Standing next to Flavier, ‘we are all pygmies’
MANILA, Philippines–The legacy of the late Sen. Juan Flavier was acclaimed in song and testimonials by former colleagues and staff at a necrological service held Tuesday at the Department of Health (DOH).
“Johnny set the standards so high. We, in public health, are all pygmies as we stand on the shoulder of a small giant,” said Health Secretary (on leave) Enrique Ona.
“He could have played it safe but he didn’t. He hated hypocrisy and pretense. He stood tall against some of the biggest interests and institutions in the country,” said former head executive assistant Susan Mercado, recalling the controversies that 4-foot-11 Flavier courted with his health-promotion campaigns.
“The public health issues he chose to be most vocal about were not easy, and it did not take long for his detractors to come out openly against his campaigns on family planning, condom use and tobacco control,” Mercado said.
When Flavier was appointed health secretary in 1992, he visited the regional offices “to rally the devolved health personnel to work in lockstep with the DOH” and coined the action phrase “let’s DOH it,” Mercado said.
Flavier selected 25 existing programs to be launched in 1993 but because it didn’t rhyme, he said, “Let’s just select 23, so that we can say ‘23 in 93,’” Mercado recalled.
These programs included the Yosi Kadiri (smoking), the Oplan Alis Disease (polio immunization), Pusong Pinoy (high-blood pressure), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) awareness, family planning and Doctors to the Barrios.
“He was a communicator and needed no prepared speech. He said, ‘Susy, if you give me anything longer than one page, I will not read it.’ I just made bullets and from there he would weave stories, jokes and health messages,” Mercado said.
More than missing Flavier, the Filipino people miss those “few shining moments in history… when guns of rebellion and insurgency fell silent so Filipino children can be vaccinated,” said a former executive assistant, Michael Felipe Mercado.
Another former executive assistant, Ramon Navarra Jr., recalled how the Church actively campaigned against Flavier but he still finished fifth in the 1995 senatorial race.
In the Senate, Flavier “strived not to be the best, but the most useful senator,” Navarra said.
Flavier authored the Traditional and Alternative Medicine Act, Poverty Alleviation Act, Clean Air Act, Indigenous People’s Rights Act and Philippine Nursing Act, among other bills that became law.
He also attended all Senate sessions and committee hearings, earning him the moniker “Mr. Quorum,” Navarra said. Flavier’s attendance record numbered a thousand while the next highest senator had only about 400.
“He had no bodyguards. He said the Filipino people were his bodyguards. And if the people can’t protect him, nobody can,” Navarra said.
Acting Secretary Janette Garin said Flavier remained joyful despite the challenges of handling the department and taking care of the health of every Filipino because “he wanted to inspire us, to mask the problems and lead by example by coming out smiling but made sure every problem was solved along the way.”
Responding for the family, son Dr. Jondi Flavier said the expressions of admiration and respect from Flavier’s former DOH colleagues eased the loss somewhat.
“We have difficulty letting go. But with so much love and affection for Dad, it’s easy to lose the sadness and join you in your celebration and appreciation of the wonderful life that he lived,” he said.
“It is with the presence of people like you that we are able to let go and allow him to go home to God,” Jondi said.
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