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A better health secretary

/ 05:08 AM June 02, 2022

As the incoming Marcos Jr. administration continues to fill up its Cabinet, particularly its economic team, there is much anticipation on who would be picked as the next secretary of the Department of Health (DOH).

Would the sensitive post be given as reward for political support rather than to a qualified individual with stellar credentials and proven competence in the field? To do so would be a great disservice to Filipinos still recovering from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the public health crisis in its wake. Reports that the coronavirus and its subvariants are very much around have not helped any.

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Indeed, while alert levels in most parts of the country have been downgraded to their lowest levels since the pandemic struck the Philippines in March 2020, COVID-19 cases have slowly been on the rise due to eased mobility restrictions, inconsistent adherence to public health protocols, waning immunity from the COVID-19 vaccines, and the entry of the more transmissible Omicron subvariants.

Add to these nagging concerns the World Health Organization’s warning of a “moderate risk” to global public health posed by the outbreak of monkeypox, a viral disease that is spreading across Europe and North America. That this virus could very well breach local shores and again test the limits of the country’s health system is an alarming possibility.

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Such worrisome developments underscore the urgent need for incoming president Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to appoint a steady hand at the helm of the DOH who will be credible and well-respected by stakeholders, certainly a departure from the widely criticized Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.

Duque, whom President Duterte consistently defended despite his shortcomings, had been repeatedly asked to step down from his post, following accusations in mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic, which cost some 60,500 lives and resulted in the worst contraction of the economy since World War II.

As early as April 2020, a majority of senators coauthored a resolution calling on Duque to resign for “failure of leadership, negligence, lack of foresight, and inefficiency in performance.” Such failure, the resolution said, led to “poor planning, delayed response, lack of transparency, and misguided and flip-flopping policies and measures” in addressing the health crisis. Health care workers even held rallies demanding his resignation.

In February this year, the Senate blue ribbon committee recommended the filing of graft and plunder charges against Duque, the former procurement officials of the government, as well as executives of the well-connected Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp., for allegedly anomalous supply deals costing billions in pandemic response funds. Also included in the recommendation was former presidential economic adviser Michael Yang.

The committee report on the matter said that Duque was involved in the transfer of some P41.4 billion from the DOH to the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management, which led to the irregular purchase of pandemic supplies, among them overpriced personal protective equipment.

While the Senate did not take up the committee report on its last session on Wednesday, as many senators disagreed with the recommendation to include Mr. Duterte in the charges, the report provides Marcos Jr. a detailed template of what the next health secretary should NOT be.Two names have been floated around—Dr. Edsel Salvana, a member of the DOH Technical Advisory Group and director of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the National Institutes of Health at the University of the Philippines Manila, and Dr. Ted Herbosa, medical adviser of the National Task Force Against COVID-19. Reactions have been mixed, so far. Salvana had been criticized for downplaying the severity of the pandemic and refusing to do early mass testing, and Herbosa for his almost blind refusal to acknowledge the lapses in the government’s handling of the pandemic to the point of considering the response efforts as “excellent.”

Such tunnel vision and refusal to reach across the aisle to deal with various sectors and experts will not do well for an incoming health secretary who’d take over a portfolio laden with daunting challenges. Not least of these is the ever-present risk of another COVID-19 surge that can tip the country’s economic future. With the already high debt levels that the Philippines is carrying, another surge that could mean even more borrowings could lead foreign investors to rethink the country’s status as a sustainable economy. Then, there is the dismal state of hospitals and health facilities in the country as exposed during the pandemic, and the low pay and morale of frontline health care workers who are forced to seek better opportunities abroad.

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The choice of the next health secretary will thus have far-reaching implications on the country’s ability to finally deal with the pandemic and fix the ailing health care system. But given the painful lessons from recent mistakes, the incoming president should be well advised to choose the fittest health chief.

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