Editorial | Health is a public issue
Labour and Social Security Minister Shahine Robinson has been ailing since 2018. Although the nature of her illness has not been disclosed, it was deemed serious enough to require hospitalisation in October 2019.
This week, the minister’s health status was one of the topics raised at the post-Cabinet press conference. Mrs. Robinson has apparently come under scrutiny because she has not been able to carry out her core responsibilities as minister.
The explanation given by Information Minister Karl Samuda was vague and incomplete and did not bring the country any closer to understanding why the minister has been hampered in conducting her sworn duties. The information minister stoutly defended Mrs. Robinson’s stewardship and was emphatic that she had no intention of stepping back from her Cabinet post.
Discussing one’s health can be a deeply controversial matter, as it treads along the grey area of privacy and public obligation. We sincerely believe it’s a conversation that needs to take place and that the interest of the public overrides all privacy concerns.
In a private sector company, the health status of the CEO and management team is usually kept within the company. However, in publicly traded companies, for example, there is a demand by the Jamaican Stock Exchange for disclosure to stockholders of any material differences (including health) in the status of the top brass.
There is no constitutional obligation, rule, or law in Jamaica, which compels an elected politician or member of the Senate to disclose his/her health status. But stakeholders, including constituents, taxpayers and persons who are served by the ministry, ought to be kept abreast of important matters such as the health of their minister.
In a dramatic shift of the privacy boundaries, Government Senator Dr Saphire Longmore announced in December 2017 that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer a few months earlier. Indeed, the mother of two highlighted the importance of self-examination and turned the spotlight on the public health system which did not have a functioning mammogram machine at the time.
The health, including mental status, of politicians is of significant importance. Currently in the region, the debate is alive, for there are some leaders who are struggling with serious health issues. It should not take digging by the press, rumours or leaks, for the health records of political leaders and their top officers to be shared with the public.
Certainly, it may not be relevant to disclose a bout of influenza or hypertension, for if properly treated, the patient will likely get better. By contrast, though, if the illness necessitates hospitalisation and long periods of absence and could lead to impairment, the country ought to be made aware. If a minister has to be hospitalised, then what of the person’s cognition and competence?
The way we see it, from the time of campaigning to forming a government, the electorate need assurances that their political leaders are up to the task of enduring the rigours of campaigning and can shoulder the enormous responsibility for the nation’s well-being.
There are not many things that the Government and the Parliamentary Opposition can agree on, but we believe they could probably agree on the appropriate time to issue a medical bulletin certainly on the status of their leaders, Cabinet members and elected members. For example, a sitting house member who is going through treatment for cancer has a moral obligation to share this information with the public.
It should not be left up to medical personnel to breach confidentiality rules or for rumour-mongers to disclose the health status of our politicians. It is time for a new approach in the way disclosure about representatives’ health is handled.