramos ’ carotid surgery in 1996 and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s hospitalization due to stomach problems in 2006.
Duterte and his officials seem set on making the president’s health issue irrelevant.
Despite having admitted to several severe illnesses, Duterte has scoffed at questions about his health, at times, responding with anger or hostility. After his recent prolonged absence, he told the media on June 17 that his health was “immaterial” since the Constitution provided a succession mechanism anyway. He took a swipe against opposition senators, particularly Senator Leila de Lima, who demanded the disclosure of his state of health. He said De Lima only wanted to hear that he was either dying or dead, telling reporters that “what you see is what you get.”
Abella, being equally defensive, slipped into a non-sequitur. He had said in December 2016 that medical bulletins are pointless since Duterte is already a very transparent president. The spokesperson added, “What do you trust, the paper or his actions?”
This condescending attitude towards the media on this matter is a great disservice to the public and reveals a disrespect for the obligations of the office.
Clearly, Duterte is not inclined to follow the example of either Ramos or Arroyo. Perhaps, then, he will reprise the Marcos practice of deceit and denial. The dictator was diagnosed with lupus and this was kept a secret, although the subject of endless talk. The disease caused his absence for extended periods. The crony press would willingly publish photographs of an obviously sick man, holding the copy of the newspaper of the day. This would not be surprising at all as Duterte has openly declared Marcos as his idol.