Sunday Essay: Would you like a symbolic vaccination?

Isolde D. Amante
·4 min read

He was a short man, just a tiptoe shy of five feet. But his ideas about public health were all about the big problems of the day. He had a gift for communicating those ideas so well, whether he was talking about mass immunization, the challenge of talking to a conservative society about contraception, the developing world’s need for generic medicines, and the campaign to send doctors to distant communities.

When Dr. Juan Flavier served as health secretary in the first half (1992-1995) of President Fidel Ramos’, he showed how complex public health programs could be explained to the public in memorable and sometimes humorous ways. A favorite photo stands out. Secretary Flavier had been campaigning to ban smoking in government offices and other public places, and for the launch, someone came up with the idea of placing a larger-than-life cigarette with a cartoonish face onstage. In itself, that was not an uncommon idea.

But Flavier, who knew how to ham it up, gave the assembled photojournalists a big grin, then gave the symbolic cigarette an exaggerated karate chop. At the time, it was a good idea that landed him and his campaign against smoking on the front pages of the papers and plenty of airtime. Such a stunt might not work as well these days.

Another moment that showed the health secretary’s ability to communicate memorably developed in Cebu when he paid a visit to Archbishop Ricardo Cardinal Vidal. His errand was impossible. He wanted to ask the cardinal how the church could help remove the stigma that, at the time, was attached to the use of artificial birth control methods. No one, possibly not even the Protestant health secretary himself, expected that an agreement would be reached during the visit. The national conversation about contraceptives, at the time, was too divisive and too painful.

About an hour or so after the meeting began, Cardinal Vidal and Secretary Flavier walked toward a group of us reporters who had waited outside for a brief statement. They did have a few things in common—for one, they were about the same build and height—yet we knew their positions on the matter were impossible to reconcile. This is how Dr. Flavier eased the tension. As soon as they reached us, he looked Cardinal Vidal in the eye and quipped, “As you can see, we see eye to eye.” The good cardinal guffawed. It was beautiful to see. Just because they could not agree on something so important to both of them and their constituencies, did not mean either of them had to be disagreeable about it.

Sometimes, I wonder how Secretary Flavier would have handled the messaging for the public health campaign to prevent this pandemic. I miss his way of breaking down a complex public health issue so that people who didn’t have his expertise or access to new information could understand what was going on, what was at stake, and what we all had to do.

Last week, the president’s spokesman announced that 5,000 workers would receive a dose of the vaccine against Covid-19 on May 1, Labor Day. He called it a “symbolic inoculation ceremony.” It was a strange choice of words. Don’t get me wrong. I feel happy for the 5,000 who got jabbed yesterday and would like to learn more about them and their circumstances.

But why call it symbolic? A symbol is a thing that stands for something else, the way a hospital bed in Metro Manila these days might represent the view that limited public goods get distributed, in some cases, on the basis of privilege or powerful connections rather than actual need.

What happened was an inoculation program for a limited number of workers who would otherwise have had to wait months more to get protection from this virus. They were granted the privilege of jumping the queue because it was Labor Day and some symbol of order, some reassurance was needed. It was not an occasion for humor, obviously. Still, I wish someone with the late Dr. Flavier’s gift for communicating about public health could have handled this particular moment better, imparting more depth, credibility and yes, hope.