Barrio doctor Juan Flavier was Senate’s resident funnyman
The barrio doctor radiated with humor.
During the two terms he served in the Senate, the late Juan Flavier was its resident funnyman. He’d crack jokes on the floor, in a hearing or during a banter with colleagues that often sent everyone guffawing.
Both in his stint as senator and as health secretary, his sense of humor served him well. He drew public attention and support to his advocacies with his witty one-liners.
Remember his ABCs of safe sex? “A is for abstinence. If you can’t abstain, B for be faithful. And if you can’t be faithful, then use C for condoms.”
While his jokes were generally a hit, the Catholic Church did not find him funny at all. The Church accused him of peddling promiscuity for his promotion of artificial contraception.
But even there, Flavier found something to joke about: “They say I’m an agent of lechery, of incest or promiscuity. My answer was, how can I be an agent of these things when I can’t even spell them?”
Feeling like Richard Gomez
Despite being at loggerheads with the Church, Flavier remained popular with the simple folk, who did not think twice about approaching him to shake his hand, ask for an autograph or have a picture taken with him. He said in jest: “I feel like Richard Gomez.”
While campaigning for the Senate, he let reporters in on a secret: Since he could neither sing nor dance, he’d rather crack jokes to get people’s attention.
Even in the face of adversity, his humor got the better of him. While rebuked for promoting birth control and condom use to fight the dreaded acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in 1993, he said: “When you’re only 4-foot-11, you don’t make war. You make love.”
“He was always funny and witty,” said Sen. Loren Legarda, Flavier’s one-time seatmate in the Senate.
The jovial, media-savvy physician succumbed to multiple organ failure as a result of pneumonia on Thursday at age 79.
Beneath his funny bone was a hardworking, simple public servant who got the job done, his former colleagues said.
“Sen. Johnny Flavier was an honorable, hardworking and effective public servant who loved his country and people,” former Sen. Ramon Magsaysay Jr. said in a statement.
Filipino of the Year
In 1993, Flavier was named the Inquirer’s Filipino of the Year for being an “excellent crowd drawer” and a “media darling.” He earned media mileage even in TV sitcoms, where he got the support of entertainment personalities who helped him push his programs.
“In front of or away from cameras, Flavier brims with folksy humor and wit,” the Inquirer said in its Filipino of the Year tribute.
In a feature on the January 1993 issue of Sunday Inquirer Magazine, he was described as a “brilliant communicator” whose anecdotes and punch lines know no translation.
“His talks are spiced up with Philippine anecdotes, the punch lines of which defy translation. His punches he delivers right on cue and he can move his audience to laughter or to tears. The man is truly gifted,” wrote journalist Ceres Doyo.
Flavier translated complicated medical concepts like family planning into simpler terms using local jargon, the easier for barrio folk to understand.
“He learned why birth control pills were sometimes ineffective in places without electricity. He found out why poultry raisers usually have many children and learned how to alter the behavior of roosters so that poultry owners don’t make babies.
“With a straight face he will tell you how cocks could botch natural family planning. He became such an expert in designing water-sealed toilets that grateful people have even engraved his name on them, some right inside the bowl so, they tell him, they can see his name every morning when they squat and look down. He basks in the hilarity of all this,” wrote Doyo.
One of the jokes he loved retelling happened on his first week as health secretary, as he was about to enter the Department of Health (DOH) building. A woman who did not know who he was asked him, “Ikaw, anong papel mo dito (You, what’s your role here)?”
‘Something beautiful for God’
Underneath the jokes, however, was Flavier’s serious mission. Prior to his appointment to the DOH, he had already spent more than three decades in rural development work.
His “Doctors to the Barrios” project, which encouraged young physicians to serve in far-flung impoverished villages, was among his popular programs, alongside his AIDS awareness campaigns and family planning program.
“I want to do something beautiful for God,” Flavier said.
‘Yosi Kadiri’ campaign
His tireless dedication to public health, particularly his popular “Yosi Kadiri” campaign, was the reason why Filipinos were now enjoying the benefits of a stronger tobacco control environment, according to a group of former smokers and cancer survivors.
“His Yosi Kadiri campaign, the most successful tobacco control drive this country ever witnessed, catapulted a national consciousness about the harmful health effects of smoking. Through his sheer dedication to his job and integrity, Dr. Flavier had defied the strength of the tobacco lobby and launched an antismoking program that reached the very core of every Filipino household,” Emer Rojas, global cancer ambassador and president of New Vois Association of the Philippines Inc. said in a statement released on Saturday.
Rojas said Flavier, a known public health champion, pioneered the country’s antismoking movement as health secretary and in the Senate as the author of Republic Act No. 9211, or the Tobacco Regulations Act.
“It is because of his strong commitment to public health that many have now come to embrace this cause. The landmark passage of the sin tax and graphic health warning laws were results of Dr. Flavier’s endless pursuit to fight for the Filipinos’ right to health,” he added.
Rojas recalled that even after his retirement from public service, Flavier issued a scathing remark in 2012 during the sin tax debates after Sen. Ralph Recto proposed to slash by half the P30-billion tax approved by the lower house.
Flavier then scored the committee report of Recto on the sin tax bill for putting the interests of the powerful tobacco lobby ahead of the health of millions of Filipinos.
‘Father of public health’
“Dr. Flavier was the father of public health. He has laid the groundwork for us so you and I may continue to build up on what he has started and gave his life to. We now enjoy eating at restaurants, riding the jeep and walking on the street without having to worry about inhaling tobacco smoke because somebody stood up for our right to health. A larger than life person, Dr. Flavier has fully served his purpose. Heaven must be smiling right now as it welcomes God’s good and faithful servant,” said Rojas.
Former Sen. Aquilino Pimentel Jr. also praised Flavier for being a “heroic icon in the struggle to inform the public [about] the deadly menace of cigarette smoking.”
“Against tremendous odds, he succeeded in requiring cigarette packets to carry the warning on the toxic effects of smoking,” Pimentel said.
Flavier’s witty one-liners would have been viral in these days of Twitter and hashtags, which was perhaps the reason why netizens found a kindred spirit in the former health secretary.
“Isa sa mga tumatak na gov’t campaign sa ’kin nung bata ako e yung ‘Let’s DOH it!’ at ‘Yosi Kadiri’ (Among the government campaign slogans that made their mark when I was young were ‘Let’s DOH It!’ and ‘Yosi Kadiri’) RIP Juan Flavier,” netizen @sailormaruko posted on Twitter.
“‘Iodized salt, iodized salt, mag-iodized salt tayo (Let’s have iodized salt).’ RIP to the man who taught me about iodized salt, thank you Doc Juan Flavier sir,” netizen @jekksetter posted.
“A senator whom we should always remember… Let’s DOH it! A small man with a great heart. RIP Sen Juan #Flavier,” netizen @goavendano said.
“Dr. Flavier is the exponent of generics medicine during his stint as health secretary. Today millions of Filipinos benefited from that move,” Rose Delrosario posted on Facebook.
Lawyer and writer Oliver Reyes said on Twitter: “RIP Senator Juan Flavier, perhaps the most likeable politician in the last 30 years.”
“He is not a politician, not like the ones we know. He is a public servant. RIP,” netizen @jaytablante said. With reports from Ramon H. Royandoyan and Paul Vincent Balois, Inquirer Social Media, and Inquirer Archives
Tributes pour in for poorest senator Juan Flavier
Notable events in the life of Juan Flavier
Cancer survivors recall Flavier ‘Yosi Kadiri’ campaign
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.