Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Ona should quit


My column today, December 2, 2014.
I know it’s not okay to kick a man when he is down.  But I still think the honorable option that Health Secretary Enrique Ona has—in fact, should have immediately taken two months ago —is to resign from his post and allow someone else to take over. Ideally, someone with better management and leadership competencies, and hopefully, more charisma.  
Admittedly, the current Acting Health Secretary, Janet Garin, does not inspire confidence either, although she seems to have more media savvy on account of her background as a former legislator.   But if we are to go by her initial foray into public health issues, Garin is a major disaster waiting to happen, as validated by the way she handled the issue of the Filipino peacekeepers who were quarantined in an island off Corregidor as precaution against spreading the Ebola virus.  
Garin had science on her side when she insisted that the Ebola virus can only be transmitted by someone who was suffering from symptoms of the disease, something that no one among the Filipino peacekeepers had.  That whole episode could have been a powerful lesson on what the Filipino people must know about the Ebola virus and on the dangers of stigma directed against those exposed to the virus. 
Garin clearly flunked her baptism of fire, big time.  She could have seized the opportunity to come out swinging against ignorance and intolerance.  She would have infuriated many people, particularly those who are paranoid and prone to believe wild rumors.  But she would have scored major points as an advocate and fighter.  In the end, that is what differentiates the real leaders from those who were just in the right place at the right time. 
This I have learned from our many episodes of public bitter fights as a people—people will excoriate leaders for espousing unpopular decisions, but they will offer respect, albeit grudgingly,  for principled stand.  Garin came out a wuss in that sad, sad public test.
Ona has clearly lost favor from Malacanan Palace.  This is evident in the way the bright boys in the palace have distanced themselves from Ona and the issues being leveled against him.  This is an administration, after all, that tends to band together in support of each other during crisis situations.  That’s the reason why even the most unpopular cabinet members are still in office despite having been dragged across the coils of public opinion many times over.  Ona has clearly been left in the lurch to fend for himself.
But let’s call a spade what it is— a dirty shovel.  Ona has not really accomplished much in the four years that he has sat as health secretary.  I challenge anyone to name a single program that can be associated with him.  In fact, many people particularly those in rural areas can be forgiven for thinking that Eric Tayag, the dancing doctor, is the country’s top health official. Tayag has done more in terms of actually bringing health issues to the masses.
And there is one singular issue that can be held up as one clear reason why Ona must go.  He has not only failed to arrest the increasing rate of HIV/AIDS infections in the country—he has even set the country’s HIV/AIDS prevention and control programs back to levels unimaginable.  He has refused to listen to experts and activists on many issues.  For instance, just this year, he actually intended to make HIV testing mandatory despite the overwhelming presence of scientific and anecdotal data that says such a move is counterproductive, not to mention there being a law in place that expressly prohibits it.  The Palace had to step in to shut him up.
Yesterday was World AIDS Day.  The rest of the world paused to remember all those we have lost to the pandemic and to celebrate the many lessons we have learned through the decades of managing the challenge.  In most parts of the world, HIV transmission is on a steady decline but their governments and leaders continue to be vigilant to ensure that infection rates are kept down, preferably zeroed out.
We are one of only two countries in Asia where HIV infection rates continue to climb at an alarming rate.  Experts say that as many as 40,000 would be infected by HIV next year unless we do something dramatic. Government continues to be play mute, deaf, and blind to the wildfire around them.  And Ona is not just blind, deaf, and mute to HIV/AIDS—he just seems like he couldn’t care any less.

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