President's health: Touchy topic for Duterte, public concern for Constitution

MANILA, Philippines – The President’s health has always been an issue of great public interest because it concerns the capability of the Chief Executive to lead the nation.

Health is of particular concern for President Rodrigo Duterte, the oldest Philippine president upon assumption. Duterte, who took his oath at the age of 71, is the country’s first septuagenarian president. 

Worries about the state of his health resurfaced when he dropped by a hospital on July 22, a day before delivering his 3rd State of the Nation Address. 

Though Malacañang eventually announced it was for a “routine medical check-up,” Palace officials at first kept mum about the visit.

When Rappler first asked Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque about it through a message, he refused to answer the question directly and merely said the President was rehearsing his SONA speech that evening.

It was only after Rappler broke the story, citing sources privy to the hospital visit, that Roque confirmed it publicly and claimed the hospital trip was for an ordinary check-up. The spokesman also said that after “about an hour and a half” of “routine examination,” the President was declared by doctors to be “in good health.”

A source privy to the hospital visit said Duterte spent "3 hours" in the hospital, not just an hour and a half. He also supposedly visited the Cardiology, Neurology, Pulmonology Department.

Transparency about the President’s health is enshrined in the 1987 Constitution. Section 12 of Article VII reads:

National security issue

Ateneo de Manila University political science professor Carmel Abao said the Constitution frames the president's health as a "national security concern."

"It is important for the public to be updated about the President's health because he or she is the Chief Executive and Commander in Chief.  Thus, he or she is expected to make important decisions on behalf of the nation – and must have the physical, mental, and emotional capability to do so," she told Rappler.

"A president's health is a 'public interest issue' not a private one – a 'national security' issue, as our Constitution puts it. The nation deserves a fully-functioning presidency," she added.

For full transparency, Malacañang should let medical records or doctors give the public an accurate account of Duterte's health.

"In Duterte's case, it should be the medical records and medical doctors speaking, not Duterte or his spokespersons. That's how serious we are supposed to take the health issue," said Abao.

So far, the public has to rely on the word of Duterte or his spokesmen as to the state of his health.

Instead of medical certificates or bulletins, both Presidential Spokesmen Ernesto Abella and Harry Roque have pointed to Duterte’s energy for holding long Cabinet meetings and attending multiple events a day to proof that he is “in the pink of health.” 

Duterte himself has brushed aside his many health conditions as a normal consequence of aging.

Senators have called on Malacañang to issue medical bulletins, especially in 2017 when, for two roughly week-long periods, Duterte was out of the public eye supposedly to get some “rest.”

Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, however, said medical bulletins would only be necessary if Duterte had a “serious illness.”

These two long stretches of rest periods began after he skipped an Independence Day ceremony supposedly due to fatigue from his gruelling schedule. 

Touchy topic

Duterte and his inner circle have always been particularly touchy about the issue of his health. 

It is, in fact, an issue where he has not been very transparent. During the 2016 campaign, for instance, his staff lied to reporters that Duterte had taken a flight back to Davao City right after skipping an event in Ortigas, Pasig City. It turns out, he spent the night in Cardinal Santos Medical Center, supposedly due to “severe migraine” and “chest cold.” 

Duterte, defending his staff to reporters, said he had instructed them to lie to media because he didn’t want reporters poking into his hospital room.

Questions about his health have also prompted vicious replies from him, especially during the campaign season, when he was up against much younger rivals for the presidency. 

He challenged one reporter to resign if he, Duterte, could last more than an hour on a treadmill. To another reporter asking about his medical certificate, Duterte asked about the condition of the reporter’s wife’s vagina, and if it was smelly from vaginitis. 

How previous presidents dealt with health issues

Other presidents post-Marcos handled health issues differently, especially President Fidel Ramos. Ramos had routine medical checkups and results were released to the media through medical bulletins.

There was no public concern about the health of Ramos, a retired general known for keeping fit, until December 1996, when he had surgery to remove a significant  blockage in an artery in his neck. Regular medical bulletins were released on his condition following his surgery. A couple of months later – and weeks ahead of a visit to South Asia and the Middle East – Ramos had a stress test to determine his fitness to travel. His doctors, again, released a report.

Then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had joint executive checkups with husband Mike Arroyo, aside from regular checkups for treatment of a minor illness like a bum stomach or sore throat.  

Arroyo, however, was not consistently transparent about her medical treatments when she was Philippine chief. In 2006, she was twice hospitalized for acute diarrhea and each time, her doctors released medical bulletins and updates. But in 2009, Malacañang only confirmed that she had a lumpectomy two weeks after the procedure, and apparently only to dispel earlier unconfirmed reports that the surgery was for her leaking breast implants.

Arroyo's health was also the subject of much speculation during her 9-year presidency. How did she handle it? Weeks after her second hospital confinement in July 2006,  she tried to end rumors about her health by telling the media: "I got sick. I am fine. End of story." (READ: Is the President sick?)

Then President Benigno Aquino III, meanwhile, had bouts of incessant coughing while delivering speeches, which has been attributed to his smoking habit. Doctors expressed concern publicly but said there was no need at the time to issue medical bulletins. 

The Philippine chief who was most secretive about the state of his health was the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, who continually denied reports that he suffered from lupus as he tried to keep his grip on power. 

What we know 

Here’s what we know so far about Duterte’s health:

Events he missed supposedly due to health concerns: 

 – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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