Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Remembering a giant

This is my column today November 4, 2014.


One of the greatest Filipinos who ever lived passed away last week.  Juan Flavier, doctor to the barrios, non-government organization stalwart, former Secretary of Health, and one of the most popular senators of this republic, was probably the best president this country never had.  He was a man of vision, a man of action, and more importantly, a man of integrity and conviction.
I expected his death to make a major impact on this country; I certainly expected a barrage of tributes on social networking sites.  Alas, it seemed people were more concerned with ghost stories than the passing on of a man whose qualities could put to shame any of the current so-called presidentiables. 
I was an idealistic college student when I first met Flavier.  He was then President of the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction and he was a guest speaker at a national youth institute for community service.  As activists, my friends and I were naturally cynical of anyone who was a member of the establishment and we were prepared to cross swords with the doctor.  To our surprise, Flavier seemed even more revolutionary than we were.  He was a man who knew the issues of the poor like the back of his own hand and he spoke about real solutions—and more importantly, about programs he was actually pursuing, not just preaching about from an ivory tower.  I remember approaching him after his talk and having a picture taken with him.
The second time I met him, he was already Secretary of Health.  I was still an activist, this time advocating HIV/AIDS prevention as president of a non-government organization and board member of several others.  I sat as member of the Philippine National AIDS Council, which he chaired.  Flavier probably did more for HIV/AIDS prevention in this country than any other health secretary; he certainly succeeded in marshalling media attention towards people living with HIV/AIDS. 
Flavier was not perfect, though.  His passion and zeal often translated into inability to consider critical issues thoroughly.  He also had the penchant for  reducing issues to soundbytes that often rankled because they often verged on the politically insensitive.  I crossed swords with him several times over issues such as the rights of criminals and sexual minorities.  He was always conciliatory though and while he would appear annoyed and would flash an irate look at people who raised policy issues against him, he was always—always—willing to come to the table to talk and settle things amicably.  And he never held grudges.  He would shake hands with people at the end of every meeting and crack jokes as if the bitter debate did not happen at all. 
One wishes the current Secretary of Health acquired even just a tenth of Flavier’s diplomacy and gift of empathy.
Many of Flavier’s programs are textbook examples of outstanding public programs.  The programs were not only conceptualized with ease of execution and sustainability in mind—they were also crafted to have mass appeal.  Yosi Kadiri, Oplan Alis Disease, Sangkap Pinoy, HIV/AIDS prevention, and the massive immunization campaign which led to the country being declared Polio-free, were just some of the more effective programs that Flavier championed.  He engaged the Catholic church squarely on the issue of condom use and although the church called him names and campaigned heavily against him, Flavier still marched on to the Senate and even got reelected to a second term garnering the second highest number of votes during the 2001 elections. 
Most people would remember him for his humor and his seeming irreverence.  But I will always remember him for his passion and his immense commitment to the many causes that he fought for.  Flavier was truly a great Filipino.  It’s a shame no one among our current politicians are like him. 
Flavier could have been a great President.  Unfortunately, the moral forces made sure such an event would not come to pass. And the man also knew when to quit and pass on the torch to others.  To the end, he was the consummate gentleman and statesman.

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