Doctor of the masses
There are Filipinos living and working today who have Johnny Flavier to thank. Universal immunization, which became his rallying cry when he was health secretary, saved untold thousands of Filipino children from debilitating illnesses that previously ravaged the remote rural areas and the enclaves of the urban poor.
Prior to Johnny’s groundbreaking initiative, immunization was not among the national and local governments’ health priorities. Parents would not be advised to have their kids immunized unless they got to see a doctor or went to a health clinic—a rare occurrence because of lack of access or economic means. What Johnny did was to redraw the people’s consciousness of what a healthy nation is all about—that health service delivery is not only when an ill person enters a hospital or a clinic but even long before then; that healthy living and immunization, especially for children, are imperative if we want to have a strong republic.
Long before he was Secretary Flavier or Senator Flavier, he was Johnny to his peers and colleagues in the health and community development sector. He was a star of the seminar circuit and a much-sought-after speaker because he would command his audiences’ full attention with not only his wisecracks and jokes (which he often directed at himself and his experiences) but also the gravity of his lectures that included the poverty of the masses and their need for assistance.
I attended some of the gatherings in which Johnny was the speaker, and I could not help but be impressed by his dedication and intelligence, particularly when he spoke about the country’s then incipient population program, which in essence was giving couples, especially poor couples, the choice of planning their families.
Johnny’s strong advocacy for the “little people”—the indigenous population, the rural folks, the voiceless ones, the women and children—made him a giant: highly respected among those who walk the corridors of power in the Philippines. His outstanding traits and his strength of character were fashioned from the crucible of those memorable years when he was a “doctor to the barrios.”
He actually wrote a book about his experience, a seminal work that cast a professional light on and generated concern for the task of uplifting rural communities from poverty and government neglect. The book is required reading for those who wish to understand the richness and variety of our rural life. Johnny provided essential lessons: that there is wisdom to be learned from the humblest and poorest of our brethren, and that everyone deserves respect and the opportunity to improve their lives. To the community workers and professionals working among the masses, Johnny showed what it means to truly serve the people.
All the accolades and commendations for his sterling public service are well-deserved, and his family and his country should be proud. Johnny Flavier’s legacy is etched in the living hearts and minds of those kids who are now fully grown because of one exemplary “barrio doctor.”
—PROF. RENE GUIOGUIO, PH D,
UP College of Mass Communication,
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