Bereft and diminished
Juan Flavier’s passing bereaves not just his family, colleagues and friends but the nation as well. Tiny he may have been, yet what a gaping wound his death has left on the national psyche.
But then the former health secretary and senator was no ordinary man. Even before he was appointed to head the Department of Health, he had such compassion for and sensitivity to the plight of the poor, particularly the sick, that he sought them out in far-flung barrios, ignoring what most of his colleagues saw as a lucrative opportunity to engage in medicine in the city and abroad.
He later wrote of what he learned from the marginalized in his book, “Doctor to the Barrios.” It was a personal crusade that he subsequently adopted for new graduates of medicine, a program that strengthened their youthful idealism and allowed them to experience what it means to be the only force standing between death and disease on one hand and the ailing poor on the other.
Flavier expanded public health into public wellbeing as he took on controversial causes that other government officials may shun. Risking the ire of the powerful Catholic Church, he tackled AIDS as a preventable health concern instead of a moral issue. His ABC of AIDS prevention remains a classic on how to translate technical terms and medical jargon into everyday reality that people can identify with: A for abstinence, B for “be faithful,” C for condoms. It is practical advice grounded on an intimate understanding of people’s needs.
His advocacy of family planning, contraception and reproductive health made him a marked man among Catholic bishops who campaigned aggressively against him when then President Fidel Ramos fielded him as a senatorial candidate in the administration ticket. His convincing win was a testament to how effective he was as a communicator who packaged and made sensitive issues more acceptable with the use of wit and humor.
Indeed, he became as much known for his well-timed puns and jokes that turned grim issues into doable projects. Instead of bureaucratic fulmination, Flavier gently led people out of harmful habits into health-seeking behavior.
Who can forget his can-do attitude declared so wittily in his “Let’s DOH it” slogan? Or in “Oplan Alis Disease,” a massive immunization campaign that led to the Philippines being declared polio-free by the World Health Organization, or in “Sangkap Pinoy,” a nationwide campaign against micronutrient malnutrition?
Or in his antismoking campaign symbolized by “Yosi Kadiri,” a mascot that people came to associate with the insidious effects of smoking? Against all odds and despite the relentless tobacco lobby, he managed to get the Tobacco Regulation Act through, which paved the way for the “sin tax” and graphic health warnings on cigarette packs.
Flavier was initially reluctant to seek a Senate seat. Nevertheless, he proved equal to the task, serving for two terms and authoring such landmark legislation as the Traditional Medicine Law, the Clean Air Act, the Indigenous People’s Rights Act, the Seatbelt Use Act, the Asin Law (on the use of iodized salt), and the Anti-Money Laundering Act.
He showed both the people and his peers how public servants should comport themselves. There was nary a hint of scandal, not a whiff of corruption, to taint him. Posted outside his Senate office was a sign that said in Filipino that he would not accept requests for him to stand as sponsor (ninong) at weddings and baptisms—a clear rejection of what many elected officials consider social obligations that allowed them to court votes and gain favor among the masses.
Flavier regarded public office as a public trust, not a PR campaign. The regulation pork barrel he would turn over to the Land Bank of the Philippines for administration and disbursement.
When he retired, he quietly receded in the background to enjoy family life, primarily the company of his grandchildren. But he never abandoned his fight and commitment to public health and national wellbeing, and avidly followed the debates on the “sin tax.” Until the end, he was never one to stand idle: “He compromised, he negotiated, he knew how to give and take,” a family member said of him. “He would tell us: ‘It’s not a perfect world and we have to keep moving forward. At the end of the day, I would rather be at point B rather than still stuck at point A. Then we move forward again from there.”
How enriched this nation has been by Juan Flavier’s life. How bereft and diminished it has become.