Solidarity in the time of COVID-19 -- MS Supplement

Time to say goodbye

"Sub-alterns, precisely because they are alter ego, must know when to take the sword for the leader."


There was a time when tenors and sopranos were unknown to the ordinary man, and only the so-called “cognoscenti” appreciated them. That was probably because they sang in Italian mostly, and the music, but for those whose lyrics were translated in English and made popular by Hollywood cinema and recording artists, were too high-brow.

Until tenors like Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Andrea Bocelli and sopranos like Sarah Brightman, Katherine Jenkins, Nana Mouskouri, even Dame Kiri te Kanawa, followed by the likes of Josh Groban and Charlotte Church, began bringing the classics back to life, and added more songs that became popularly accepted.

One of these was an Italian song “Con te Partiro,” which literally meant “With you I will leave”, but like most translations of musical gems, became “Time to Say Goodbye.” Even the English lyrics, as sang by Sarah Brightman in duet with Andrea Bocelli, do not jive with the original Italian. But the title has stuck, and Filipino singers memorize the Italian lyrics while warbling the English parts, thinking the song means, as the title says, “time to say goodbye.”

But so much for the trivia. I use the words to send a message to Francisco Duque III, Secretary of the Department of Health, twice named in fact, first by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo after first manning the Philippine Health Insurance System or PhilHealth, and later by our present leader, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, who first appointed him chairman of the Government Service Insurance System.

Francisco Duque II, his father, was also appointed Secretary of Health by President Diosdado P. Macapagal, before he ran in the mid-term elections of 1963 for governor of their huge province of Pangasinan for the Liberal Party, against the popular Conrado Estrella Sr., a staunch Nacionalista Party stalwart. Macapagal, whose wife, Dona Eva Macaraeg of Binalonan, in Eastern Pangasinan, herself a physician, wanted to consolidate his political stronghold of Central Luzon. Duque Sr. was a very good health secretary, laying the foundations for what used to be Medicare, the forerunner of PhilHealth, and should have remained at its helm but for his president’s political plans.

It was a successful run for the governorship for the native of the sleepy town of Aguilar in western Pangasinan. His junior followed his footsteps, graduated from the College of Medicine of his father’s alma mater, and even took post-graduate studies as a pathologist at Georgetown in the capital of the US of A. He even took courses in public health management at Harvard. As PhilHealth CEO in the early years of GMA, Pingkoy, as he is called by friends, widened the use of PhilHealth, talking to LGU officials and congressmen to get more and more enrolled in the system. As health secretary in 2005, he was in charge of the health system’s successful response to the AH1N1 virus. Towards the waning years of GMA, he was appointed chair of the tenured Civil Service Commission, there to remain during most of President Noynoy Aquino’s term.

In fine, Pingkoy Duque has had a long and distinguished career in public service. An older brother, my friend Gonzalo or Gonz, was a provincial board member of their province, and was one of the earliest volunteers to support a fellow Bedan, Mayor Duterte’s run for the presidency in 2015. He currently chairs the Philippine Coconut Authority, after having served as trustee of the Social Security System.

But then came this novel coronavirus from Wuhan upon Hubei province in China. As of this writing, the virus has taken the lives of 873 Filipinos out of 14,319 recorded-because-tested cases. But there are hundreds of thousands yet to be tested to come up with a statistically representative measure of the contagion, as it has spread throughout more than 60 of our 81 provinces.

If only to comfort ourselves, other countries, far bigger and far wealthier, have had worse numbers. 1.7 million cases have been recorded in the powerful US of A, close to a third of the entire world’s 5.6 million cases. And almost a hundred thousand have died in America, most of them in New York City and the East Coast from whence recorded American history began. Likewise Brazil, Russia, Italy, Spain, France, after having “imported” the virus now called COVID-19 from China, where infected numbers, assuming regularity of information, pale much lower.

Secretary Duque is now roasted over the coals for the mishandling of the health situation bedeviling millions of Filipinos and laying prostrate an economy that showed promise of further growth before the pandemic. That economy will take a long, long time to recover, even if miraculously a vaccine is invented within the year and tested by next year.

That is not Secretary Duque’s fault alone. Among others, he presides over a department whose personnel were still haunted by the trauma of the Dengvaxia fiasco. But his leadership, or lack of it, in responding to the health needs and protection of our people in this mega-crisis is being questioned, and there are reasons to question. I shall no longer repeat those questions, as I have written about them for the past three months.

Even as we have yet to flatten the curve, even as we still do not know whether opening up a locked down economy could cause dangers of spreading the contagion, our economy could take no further beating. We have workers whose families can no longer suffer more, and a government unable to stretch its finances further to try feeding meager rations to millions.

In the meeting of the IATF and other resource persons with the president last Monday night, it was clear from the presentations made that Secretary Francisco Duque III made several wrong calls, perhaps because the enormity of the novel crisis overwhelmed him and his department, or whether the toll upon him had become too great as to dull objectivity.

In olden days, when famine or natural disasters or even mysterious illnesses struck, the people call for sacrifice to appease the gods. In ancient China, they would even say that the mandarin, even the emperor, has lost the “mandate of heaven.”

Always however, knights and nobles close to the king offer themselves for the sacrifice. They would fall upon their own sword to protect their king.

In our case, the President has time and again shown his loyalty to friends. It is a very Filipino trait. And in our culture, leaders are highly respected, even loved, because of their fierce sense of loyalty to their followers.

But sub-alterns, precisely because they are alter ego, must know when to take the sword for the leader. There is a time to gather one’s own courage for the sake of the institution, or for the sake of the leader, or both. And sacrifice oneself for the highest interest of the country.

One should realize when it is time to say goodbye.

Topics: Lito Banayo , Francisco Duque III , Department of Health , DOH
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