The reputation of newly appointed Health Secretary Dr. Teodoro “Ted” Herbosa has preceded him, and certain sectors do not find it encouraging.
In December 2017, while speaking at a leadership forum in New Delhi, former US president Barack Obama was asked about the perils of using Twitter where he had more than 97 million followers at the time. He acknowledged the extraordinary power of Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, and similar platforms, but warned that a would-be leader eager to have his or her voice heard should not make any “snap judgments to complex issues.”
Obama added: “Don’t say the first thing that pops in your head. Have a little bit of an edit function … Think before you speak, think before you tweet.”
Indeed, anything you say online can come back to haunt you. Herbosa learned this the hard way when Malacanang announced his appointment as head of the Department of Health. (DOH).
The June 5 announcement drew support from the Philippine College of Physicians, with its president, the infectious-disease expert Dr. Rontgene Solante, saying he was looking forward to working with Herbosa.
Solante told ABS-CBN’s TeleRadyo that Herbosa’s professional experience “makes him fit to be the secretary of health.” Herbosa was health undersecretary and concurrent regional director of the DOH National Capital Regional Office from 2010 to 2015; he also served as special adviser to the National Task Force Against Covid-19.
But the Alliance of Health Workers (AHW) quickly registered opposition. “We do not want a DOH secretary who is an ardent Red-tagger of health workers who are only promoting and struggling for their much-deserved Covid-19 benefits, protection and welfare, especially during the surge of the pandemic,” AHW president Robert Mendoza said in a statement issued a day after Herbosa’s new post was announced.
What prompted these strong words?
On Aug. 30, 2021, Herbosa posted a photo greeting on Twitter thanking health care workers and acknowledging their contributions to the national welfare during the pandemic. He qualified, however, that his thanks did not extend to those who had engaged in protest actions to demand the release of their benefits as frontliners, which are provided for under the law.
“Maraming salamat our Healthcare heroes! National Heroes Day 2021,” he had posted, adding in the caption: “Except sa mga nag-protest ha!” He drew much flak for the tweet that, critics said, showed his insensitivity to the hardships endured by the health care frontliners and the sacrifices they made as the pandemic raged.
Herbosa has since apologized for his words, telling ANC’s Karen Davila last June 8: “That’s my persona – I’m a Taurus, I’m passionate, I get mad immediately. I say things out of my emotion. My past history, I got into trouble because of that persona. And I apologize if I hurt people for the things I said or tweeted.”
He said he had realized that he now had to control his persona: “That’s going to be hard but I will try to be discerning now that I am in the public eye.”
That same persona moved Herbosa on other occasions to make remarks unbecoming of a ranking government official.
On Oct. 9, 2020, noting the outrage publicly expressed by groups and individuals over the death of a baby who was separated at birth from her imprisoned activist mother Reina Mae Nasino, Herbosa tweeted: “Cadaver politics. That baby was cared for by the government using government funds and government doctors at the [Philippine General Hospital]. Where was the father? Nowhere. So who neglected and caused the death of Baby River? Definitely NOT the government nor the doctors and nurses who work tirelessly there. This use of an innocent child for a failed ideology angers me!”
At that time, he had been serving since 2017 as executive vice president of the University of the Philippines. The tweet has been deleted.
But on that same day, Herbosa also shared on Facebook a screenshot of a father’s lines teaching his son the purported difference between rape, romance, and marriage. Per the father, “In rape, you tear the clothes. In romance, you remove the clothes. In marriage, you wash the clothes.”
He captioned it with: “Laughter is the best medicine.”
In a statement issued three days later, UP sectoral regents representing students, faculty and staff described the supposed joke as “violent” on top of being misogynistic. In response to online lambasting, Herbosa said he would undergo a gender sensitivity seminar to “make amends.”
‘I told you so’
The state of Herbosa’s thinking was displayed in yet another occasion in April 2021: the death of an elderly balut vendor while waiting in line at a community pantry organized by actress Angel Locsin in Quezon City to mark her birthday. By then the project envisioned and implemented by the activist Patreng Non to help those finding themselves in dire circumstances because of the pandemic lockdowns was being replicated in various cities and provinces nationwide, fuelled by a surge in donations and strong civilian involvement.
Herbosa tweeted “Death by ‘Community Pantry’. I told you so!”
The backlash was swift and fierce. He deleted his tweet a few hours later and issued a public apology, saying: “It may have sounded like a criticism but was ill-judged, when many are facing hardships & being helped by these kind hearted souls. I support community pantries as acts of kindness. What I had intended to say was I object to violations of public health standards, which increase transmission of Covid-19. I suggested ways to do community pantries without risk to senior citizens. I felt angry over a preventable death, & ended up issuing the tweet when I could have expressed it in a better way.”
He then announced that he had filed a leave of absence from his post at UP for some reflection. He quit two days later, citing “personal reasons.”
Herbosa appears to have realized that as health secretary, his shoot-from-the-hip tweeting style must come to an end. In a June 9 post he said he would still speak “the truth” but would take care not to attack anyone: “Not everyone feels good when told the truth! But the apology for the hurt is sincere. I’ll now have to be very discerning since I’m in an important position in this government. I’ll still communicate the truth but make sure walang masagasaan. Words do hurt.”
He has promised to resolve the concerns of health-care workers regarding their benefits. In a chance interview with reporters at the DOH office last June 7, he said it was now time for the government to “honor” them as they were being lured to higher-paying jobs abroad. He said he would make it his top priority.