Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte once again made a disappearing act last week, vanishing from public view for several days after attending a movie premiere on Tuesday, then skipping a peace summit in Palo, Leyte.
As usual, the Palace couldn’t get its story straight about the president’s whereabouts.
His former assistant Bong Go said Duterte was “not feeling well”. Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, however, said the president missed the Leyte event because of other “pressing commitments”.
Naturally for such abrupt changes in the presidential schedule bereft of clarity and detail, rumours that the president was gravely ill, even dying, revved again into overdrive.
But Duterte, in his inimitable style, easily quashed such speculations by reappearing days later in a series of phone videos that his partner Honeylet Avancena posted on social media.
“I’m alive,” he declared, and even made the sardonic request that those who believed in the rumours of his death should “please pray for the eternal repose of my soul”.
Did he make a trip to the hospital? Duterte, of course, wasn’t saying. That sense of flippancy and mischief about the state of his well-being is vintage Duterte, and no doubt his supporters and courtiers were left chortling again at the sheer cheek with which the president seems to defy the dire prognostications, even hopes, of that part of the public opposed to him.
As presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo crowed, Duterte’s enemies “cannot accept the fact that this president appears to be indestructible and immune from disease despite his punishing schedule”.
But Panelo is wrong. It’s not only the president’s so-called enemies who are casting extra-vigilant eyes at his boss’ health, but much of the public as well. Some 55 per cent of Filipinos are worried about Duterte’s health, according to an October 2018 Social Weather Stations survey; more tellingly, 61 per cent of them said that full public disclosure about the state of the president’s health must be made.
In that, they have an ally in the 1987 Constitution, which mandates that “In case of serious illness of the president, the public shall be informed of the state of his health.”
Duterte, 73, has himself repeatedly said that he suffers from serious illnesses, among them growths found during an endoscopy, Buerger’s disease, Barrett’s esophagus, frequent migraines and spinal issues, troubled sleep, and chronic pain from a motorcycle spill in his younger days that has necessitated the use of fentanyl, an opioid said to be 25 to 50 times more potent than heroin.
A chief executive of a company suffering from just one of those grave illnesses would be asked to undergo a thorough medical examination to determine his fitness to lead.
A leader’s clarity of thought, after all, his mental and physical state, have a direct impact on his capacity to make decisions and run his organisation; in Duterte’s case, that’s the ship of state, no less.
Likewise, a defendant who pleads serious illness to evade detention in an ordinary jail would be asked to furnish the court an official medical report certifying to such a condition – former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, for instance, who claimed to be so debilitated by bone disease that she asked for, and was granted, hospital confinement for the duration of her plunder trial.
No one in the current administration, however, from the president down to his underlings, apparently attaches any importance to fulfilling their constitutional duty to treat the president’s health as a matter of paramount public interest, and thus to report to the people periodically about it. Nearly three years into Duterte’s term, not one official report from his doctors presenting a detailed, comprehensive picture of his health and well-being has been disclosed, the Palace leaving it entirely to the president to prattle disjointedly, incoherently, about his many ailments.
Transparency, beginning with the country’s chief executive being forthright about his or her health status in the interest of the larger national well-being, is the hallmark of – and makes possible – a functioning democracy. That bounden duty is expected as much from the current president and his administration.