By Marvin Tort
Why won’t the President make permanent, after almost seven months, the appointment of Maria Rosario Clarissa Dumandan Singh-Vergeire as Secretary of the Department of Health? Ms. Vergeire herself already made public recently her willingness to assume the position as a permanent appointee, subject to approval by the Commission on Appointments. What gives?
I don’t know Ms. Vergeire personally. I have not met her, and became aware of her only during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. I believe she is a career official, and will lose her status as such if she agrees to a presidential appointment to the Cabinet. Perhaps this was why she opted for “acting” status since July — just to warm the seat for someone else.
But at this point in her career, why still stop at sub-cabinet level? Isn’t it every bureaucrat’s dream to eventually lead one’s department, make one’s contribution, and then retire after reaching the peak of one’s government career? I guess this is why after “trying” the seat for six months, Ms. Vergeire is now ready to take the next step.
But how come the President doesn’t seem to be inclined? From where I sit, Ms. Vergeire seems to be doing okay. She has been acting secretary since July 2022, or for over six months now. I think this should suffice as her “probationary” period. If, by now, she still doesn’t enjoy the trust and confidence of the President, then maybe she should be replaced already?
Prior to becoming Acting Secretary of the Department of Health (DoH), Ms. Vergeire had been undersecretary as well as DoH spokesperson since 2015 under the Aquino II and Duterte administrations. She joined DoH in 2007 as a medical officer in the Health Policy Development and Planning Bureau. Before DoH, she was with the Marikina City Health Office for 11 years. While at DoH, she also had served as Officer-in-Charge Deputy Director General for Field Regulatory Operations at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Ms. Vergeire holds a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Santo Tomas, a Doctor of Medicine degree from De La Salle College of Medicine, and a Master of Public Health degree from the University of the Philippines Manila. Incidentally, her father was a barangay chairman in Marikina, her mother practiced law, and her sister Maria Filomena Singh has been an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court since 2022.
This background, in my opinion, gives Ms. Vergeire an edge over other possible candidates for the DoH post. After all, as Cabinet secretary, her decisions will always have political and legal implications. And, perhaps she has her family to “consult” regarding these things over Sunday lunches. Moreover, Ms. Vergeire is a career official, one who rose from the ranks.
But, more important, having served first with the Marikina City Health Office — under a local government unit — prior to joining the national office gives her experience and understanding of how the Philippine health system works. Since the devolution of health services to LGUs in 1992, the Philippine health system has been somewhat confusing. But she has first-hand understanding of how the system can work better.
Also, her experience with the FDA gave her a glimpse of the inner workings particularly of the pharmaceutical industry, medicine production and licensing, and perhaps the operations of pharmacies. Then her involvement with the DoH policy office gave her broader perspective on necessary reforms in the health system.
Ms. Vergeire’s direct involvement in DoH operations during the height of the pandemic also gave the public a clearer view of her ability to deal with medical crises. Her experience of having gone through something like that, and being at the center of daily operations, is a major plus factor for her. Continuity and consistency prompt her permanent appointment while the public health emergency remains.
And last but not least, even after her permanent appointment, if she fails to perform, or loses the trust and confidence of the President, there is always the Malacañang option to ask her to step down and give way to someone else. In short, a permanent appointment is not the end-game for the Marcos administration. So, why not give her the chance?
As I wrote in a previous column, I believe the Philippine government should already be planning on when to end the national public health emergency. And while the global pandemic is still far from over, the Philippines is surely doing better now than in 2020 and 2021, also to the credit of Ms. Vergeire and her colleagues at DoH from 2020 to 2022.
Even the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that the pandemic may be already at a “transition point,” although it remains a “public health emergency of international concern.” But while this may be the case, Ms. Vergeire has told the public that the government was unlikely to revive COVID restrictions at this point, also noting that the Philippines no longer maintained an “official monitoring system” for COVID.
She had told a press briefing, “Our cases are already manageable. Our citizens have adopted good behavior of wearing masks. Our vaccination, although we have low booster rate, we are at 94% in our primary doses… We are better prepared than before. We can say that our cases here are manageable,” noting that certain health protocols could already be dropped.
“Our COVID-19 responses are already institutionalized. These include our surveillance efforts, genome sequencing, and case monitoring. We don’t need a public emergency or state of calamity declared for that,” Ms. Vergeire added, further boosting the argument that perhaps it is already time for the government to withdraw the declaration of a public health emergency.
What has not been “institutionalized,” however, is the leadership at DoH. Most everything is already in place for the country to veer away from emergency status and to stand down. In this line, I believe the next crucial step is the appointment of a permanent DoH secretary. Ms. Vergeire seems ready.
Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council