This editorial was prepared by the UP Medics editorial board and writing staff.
Barely a month after the Ramon Tulfo ER incident, the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) falls prey to pre-electioneering tactics of another pro-administration personality eyeing a seat in the 2019 senatorial race.
Yesterday afternoon, banners with campaign-esque slogans featuring Special Assistant to the President and PDP-Laban senatorial bet Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go were installed in the halls of PGH, amidst the opening of the hospital’s new Malasakit Center. Touted as a one-stop shop for indigent patients seeking financial assistance, this launch is the latest in a flurry of pro-poor facilities that began last February, with branches in Cebu, Palawan, Bacolod, Iloilo, Davao, and parts of Metro Manila.
Photographs published on the University of the Philippines Manila’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts showed the inauguration of the PGH Malasakit Center under heavy media coverage [link here]. They featured Mr. Go and his entourage touring the facility and posing in President Duterte’s signature gesture, an outstretched clenched fist. Among the paraphernalia were health cards that prominently displayed President Duterte hugging a patient and Mr. Go comforting a sickly child, a rehash of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s PhilHealth cards distributed during the 2004 presidential race.
The official Facebook page of Bong Go (FB: bongGOma) also published a series of photographs documenting Mr. Go’s seemingly messianic tour of the PGH wards and interactions with patients, bantays, and medical staff. He was accompanied by DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III and PGH Director Dr. Gerardo “Gap” Legaspi.
In a July article by the state-run Philippine News Agency, President Duterte praised Bong Go “for his big contribution in the establishment of ‘Malasakit Centers’” and being “instrumental in arriving at the right decision through proper consultations.”
Healthcare not immune to “trapo, epal” politics
This latest stunt by Mr. Go is part of the perennial “epal” political strategies employed by potential candidates to garner favor and develop a good image of themselves among the masses. Indeed, countless politicians who, after prolonged periods of inactivity, suddenly engage acts of faux-compassion and charity work unfailingly become heralds of an approaching election season.
The unabashed fanfare Mr. Go displayed yesterday only served to reveal the true motives behind his actions, and in a bigger picture, the discreet steps of the current administration to install staunch political allies into office.
After numerous government hospitals, including PGH, suffered significant budget cuts from congressional appropriations in recent years, President Duterte has since injected into his frequent tirades his self-laudatory allocation of P100M per month to the hospital starting March 2017. As if this wasn’t enough of a hulog ng langit (gift from heaven), Duterte announced last May an initial budget of P50M per month in putting up these Malasakit Centers in various government hospitals. And, in a stroke of political cunningness, Duterte attributed the success of these centers to his confidant and aide Mr. Go, in the hopes of propping up his image ahead of next year’s elections.
What’s dangerous about these shameful acts is that the public is hoodwinked into believing health is not a right, rather a privilege that is handed down at the generosity and mercy of god-like, self-serving politicians. Disregarding government’s actual mandate to provide quality, affordable, and accessible healthcare for all Filipinos, these corrupt politicians hijack their duty to the people, use taxpayer’s hard-earned money, and turn it into a series of highly publicized events to peddle their self-righteousness and seemingly stellar track record of public service (e.g. when PGH Director Legaspi had to drive all the way to Malacañang for the televised giving of the first P100M by President Duterte).
At the center of it all, it is the healthcare sector and its supposed beneficiaries who suffer the most, being held hostage by an indirect system of vote buying (e.g. health cards) and economic power plays whose promises are a patchwork of short-term, half-baked measures to alleviate an already beleaguered healthcare system. The recent announcement of a 30% reduction in the DOH budget for 2019 and cuts to the PCSO medical assistance program only encourages the pervasiveness of similar patronage politics in other public sectors.
Healthcare as a collective, multisectoral effort
The audacious display of Mr. Go’s campaign paraphernalia around the hospital gave the false impression that Mr. Go enjoys unanimous support from the PGH community – from the Director to the students and professionals in training – when in fact the staging of the day’s events has been made without proper consultation with the PGH community.
Maintenance and improvement of the Philippine General Hospital is the joint effort and responsibility of multiple government agencies, as well as the stakeholders that strive and contribute to the betterment of health in the institution. Mr. Go’s political activity within its premises and his apparent prominence in the inauguration of the Malasakit Center shifts the focus away from the hospital’s actual collective nature to attribute any improvement in its services entirely to Mr. Go’s name and face.
Being a publicly funded tertiary hospital, PGH is bound to serve Filipinos in need, regardless of color, class, or creed. However, this could be also be the very same reason the institution would be prone to the sway and manipulation of political motives, especially of the dominant personalities. Nevertheless, this action by the Duterte administration insults and diminishes the role of the rest of us – the overworked, underpaid healthcare workers of PGH, the UP Manila community, and the Filipino people at large – to becoming lapdogs of the government beholden to the good graces of reprehensible politicians looking to secure their next election victory.
Comments from the medical community
A few moments after the launch, numerous posts from members of the UP-PGH and medical community started popping up on social media criticizing the blatant campaigning and actions of Mr. Go:
Official Statement of the 42nd Medicine Student Council:
[On the SAP Bong Go Pre-campaign materials in UP-PGH]The Department of Health, along with Philippine Health Insurance…
MSC Representative to the University Student Council Omid Siahmard:
Yes, Bong Go just used a hospital to advance his political career. He used the conditions of the destitute sick to make himself a messiah while actually being a major contributor to the death of the masses. This, all for political leverage.
And the hospital was PGH.
— Omid Javier Siahmard (@omidong) September 12, 2018
Former Medicine Student Council (MSC) Chairperson Leonard Javier:
Today's Bong Go's usage of PGH for premature campaign is several levels of abuse and deterioration of public service….
Dr. Francisco Tranquilino:
MALASAKIT CENTER inaugurated in PGH this morning by SAP Bong Go. It’s a one-stop shop for all the funding requirements…
Dr. Leonard Pascual:
When everyone around makes that heil salute fist, even your boss, be the "hands down" winner by not raising your own fist.
— Leonard Pascual (@drbrainhacker) September 12, 2018
Ang tunay na malasakit ay walang photo-op, walang media/social media blitz. Hindi dinadaan sa mga gimmick. Ang tunay na malasakit sa pasyente na mahihirap tulad ng nasa PGH ay pagbalik at pagtaas ng budget sa kalusugan. <bagsak mikropono>
— Leonard Pascual (@drbrainhacker) September 12, 2018
Dr. Paolo “Lopao” Medina:
Sold na sold sa “Malasakit” Center! Ang GaGO! Such a facility is supposed to be A GIVEN especially in an institution like PGH, not something that “somebody from above” benevolently “bestows”. HEALTH IS A RIGHT. Para tayong pataygutom niyan sa “malasakit” eh dapat default yun.
— Paolo Medina MD (@LopaoMD) September 12, 2018
Dr. Gideon Lasco:
It is true that Duterte has earmarked more taxpayers’ money to PGH than any other president (owing to the Sin Tax Law) – but this is not an excuse for allowing the hospital to be politicized. Dignity has no price tag. https://t.co/zByM2sTxMB
— Gideon Lasco (@gideonlasco) September 12, 2018
Dr. Gene Nisperos:
The opening of this multi-agency Mala-sakit Center reflects everything that is wrong with the Phil health care system:
Driven by patronage
Used as a political tool
Promoted by shameless wannabes
Funded by the people's money
and again, the people, the patients, are just props. https://t.co/LouLqjXQ0l
— doc gene (@genenisperos) September 14, 2018
What we tolerate, we embolden.
What we fail to see as wrong, we perpetuate.
What wrong we partake in, we allow to fester like a sore.
So when we close our eyes to how our healthcare system is held hostage by political patronage, we become party to its slow but sure death.
— doc gene (@genenisperos) September 13, 2018