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National

Juan Flavier - Mr. Let's DOH It, People's Senator - quietly passes away

InterAksyon.com
The online news portal of TV5

Senator Juan M. Flavier, indisputably one of the most loved, popular, and respected public servants in the post-People Power Philippines, died at 3:55 p.m. on Thursday, succumbing to multiple organ failure brought about by pneumonia. He was 79.

Flavier leaves behind a sterling legacy in public health. He shepherded stricter anti-tobacco measures, battled infectious diseases with an internationally acclaimed multi-vaccine national immunization program, and worked to provide all Filipinos greater public access to health facilities and services. He was a lifetime champion of reproductive health, although he was ambivalent about lobbying for a law – foreseeing it as a divisive exercise – and instead espoused a "just do it" mentality, believing that administrative orders and sheer political will could deliver the services and access that Filipinos needed.

He also authored and shepherded landmark legislation ranging from the Anti-Poverty Law which created the National Anti-Poverty Commission, to the E-Commerce Law, and the Indigenous People’s Rights Act.

His work was widely acknowledged as the result not just of his keen knowledge and experience as a physician, but his communication skills and personal charisma.

Famously short in stature, the 4'11" health champion was a giant in Philippine government and politics from the time he joined the Ramos administration in 1992 until his retirement from public service in 2008. 

Flavier helped lead the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM) and the International Institute for Rural Reconstruction (IIRR) - a Ramon Magsaysay Awardee - from 1967 to 1992, and his work in rural reconstruction was so influential that in the 1970s he was courted by former President Ferdinand Marcos to head the Ministry of Agriculture. Flavier declined the invitation, but eventually found himself in government when he was appointed Secretary of Health in 1992 by then-President Fidel V. Ramos.

On Thursday Flavier succumbed to complications brought about by pneumonia. Over the past three years he had suffered a series of small strokes that left his speech facilities intact, but compromised his balance and mobility. He remained on the board of Philhealth and the SM Foundation until 2013, largely withdrawing to a private retirement in his Tandang Sora home in Quezon City, occassionally speaking out on public health matters.

He was admitted to the National Kidney Institute on the second week of September, and was in the hospital's instensive care unit from September 11 until his death on Thursday.

From Baguio to the Barrios

Flavier was born in Tondo on June 23, 1935 (he was named after John the Baptist, whose feast day landed on the following day) but grew up in the mining community of Balatoc, Benguet, and then Camp John Hay in Baguio City. His father was a lathe machine operator, and his mother he described in his memoirs as a semi-literate one-time factory worker who wrapped bars of soap at the Philippine Refining Company and sold used clothes in Baguio. 

He was the second-youngest in a household of seven children - including two adopted brothers - but was easily the overachiever in the family. 

He was valedictorian of his class at the Baguio City High School and obtained his medical degree from the University of the Philippines. Shortly after graduating, he shunned offers to work in the US, and instead worked in rural development in the Philippines. In 1967, he was recognized by the Philippine Jaycees as one of the country's Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM). 

Soon after joining the Ramos Government, the diminutive health secretary burst into the national consciousness with a Doctors to the Barrios program that challenged graduates of medicine to work in isolated barangays - there were hundreds - that had not seen professional medical workers in decades. The program caught the national imagination on the back of Flavier's own credibility: More than a product of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine and the Johns Hopkins program on public health, Flavier was a student and protege of IIRR founder and Ramon Magsaysay Awardee Y.C. James Yen, pioneer of China's Barefoot Doctors program, and Flavier himself became a barrio doctor in Nueva Ecija and Cavite for more than two decades.

From Barrio to Senado

At the DOH, Secretary Flavier launched an ambitious "Oplan Alis Disease" campaign, calling for a national "Ceasefire for Children" that would allow for a full weekend of unfettered, unimpeded immunization offensive throughout the Philippine archipelago. The military and communist and Muslim insurgents heeded the call, and with tens of thousands of volunteers assisting barangay health workers and NGOs deployed to every inhabited island, and the support of business groups, the Philippines was eventually certified to have achieved a 100-percent immunization rate.

He became so popular that Flavier - known to Filipinos as "Mr. Let's DOH It", after his department's rallying slogan - within two years won a seat in the Senate. He ran again in 2001, placing 2nd overall on the back of his advocacies for HIV-AIDS, poverty alleviation, public healthcare systems, indigenous people's rights, traditional medicine, and the environment. He gained unparalleled approval ratings, despite the influential Philippine Catholic Church actively campaigning against him, penalizing him for his campaigns on reproductive health.

'Flavier for President'

Flavier became a household name for his folksy charm and unbridled sense of humor. He was given to plain, even gutter, Filipino, and was not averse to ribald jokes in Visayan, Ilonggo, Ilocano, Bicolano, or whatever language was called for, but only as devices to illustrate and drive home his points about the health and well-being of Filipinos.

Senator Flavier was so popular that in 2000, then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo persuaded him to agree to being "floated" as a potential presidential candidate of the then-ruling coalition of Lakas. 

The senator briefly flirted with the campaign, but within a week of landing on the front pages as a "presidentiable", and after getting the endorsement of former House Speaker Jose De Venecia, Flavier declared that he "did not have the fire in his belly" to aspire for Malacañang.

He retired from government upon the expiration of his second term in the Senate, save for accepting a trustee position at the Board of Philhealth. He also served as a trustee for the SM Foundation.

Dr. Flavier is survived by his wife, Susan, and their children Jondi, Johnet, James, and Joy, their respective families, and a brood of grandchildren and great grandchildren: Jesse, Pauline, Carlo, Jeid, Kia, Migo, Pio, JJ, Jerick, and Jasmine. He died surrounded by his family, his former chief of staff at the Senate, Rudy Quimbo, former staff member Ramon Navarra, former DOH undersecretary Susy Pineda Mercado, and former senator Orly Mercado.

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