When a president gets sick

By: Gideon Lasco - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | October 23,2020 - 09:52 AM

News that Donald Trump got sick from a coronavirus infection early this month had political observers buzzing much more than the fly on Mike Pence’s head. For a few days, the world awaited developments from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center where the American president was dramatically confined, raising national (and global) security concerns.

As expected, the initial reaction in the United States fell along party and ideological lines, from schadenfreude to sympathy. On one hand, people were saying it was an illness waiting to happen, given Trump’s “cavalier attitude” to the coronavirus. Held against his own track record of mocking illness, including that of Hillary Clinton, some wondered if there were some form of cosmic, karmic, or Biblical force at play.

On the other hand, there were those who averred that even if Trump was a denier-in-chief who has shown a lack of empathy to people, to reciprocate his values is to reinforce them. Some thought the illness was an opportunity for national unity and healing, perchance under a president newly enlightened by an illness experience.

Trump’s recovery would moot the above debate, likely causing disappointment to Democrats and Republicans alike. Far from ending his political career, the virus seems to have reinvigorated him, leading Nancy Pelosi to raise the suspicion that he was in an “altered state” due to medications. Far from being humbled by the infection, Trump has used his recovery to further downplay the pandemic, mirroring the reaction of his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro.

In the Philippines, meanwhile, Donald Trump’s sickness has been used as a mirror of our President’s past health issues, which have raised similar national security concerns and questions of leadership. Older by a year than the 74-year-old Trump, Rodrigo Duterte has likewise been opaque about his medical condition despite his prolonged absences. He may have mentioned some of his diagnoses—Buerger’s disease, Barrett’s esophagus—but many have questioned whether such anecdotal disclosures fulfill the mandate set by Article VII of the Constitution.

To be fair to Mr. Duterte, in contrast to Trump, he himself has not openly flouted quarantine rules, his unjustifiably regular trips to Davao notwithstanding. Part of it, I believe, is that there is no “libertarian base” for which to perform acts of public health defiance, and part, too, is his general deference to medical experts. (It must be recalled that even during the height of the dengue vaccine scandal he largely stayed away from the brouhaha).

However, while he himself seems to have largely followed public health protocols, he has not held accountable those who have violated them. Even as protests continue to be stifled in the name of quarantine rules, we are still waiting for the President to penalize Debold Sinas for his unforgettable mañanita.

Moreover, his administration’s use of “science” has been selective, often simplistic, and sometimes capricious. The quick embrace of face shields, for instance, has not come apace with the important distinction between indoor and outdoor spaces in terms of risk, leading to one-size-fits-all policies, while Harry Roque’s call for UP experts not to share their findings to the public speaks of the enduring priority of optics. Tellingly, that Mr. Duterte at one point had to serve as final arbiter of whether to affirm the one-meter physical distancing rule in public transport speaks of the tenuous place of “science” in decision-making.

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Our criticism of our leaders notwithstanding, it is not hard not to feel for them in moments of sickness, as when Trump shared a video of his enfeebled self, or even when Mr. Duterte shares about the infirmities of old age as part of what Vicente Rafael calls “intimate tyranny.” Maybe it’s just me being a medical doctor—but I think illness is the most relatable of human experiences, given how it touches on our shared frailty. Unfortunately, however, while presidents get the most advanced treatments and most stringent precautions, many others cannot, in part because of such leaders’ actions and inaction. And in the case of Trump, while he attracted widespread sympathy, he has exhibited neither sympathy for nor solidarity with either the American people or the world at large. When a president gets sick, that can put national security at risk. But ultimately, it is their leadership—or lack thereof—that can imperil a nation.

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