As the Philippines grapples with the China-borne coronavirus crisis, coincident concerns are rising over the health of President Rodrigo Duterte, who fell from public view for most of January.
To mollify rising doubts, expressed with candor and color over social media, the populist president, 74, had earlier scheduled a one-on-one televised interview with his presidential spokesperson.
In the interview, Duterte was expected to explain his policies for addressing the country’s most pressing problems, including its handling of the coronavirus and a recent deterioration in US relations.
The tête-à-tête, however, has been cancelled twice for the official reason that the national leader “doesn’t feel well.”
While unquestionably popular, with one poll showing his approval rating at 87% in December, Duterte is simultaneously seen by some as leveraging those high ratings as a license for increasingly erratic and absent leadership.
Earlier this year Duterte also postponed scheduled visits to parts of Mindanao, his home island, that had been hit by devastating earthquakes. At the time, his presidential spokesman also cited health concerns as the reason for the president’s delayed visits.
That followed on Duterte cutting short last October an official visit to Japan for the coronation ceremony of a new emperor, a diplomatic faux pas at which the president was seen on camera as visibly uncomfortable with reported back pain.
The Filipino president has openly acknowledged he suffers from various health conditions, ranging from Buerger’s disease, a rare disease of the veins and arteries, and myasthenia gravis, a long-term muscular disease.
He has also admitted to struggling in the past with addiction to prescription pain killers, which he reportedly started using after suffering a back injury in a motorcycle injury.
Revelations of his addiction came in stark – and some say hypocritical contrast – to his lethal anti-drug campaign, which since 2016 has killed thousands of drug users and suspects.
Duterte’s top officials have consistently played down the impact health issues have had on his ability to competently and coherently rule. They have political motivation to do so: under the Philippine Constitution the vice-president automatically takes over leadership duties if the president is incapacitated.
In the Philippines’ unique democracy, the vice-presidency is often, including currently, occupied by a top opposition member. Vice President Leni Robredo, a lawyer and former social activist, is among Duterte’s most vocal and compelling critics.
That likely explains why Malacanang, the presidential palace, has repeatedly refused to issue bulletin updates on Duterte’s health, a lack of transparency over an issue of national import that has raised the country’s risk profile in recent years.
Some critics suggest Duterte’s failing health has led to poor political judgement. To the chagrin of many, Duterte was filmed enjoying an evening bike ride at the height of the recent volcanic eruption at Taal, which led to the displacement of tens of thousands of Filipinos in Metro Manila’s outskirts.
Robredo, meanwhile, was constantly and visibly on the ground providing assistance to communities grappling with long-term displacement and toxic danger posed by the volcano.
However, Duterte quickly returned to the public eye when former police chief and key political ally Bato dela Rosa, was denied entry to the US for alleged human rights violations related to Duterte’s lethal war on drugs campaign, signaling to some the president is only active and present when his personal interests are at stake.
Whether Duterte’s health issues have clouded his judgement in dealing with the Wuhan coronavirus crisis is also in question.
His administration initially came under sharp criticism for a perceived as lax response that arguably prioritized diplomatic relations with Beijing over the general public’s health and protection from the lethal and fast-spreading disease.
Those health concerns reached fever pitch after the Philippines reported the first coronavirus death outside of China on February 1.
More than 100 Chinese nationals from Wuhan entered the Philippines while the Chinese city, the epidemic’s epicenter, was under lockdown, prompting a nationwide outcry among Filipinos against the government’s perceived recklessness.
The Philippine Bureau of Quarantine also cleared massive arrival of Chinese citizens via cruise ships despite popular backlash among nearby communities including in Subic.
This week, the government implemented what many saw as a belated travel ban on anyone who has been in China in the last 14 days, even if from territories outside Greater China, including Hong Kong and Macau.
But as issues of politics and health mix in the weeks and months ahead, questions about Duterte’s mental and physical health will continue to fuel debate over his fitness to lead in times of crisis.