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Maintain transparency about political leaders’ health status

A section of the media reportedly quoted South Indian actress Gautami Tadimalla’s letter to PM Narendra Modi on “the secrecy maintained during Jayalalithaa’s 75-day treatment” at Apollo Hospital, Chennai. Though medical bulletins were updating the people about the treatment, a leader’s health is an issue that the people/media inevitably want to know details about, the curiosity raising the debate: Should transparency prevail over privacy?

The shroud of misinformation surrounding a leader’s health condition, causing multiple speculations, mass-prayer sessions, and panic-like situations leads to more questions: Are we really living in a democracy where the people have a right to know? Also, should political leaders be obliged to reveal their health statuses?  Is releasing the private health records a bit invasive?

The lack of clarity obviously led to the rumour mills doing their rounds. Earlier, while dismissing a PIL filed by a social activist, the Madras High Court noted that “a balance has to be maintained between aspects of privacy and public awareness…. it is up to the state government to see if some more  information is required to be put in the public domain.”

Secrecy, the norm

The uneasy element of secrecy surrounding a leader’s health is nothing new in Indian or international politics. We are reminded of the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran’s ailment, about three decades ago.

One of the best-kept health secrets relates to Pakistan’s founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, whose lungs were riddled with an advanced stage of tuberculosis, as the subcontinent moved relentlessly to partition in the mid-forties. Public knowledge of Jinnah’s affliction could have altered the course of history, may even have prevented the creation of Pakistan.  Jinnah finally succumbed in September 1948, 13 months after he had created his country.

US Presidents John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt, as well as French President Francois Mitterand all concealed illnesses while in power.  More recently, the state of Hillary Clinton’s health was an issue in American electoral politics. That she stumbled at a public ceremony would not have made headlines, were she not a candidate for the highest office. Her condition goaded her rival Donald Trump (70) into informing people on his health in the public domain.

While not all illnesses diminish a person’s ability to stay focused, lead, and make vital decisions, the issue is serious enough that both in developed and developing countries, leaders and candidates are obliged to disclose their health reports.  This type of disclosure must be constitutionally mandated, requiring an acceptance by the government to respect the process.

Although patient privacy is shielded by law, leaders have a duty to be forthcoming about their medical histories. Voters want to know they’re electing someone healthy enough to run the state. But as history has shown a pattern of medical cover-ups, even with a spirited press, and all-curious opposition parties, “secrecy” has been a democratic issue. It is increasingly difficult to maintain secrecy about a leader’s health, where in the era of investigative journalism and proliferation of social media, a leader’s health comes under the magnifying lens, as a matter of legitimate public interest.

Unlike a cricketer Yuvaraj Singh or a Lance Armstrong who could not disappear from their active sports careers without explaining why, no one would have questioned an ailing leader’s decision to step down. There is also a combination of a natural desire for privacy and the fear that information will be politically misused. “Top-secret” is on the medical files of many politicians, given the larger-than-life persona they try to maintain, and it is considered politically prudent to keep them under wraps. On the contrary, they are lavish about their ailment when they are sentenced to a term in prison – to push for bail or admission to hospital. Isn’t illness simply a human condition?

(The views expressed by the author in the article are his/her own.)

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