Seares: From ‘pink’ to ‘green’: Only Duterte decides what to tell about his health

Pachico A. Seares

THE color pink and the Filipino farm animal carabao were favorite similes used by Malacañang communicators to describe President Duterte’s health.

Last Aug. 4, 2018, then executive secretary Ernesto Abella and presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Duterte was “in the pink of health.” They cited his “energy for holding long Cabinet meetings and attending multiple events” as proof.

Martin Andanar, chief of the Presidential Communication Operations Office, on Dec. 15, 2016, told the media in Singapore, “in our country we say, he is as strong as a carabao.” Then special assistant to the president Bong Go on Oct. 10, 2018, said Duterte is “in tip-top condition.” “Malakas pa siya sa kalabaw,” Go said. Salvador Panelo, current presidential spokesman, last Oct. 10, 2018, pursued the same theme: “Strong as a carabao!” with the exclamation point to climax his excitement.

Change of diagnosis

News flash: lately there appears to be a change of diagnosis, from the non-doctors of Malacanang.

Last Sunday, Nov. 17, Panelo shifted on his use of color and mentioned the carabao no more. He admitted the President is “not normal anymore because of his various ailments.” Duterte is no longer “in the pink of health,” as previously described by Abella and Roque, and he must no longer have a carabao’s strength, as earlier compared to by Andanar, Go and Panelo himself.

That means a downgrade, which should’ve been done much earlier. For the plain reason that the man himself whose health they’ve been describing had long admitted his ailments.

List of ailments

As early as Feb. 13, 2016, during the presidential campaign, candidate Duterte admitted to three “non-fatal” ailments: a slipped disc, Barret’s esophagus (abnormal change in cells lining the esophaugus) and Buerger’s disease (inflamed blood vessels). When he admitted that, he had just been hospitalized for acute bronchitis.

And he has been adding to that list, in explaining his occasional brief disappearances from public view and hearing and trips to the hospital. Last Oct. 5, the new ailment he admitted was “myasthenia gravis,” which he described as a “rare muscle disease,” resulting in drooping of eyelids and overall weakness.

The new conversational foray into the state of the President’s health was the announcement that he’d take a three-day break last week and, for the first time, a caretaker would be named. He cancelled the plan but that didn’t squelch fresh speculations about his physical, mental and emotional fitness. Not entirely misplaced anxiety since Duterte’s health is indisputably “of national security concern” and “a public-interest issue.”

‘Name it, I have it’

Palace communicators have been trying to make the President healthier than he actually is. But Duterte himself at times makes himself sound sicker than he may actually be. Last week, he said, “Name the disease and I have it.” Not a trace of Bong Go’s hyperbole in 2018 when the then SAP said, “Sa mga kritiko na gustong magkasakit siya, eh wala kaming mahanap na sakit eh (to critics who wish him ill, we cannot find any disease).”

All that, of course, is a big “maybe.” The nation does not really know. All medical bulletins, from the President and his communicators, have come from non-medical persons, with no doctor’s findings to back up their diagnosis.

Cannot be compelled

Under the Constitution, the President is required to disclose the state of his health only “in case of serious illness.” Real doctors may not even agree among themselves on the seriousness of a patient’s disease. And who decides if the state of Duterte’s health must be publicly disclosed? Only the President does and there’s no way to compel him if he chooses to be secretive.

While three Cabinet members (national security, foreign affairs and AFP chief of staff) shall not be “barred access” to the President during such illness, the President may deny access by simply claiming the disease is not serious.

This is a situation where any president, no matter how seriously ill, can claim he is in the pink of health or is as strong as a carabao. And no one can dispute it unless he is too sick to enforce his orders or he publicly keels over and thus himself provides evidence of unfitness to rule.