Our ‘doctor to the barrios’
He was an inspired choice. Before accepting the post of health secretary, Dr. Juan Flavier was already known as the “Doctor to the Barrios,” having written a book (of the same title) on his experiences and insights while serving in the barrios of Nueva Ecija and Cavite. Here he shared, with humor and sensitivity, what he had learned from the simple barrio folk who taught him lessons he would bring, decades later, to his work at the Department of Health.
One account I remember was one farmer’s response when Flavier began talking to the community about the need to space pregnancies for the mother’s health. “Oh we know that,” the farmer said in Filipino. “It’s the same way with us, we know that the land needs to lie fallow after harvest and rest before we begin planting again.”
At the time he was appointed health secretary, Flavier was president of the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction. Previous to that, he headed the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, where he worked with, and walked in the shoes of, humble rural folk.
When he proved to be a great success as a health secretary, then President Fidel V. Ramos recruited him to run for senator under the administration party, and Flavier went on to serve two terms.
Because of his staunch support and outspoken advocacy for reproductive health and rights, Flavier earned the enmity of Catholic bishops and their conservative supporters. Memorable indeed were the thunderous denunciations of Jaime Cardinal Sin during a “prolife” rally at the Luneta (this was before the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo) where the prelate declared that Flavier should be “thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck.”
Diminutive and given to cracking jokes mostly at his own expense, Flavier seemed an odd candidate for divine retribution. My bet was that the health secretary would somehow convince the avenging angels to let him go with a joke and a smile.
* * *
If there is one lesson Flavier could teach today’s politicians and policymakers, it is the power of communication. For as health secretary, Flavier proved to be an outstanding communicator, coining catchphrases and staging media events for the department’s many programs and campaigns: most memorably “Yosi Kadiri” (with a cigarette-smoking puff of smoke as mascot) to promote antismoking measures; Oplan Alis Disease; Stop TB; and, of course, “Let’s DOH It!” which was conceptualized to improve morale among the DOH’s overworked, underpaid and unappreciated workers.
But today’s officials would not have learned anything if they think that simply calling more press conferences, getting chummy with reporters, or cracking jokes were all that was needed to communicate often and effectively with the public.
For what won public approval for the DOH and for Flavier were not his many “gimmicks” but his personality, and more than his personality, his palpable sense of integrity and fairness, and his commitment to bring health to the poorest and least-served communities.
When his health began failing, Flavier seemed to disappear from public view. At the height of the fevered debate over the RH Law, we would often rue the absence of “Mr. Let’s DOH It!” and his public silence on the contentious issue. I wonder how he reacted to the law’s passage and its being declared constitutional by the Supreme Court. The best way we can honor him today, I believe, is to implement the RH Law in the best way possible, and to continue working and promoting the issues he cared so deeply about.
* * *
Maybe we are forgetting, in the midst of issues of sovereignty, custody and access, that at the center of the Jennifer Laude case is Jennifer herself, who was killed allegedly at the hands of an American Marine.
Maybe that’s what prompted the Laude family, including Jennifer’s mother, and her lawyer, Harry Roque, to release the autopsy photos taken soon after her death. They did not make for pleasant viewing. I remember closing my eyes and quickly turning the page when I saw the pictures in a newspaper (thankfully, not the Inquirer).
Roque and the Laude family say they decided to release the photos to the media to show just how much Jennifer suffered and the extent of the physical abuse she endured before she expired.
And indeed, the photos are horrific enough to bring home the point. But then again, I don’t think anyone, not even the most rabid homophobe among us, really thought Jennifer was handled with kid gloves. Her body, after all was found slumped in front of a toilet, her head dunked in.
* * *
So what would Jennifer think? Is she hovering above, contemplating the events following her killing, and smiling at how her final, fatal moments have been preserved for posterity and spread around the globe?
Given how she seemed to take pride in her appearance (as her social media posts show), I would think Jennifer would, first of all, be embarrassed by these off-putting images. I don’t think this is how she would have liked to be remembered.
Jennifer, after all, like all of us, deserved a dignified passing. There is a reason why corpses are “made up” and made to look presentable at wakes: not just to spare the feelings of mourners, but also to preserve the dignity of the deceased.
No matter how well-intentioned, those who proclaim their love and devotion to Jennifer had no business splashing her autopsy photos for the world to gape at. We get it: Jennifer suffered a horrific death and deserves, no, demands, justice! But please don’t dunk our heads and sensibilities in the cesspool of your own “good intentions” just to make a point.