• Ronald Law

Heeding the High Call for Health Security

Photo Source: Business Mirror

As three seasons absurdly converge in the Philippines – emergencies and disaster, elections, the Holidays – a mélange of thoughts, sentiments, and aspirations alike should occupy the minds of ordinary Filipinos, much more presidential aspirants, of the battered and beleaguered yet beautiful and blessed land.

With the election of new leaders approaching, one prominent theme that should invite a great deal of rumination is the topic of health security. This arguably should be a main, if not ultimate, component of any presidential platform for governance, especially during this COVID-19 era. Filipinos deserve quality leadership and governance that will make “better days ahead” a reality.

While still reeling from the deadly and destructive consequences of Super Typhoon Odette (International name Rai) to most of its Southern regions, the Philippines should be able to deduce that these prototype extreme weather events induced by climate change – not counting earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, armed conflicts, outbreaks, and epidemics – are major existential threats that need real solutions from the government.

The onslaught of Super Typhoon Odette is reminiscent of Super Typhoon Yolanda, the most recent worst-ever recorded disaster for the country. This vicious cycle of disaster exposure, affectation, and suffering must end. Aspiring new leaders have to understand that disaster risk reduction and management is not the simple, reactive, bureaucratic response that the Philippines has been accustomed to. Relief operations after a disaster have come and passed will not suffice.

Instead of quick fixes, the paradigm should shift to the systematic, proactive, and comprehensive approach that is a product of long-term work led by the government and with the involvement of everyone concerned, chiefly local governments and vulnerable communities.

In this regard, the health aspect of disaster risk reduction and management should be concretized. From improving surveillance to detect diseases and early warning systems to allow for pre-emptive life-saving actions, making hospitals safe from disasters, to improving public health preparedness and response to emergencies and disasters through planning, capacity building, resource mobilization to setting up an operations center – this important system should be institutionalized at all levels in order to contribute to health resiliency building.

Resilience must go beyond rhetoric. Emphasis should be placed on how local governments, communities, and even private and international partners can be capacitated and engaged in terms of adaptive measures – financial, human resources, logistics for preparedness and response to public health emergencies and disasters. Investments on this at the national level will help a lot but building social capital on the ground to maximize local resources will go a long way.

Furthermore, prevention and mitigation should not be an afterthought after every emergency or disaster. Science-based strategies and tools should be used to prevent and mitigate the health risks of disasters. To support this, futures-thinking should be widely promoted and adopted so that health policies, plans, and programs will be attuned to dynamic changes in the environment and delivery of health services will be made more responsive to the needs of various clients.

The Philippines will soon be on the verge of another surge of COVID-19 cases driven by Omicron which is hardly the last breed of variants that can wreak havoc on its health system. Even with substantial accomplishments in stemming the tide of cases and making headway in its vaccination program, the Philippines should not fumble anew with what needs to be done and how to go about things.

The country has weathered the previous surges and learned better in managing and preventing the disease. Ramping up the vaccination campaign, sustaining the implementation of the minimum public health standards, and enhancing its health system capacities remain to be the cornerstones of our COVID-19 response.

However, these will come to naught if universal health coverage through the Universal Health Care law cannot be expanded. Protection of vulnerable populations and groups should be a top priority.

Moving on from one disaster to the next, amidst the noise of the elections and with the solemnity offered by this season of reflection, it is for the collective progress to see a new leadership endeavoring to do the following points to advance health security in the country:

  1. Prioritizing health in the national development agenda, mainstreaming it in all sectoral and institutional policies, programs and plans and aiming to better support local governments in boosting and sustaining their health systems capacities through investments in resources. This main effort to strengthen health systems harmonizing the collaborative potential of health and non-health sectors is the best way to be ready for any public health emergency let alone another pandemic.

  2. Cultivating a “health resilience and wellness” mindset and starting a health promotion revolution. The idea of massively influencing the “healthy” behaviors of the population in different settings and contexts is a powerful one that should be worked out. Coupled with smart strategies to promote transparency and trust, this can be a game-changer in the prevention and primary care aspects of the public health system.

  3. Protecting the health and rights of vulnerable populations through fast-tracked implementation of the provisions of the Universal Health Care law and social protection measures. COVID-19 and other emergencies and disasters further widen health inequalities and inequities. Those who have increased inherent health risks, those who have less, those who are not as visible or who are on the fringes of our society—these are the groups that bear the brunt of emergencies and disasters. Thus, health and social protection measures should be strengthened so that no one is left behind. Health services, whether COVID-19 or not, should be made more accessible to everyone with a special focus on these sub-populations.

As it had always been, the Philippine health sector is looking forward to a new brand of leadership and governance that is defined not only by the sincerity of its intentions but the clarity of its actions and policies as well. Health security should be treated as a moral imperative instead of a new catchphrase or program.

Hope remains in this absurd season of seasons. The Philippines will need to transcend all health security challenges and differences in order to really heal and rise as one nation.


Ronald Law is a physician, public health practitioner and academic. He is a faculty at the Center for Health and the Global Environment (CHanGE) of the University of Washington which hosted him as a US-ASEAN Fulbright visiting scholar. His research on health security explores the impacts of extreme weather events, global environmental change and infectious diseases on health systems and the adaptive capacities needed to ensure resilience.

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