Sunday, July 22, 2018
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A communications issue

For a while, for a few days, I felt apprehension. A President does not disappear from the public scene on the country’s Independence Day, and continue his disappearance with a raging battle in Marawi. The pathetic attempts to explain his absence by some of the officials closest to him only served to provoke new questions instead of answering any. On the fourth day of his public absence, I went on my Facebook blog page and asked, “Where is the President?”

That the President is suffering from some illness has long been admitted by him. Just exactly what is ailing him is unconfirmed, but his steady public appearances always assured me that the President is well enough to perform his duties. It would take a very active and focused President to confront the deadly drug menace, negotiate peace with Muslims and communist rebels, and dramatically dismantle the roots causes of poverty. At the same time, The President is 72 years old. Any senior citizen accepts that the odds are against him or her as the average life span of a Filipino is only around 70 years old.

It is unexplained absence from official and public functions that alarms me more than the absence itself. The truth may be hard to accept but the imagination can be even more frightful. People speculate because they have reason to, and inept explanations push people to speculate even more. At one point, it seemed to me that health was less of a bad issue than ineffective communications. I almost fell of my chair when I read that the Secretary of Justice accused anti-Duterte partisans of wanting to destabilize the administration. What was truly destabilizing was the inability of government spokespersons to give credible explanations. The more they tried to say nothing was wrong made me believe something was very wrong.


Fortunately, the President appeared in Agusan after five and a half days. It was a great relief to see the Chief Executive visibly leading a whole administration in serving the public. The day to day requirements of executive leadership is difficult enough but some days are worse than others – as today is. There is a siege in a major city and there is martial law in Mindanao. These situations demand the presence of the highest leadership yet neither the Senate President, the Speaker of the House or the Chief Justice was questioning a most unusual absence by the Commander-in-Chief. It was an eerie silence made more eerie by statements like “the President is only resting.”

As far as Cabinet members are convened, there is little to be concerned about beyond one’s attachment to one’s position. The Constitution has a ready protocol that is automatically triggered when any President dies, is incapacitated or impeached. While most undesirable, the fact is that everything does come to an end, whether it is a term of office or life itself. That is why the laws of the land anticipate the mortality or the temporary state of things and still assure as smooth a continuance of service as possible. What matters is that the Filipino people and nation live on – and they will as Presidents come and go, as Cabinet members come and go. Even bureaucrats stay longer with many civil service career people calling themselves permanent and regarding politicians and political appointees as temporary hires.

In about a week’s time, the President and his administration would be marking the end of their first year in office. It is a good moment to reflect on what has been done, and what else needs urgently to be done in their second year. The good health of the President is important, but more important is his capacity to serve despite whatever illness. Presidential leadership is more crucial than presidential health. Many presidents have served with sicknesses or disabilities, but the people see them and know their leader is actively leading. Unexplained absence generates concern, then panic when extended.

The President is a senior citizen, and the President by his own admission is not in the pink of health – as is normal for people his age. But whatever doubts people may have about his ability to perform his duties is neutralized by his presence. President Duterte, from the beginning of his campaign up to today, is one of the most covered by media, traditional and social. No one in the Philippines is more the center of attention for over one year. Any absence by him is not the same as the absence of any other personality because an attention cult has been built around him by traditional and social media.

The reality is people get sick, and older people do get sick more. Ask the health insurance industry because most of them will not cover people who are 70 years old or over. If they do, they impose not only higher premiums but only stiffer conditions. The President had never tried to hide his physical frailty or the fact that he can go anytime. This issue was already part of the campaign strategy of those who were partisans for others. Yet, people voted for him more than they did for anybody else healthier than him. In other words, people knew yet they took the risk. It is too late to paint the President as in the pink of health.

As much as the President is expected to try to take care of himself as best he can, as best as his doctors can, the greater challenge might be on how his key people, those personalities close to him who would know or should know about unusual presidential absences, will communicate to the rest of us. It can be that the greater problem is communication, not health. In a world now aggressively wired by technology and all sorts of media, communication is central.

It is very Filipino for family and friends to pray for one another when difficult times come. When the President’s health is severely challenged from time to time, the Filipino people must be allowed to pray for him.

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TAGS: illness, Predident Duterte, public appearances
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