Friday, August 19, 2016

Dr. Rowley Under the Microscope

The recent scrutiny surrounding the health of Prime Minister Dr. Keith Rowley has raised some very important national questions. Like, should the public know the full condition of the Prime Minister’s health? How much privacy should he be expected to have? And has anyone heard any juicy gossip of what might be ailing him? Of course the Prime Minister hasn’t suggested he may be seriously ill, saying only that he is having a medical abroad before he embarks on his holiday. This sounds entirely reasonable. A little bit too reasonable. As all Trinbagonians know, sounding reasonable is a sure-fire way to tell that a politician is hiding something.

 All Prime Ministers have had to deal with public speculation over their health. During her premiership Kamla Persad-Bissessar faced constant questions about her health which revolved around her diabetes, alleged drinking and whether or not she burns it. In 1998 while Leader of the Opposition, the late Mr. Patrick Manning returned from a supposed month long vacation in Venezuela only to inform the public that - psyke; he was actually in Cuba having surgery. In his book, ‘Eric Williams: The Myth and the Man’, Dr. Selwyn Ryan suggests that Dr. Eric Williams suffered from undiagnosed Bipolar disorder, which, says Ryan, would explain his erratic behavior. Bipolar disorder is a form of manic depression, which was better known in the 1950’s simply as “being crazy”.

Dr. Rowley may feel he is entitled to his privacy with regards to his health, like any citizen of T&T should. And he may be right. But he should also accept that as Prime Minister, he isn’t just any other citizen of T&T. Unlike the rest of us, he doesn’t have to sit through traffic, has his own personal security team and can afford to go abroad for good health care. Most of us can’t tell Colm Imbert to fill in for us when we need a break from work. The price of public life is a life under the public microscope. No one is suggesting that the Prime Minister needs to inform the nation every time he has indigestion, a runny nose or an inflamed hemorrhoid. But if Dr. Rowley has a serious illness that jeopardizes his ability to work, he should disclose it.

What has been truly sickening is the way government spin doctors and others have arrogantly dismissed any questions about the Prime Minister’s health as being nobody’s business. Education Minister Anthony Garcia called it “disrespectful”, apparently unware that asking questions politicians find ‘disrespectful’ is kind of the role of the media. Minister of Rural Development Franklyn Khan said the public should respect Dr. Rowley’s privacy, stopping short of calling everyone a bunch of macos. But most bizarrely Office of the Prime Minister spokesman Stuart Young said there was no need for concern over the Prime Minister’s health while also saying everyone should pray for Dr. Rowley. Which is reminiscent of what the stewards on the Titanic were telling passengers; “everything is fine but I would start praying if I were you”.

The only countries where people are told they should not ask disrespectful or intrusive questions of their leaders are also those where people have no freedom to ask any questions at all. Take for example Cuba, where the identities of Fidel Castro’s numerous wives and children are a state secret and where people are too respectful to make enquires about them. And by “respectful”, I mean “totally scared of being locked up”. Or North Korea, where the dear leader Kim Jong Un can disappear from the public eye for months, under the suspicion of being ill, but where people respect his privacy to not ask questions. Because if they don’t, they will get gunned down in a very public execution.

Trinbagonians may love to speculate about the health of their Prime Ministers, but they have a tendency to disregard the health of their democracy. In a free and open society there are no questions that are deemed off limits from public officials. Even if those questions are about their health, their personal beliefs or whether or not they are really a mosquito disguised as a human. Incidentally I’m still waiting on a response from Minister Terrance Deyalsingh on that last one. Dr. Rowley is under no obligation to discuss his health, but it is the obligation of the press to try and find out. The day the press decides to stop doing that, is the day we’ll know our democracy is sick.

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