Acosta, selling her soul

How do you solve a problem like Persida?

In her decade and a half as chief of the Public Attorney’s Office, lawyer Persida Acosta has brought a sense of dedication and not a little flair for the public spectacle, which has raised the profile of her office and of her staff.

But she has also, and much too frequently, made a spectacle of herself in high-profile cases, preferring emotion (the anguished public official) over reason (the competent officer of the court).

Now, under the Duterte administration, she seems to have made a fateful decision: to cast aside the mantle of civil servant completely, and put on the armor of a political warrior.

Tasked by Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II to investigate the Dengvaxia controversy, she has turned into an avenging angel, ready to shed tears at the slightest opportunity (we presume it is on behalf of the victims she is determined to discover, or produce), always prepared to see blood (figuratively, that of the previous administration) at the slightest provocation.

This melodramatic self-image surfaced in all its gaudiness at the Feb. 26 hearing of the House committee on good government and public accountability. One exchange in particular showed the depths of Acosta’s delusions.

She pointedly criticized the Department of Health for following rigorous scientific procedure, and suggested that her media-savvy approach was the right one. We always announce the names of the victims to the media, she said. The DOH doesn’t.

Aside from the uncertainty she feels not knowing whether the victims under study by the PAO were the same as the victims under study by the DOH, she even attempted to out-doctor the doctors. “Sa kanila po, wala silang tissue [samples].”

When committee chair Rep. Johnny Pimentel asked her if she would share the tissue samples obtained by the PAO, she reached deep inside herself and found her inner operatic diva. “Eh, ayaw po ng mga magulang kasi sila [sa DOH] po ang nagbakuna sa mga anak nila eh! Sir, ’di ko po isasangla ang aking kaluluwa!”

The English translation loses some of the pungent flavor of the original. “The parents don’t want to [share the tissue samples with the DOH] because it was them [the DOH personnel] who vaccinated their children! Sir, I won’t sell my soul!”

This is not only ludicrous; it is self-defeating. If her objective is to meet the best interest of the parents the PAO was now looking after, sharing the tissue samples with the real experts working in another government agency was a no-brainer.

Instead, she turned it into a crucible of her moral values, and rejected the possibility outright. All government employees — and Acosta is only a mid-level government employee, however she comports herself — know that working with other government employees in other government agencies is a fact of government life.

Sharing crucial information does not mean one sells one’s soul to the devil; it means helping one another out to get the best possible result.

A calm Pimentel straightened Acosta out, reminding her that the facts she asserted were true had yet to be proven, and that one objective of the hearing was to ensure proper coordination between the two government agencies. He also told off Acosta, saying her bias could get in the way of the truth.

A less calm, more exasperated Rep. Ruffy Biazon could not help himself. At another moment in the hearing, he told Acosta to sober up. “Don’t you feel the necessity [that] we should approach this problem [while] we are sober? Let’s not rile up emotions,” he told the emotionally overwrought non-doctor.

Her sense of agitation, amplified on traditional and social media, had actual consequences, Biazon suggested.

“Unfortunately, because of the excitement in all of this, 90 percent of those who report [to the] Ospital ng Muntinlupa turns out na hindi pala talaga may sakit na [not to have a condition that is] related to dengue. But all of them go there, sasabihin nila [and they say]: ‘Na-Dengvaxia ’ata kami’ [We might have Dengvaxia]. It becomes a burden to the hospital because they have to allocate staff and resources to attend to everyone who goes there.”

And Acosta’s melodrama obscures the continuing search for those truly responsible for the controversy in the first place. It is a real problem, and it too needs solving.