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At Large
The cover-up, not the confinement

By Rina Jimenez-David
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 02:39:00 07/08/2009

Filed Under: Health treatment, Government, Politics

What got Richard Nixon in the course of the Watergate investigation was not the break-in itself?which was but a misdemeanor?but the cover-up which was in the end traced to the White House itself.

And so it is with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo?s recent hospitalization at the Asian Hospital. The issue is not so much the President?s illness and what procedures she did or did not undergo, but the cover-up instigated by Malacańang, apparently with her consent.

As we all know by now, the Palace information machinery put out the news that in ?compliance? with guidelines issued by the Department of Health concerning individuals returning to the country from territories where the A(H1N1) virus was present, Ms Arroyo was going on quarantine at the Asian Hospital upon her arrival from a South American trip. This, even if the DoH itself said a quarantine for the President was no longer necessary since a ?community outbreak? of the new virus had already taken place.

From what I gather, most of the populace seemed to take the news at face value. That is, until Star columnist Jarius Bondoc broke the news that Ms Arroyo was lying to her people. Citing authoritative sources, Bondoc revealed that the President was not confined due to the A(H1N1) virus, but rather to undergo ?mammoplastic repair of leaking breast implants done in the ?80s.?

The subsequent press conference and statements given by Press Secretary Cerge Remonde were an interesting case study for students of communication and even of psychology. Just watching the shifting expressions on Remonde?s face as he struggled to explain the dissembling employed by his office, and then to clarify the President?s health status, was extremely entertaining.

It?s never been good form to be caught out on a lie, but to offend at the same time not just the citizenry but also the country?s community of starlets, cosmetic surgeons and large-breasted women?with or without the aid of modern science?that is certainly a masterstroke of public relations bumbling.

* * *

IT?S instructive how, when faced with a delicate situation, Malacańang?s instinct is to dissemble and deceive.

I don?t think the public would have taken it against the President if it had been revealed that she had undergone a breast operation more than 20 years ago that necessitated the use of implants and which now needed to be repaired.

Not all breast surgeries are conducted for aesthetic purposes, or to enhance what the Good Lord has seen fit to give a woman. Going by Remonde?s later explanation, Ms Arroyo underwent a biopsy or biopsies on her breast, and the implants were used to give her breast(s) a more even appearance. As Remonde implied, the procedure was certainly not done to ?enhance? her appearance since she doesn?t seem any more endowed than the average Filipina. (I don?t know if Arroyo appreciated her press secretary?s calling attention to the size of her breasts.)

Why all the secrecy surrounding the confinement? And why use the excuse of the threat of an A(H1N1) infection to cover up a relatively simple procedure? Unless, the President thought it unseemly for the public to be discussing her breasts (or groin, since a biopsy was also allegedly conducted there).

Actually, the President?s information machinery could have devised a way of telling the public the truth without necessarily revealing personal and delicate details. They could simply have said, ?The President will be confined at the Asian Hospital for a few days to undergo a minor procedure that is not life threatening. She prefers to keep the details private.?

* * *

IN PHILIPPINE history the most notable example of a leader who kept his health status secret from the public was Ferdinand Marcos, who was so obsessed about keeping under wraps news of his lupus that he even had a surgeon who attended to him killed by assassins, or so folklore has it.

During the snap election campaign towards the end of his reign, Marcos?s white barong showed a bloody sleeve during a rally. It was widely believed then that the bloodstain was from the site of a shunt that he needed for regular dialysis. But when asked about it, Marcos dismissed the stain as a spill from ?sarsaparilla? that he had been drinking.

It was a puzzling remark, because the red-colored ?sarsaparilla? drink, a popular beverage in Marcos? youth, was no longer available in 1985.

Only after their ouster from Malacańang, when the public was allowed to tour the Marcoses? private quarters, were Filipinos able to confirm the news about lupus. The thickly-padded toilet seat, the mini-hospital and dialysis machine, all spoke of a man who was seriously ill and in great pain and yet by sheer force of will struggled to give the appearance of being in the pink of health.

* * *

PRESIDENTS are human, after all, with their own share of physical frailties, insecurities and delusions. It?s when a leader buys into his own propaganda of being superhuman and above the failings of the human condition that he drives his country into hardship and misrule.

Only the most hard-hearted would begrudge the President some time off for a check-up, a procedure, or just to rest. President?s bodies are no less subject to the normal wear and tear of living as those of others their age. And as a post-menopausal woman, Ms Arroyo would be subject to any number of ailments and conditions, all of which necessitate medical attention.

In fact, I wish Ms Arroyo had been or would be more upfront about her health condition. As President she is in a position to take a public platform about the health issues that older women face, from menopause to gynecological cancers, from osteoporosis to greater vulnerability to heart attack. It still isn?t too late. And if she speaks out, we promise to believe her.

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