Senatorial candidates running on health
As the May 13 polls draw nearer, health is once again used (and misused) by candidates as part of their campaign platforms — perhaps much more so than previous elections. On one hand, this is a welcome development; the articulation of health as a popular concern can only be good for our health care system.
However, I worry about the misuses of health for political gain — and the consequent misunderstanding of what health is all about. These concerns apply to all candidates but is particularly salient for Bong Go, who, against all propriety, has branded an entire government program — the so-called “Malasakit Centers” — with his name, as if it were his personally funded project.
Of course, I’m willing to allow for politicians’ platforms to benefit their political careers — as long as they’re actually doing substantive work. But with this standard, too, I question Go’s idea of health, as it fosters the political patronage and dole-out mentality that have long plagued our health sector.
Another candidate running on health is reelectionist senator Sonny Angara, who disingenuously includes free checkups and laboratory tests under his banner of “Alagang Angara.” Angara has filed relevant bills on geriatric health and mental health, among others, and was one of the proponents of universal health care (UHC). But he has disappointed health advocates with his coolness to raising “sin taxes,” despite the importance of the measure to the UHC law.
Then there is Dr. Willie Ong, who seeks to inherit Dr. Juan Flavier’s mantle as the “doctor in the Senate.” I see the sincerity in his independent candidacy and appreciate his efforts to popularize health on social media. But I hope he adds nuance to his views on issues like vaccines and drugs—and engages more with the public health folks who are already working on the things he promises (e.g. free medicines, free surgery).
Sen. JV Ejercito is also invoking health, calling himself “Mr. Healthcare.” To be fair to Ejercito, he has worked hard for the UHC law, which, while imperfect, is a landmark step toward health for all Filipinos. His association with the administration and family name notwithstanding, Ejercito’s legislative track record—which covers various health matters including barangay health workers—leaves no doubt that he is the “better Estrada.”
As a final example, there’s Pia Cayetano who, beyond embodying a healthy lifestyle, was actually one of the prime movers of both the reproductive health law and the sin tax law during her previous senatorial stint. Unfortunately, her progressive image has been tarnished by her silence on many key issues—including President Duterte’s misogyny and misguided views on drugs.
Which brings me to my main point: To some extent, I understand the political necessity of trying not to antagonize the President (and working with those who are trying to walk the political tightrope), but we need independent senators who can check Malacañang’s worst impulses, not defend or turn a blind eye to them.
Health itself, after all, does not exist in a vacuum; it encompasses, and is encompassed by, social, economic and political issues. Can we talk of women’s health but ignore the President’s misogyny? Can we speak of nutrition without recognizing the effects of the TRAIN Law on food and health expenditures? And can we advocate for mental health but dismiss the profound trauma brought about by “tokhang”?
In an age of lowered standards, where even honesty is being downplayed, perhaps it’s asking too much for our ostensibly pro-health candidates to hold a debate on health policy. Even so, I still challenge them to elevate, not simplify or cheapen, health discourse. Who among them will remind the President that drugs are a public health issue—and that universal health care is no joking matter? The simplistic notion that “health” is just about building more hospitals, giving free medications and organizing medical missions must go down the drain, alongside the view of health as charity.
Indeed, those who claim to champion health can only legitimately do so if they see it as a right of all Filipinos, socially determined, culturally bound and inexorably linked to all the human rights that the administration is wont to threaten today.
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