President Rodrigo Duterte has offered the Department of Health to a Catholic priest. In a press conference, the president of the Philippines made the offer to Fr. Nicanor Austriaco Jr., OP, a molecular biologist trained at MIT.
Fr. Austriaco has taken his MIT know-how with him as he works with the OCTA Research Group, which has become known for its COVID-19 advisories. He is currently working with the OCTA on a cheaper revision of a vaccine that could be taken orally. When he is not splitting his time between the Philippines and the U.S. for research, he also holds a position as professor at the University of St. Thomas.
Tongue-in-cheek or serious?
The offer was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it may have been serious, as Duterte remained dead-panned. The Philippines’ current Health Secretary, Francisco Duque Jr., has expressed his wishes to step down after guiding the country through the pandemic for the last two years.
During Duterte’s weekly press conference, Fr. Austriaco had just finished giving a presentation on the Omicron variant, when Duterte spoke up.
“We would be happy, I would be happy to appoint you as the Secretary of Health, if that is okay with you,” Duterte told Fr. Austriaco.
The priest was caught off guard by the comment and he couldn’t help but laugh at the proposal. Rather than jump at the opportunity, however, the priest declined the honor, stating, “No, sir. Secretary Duque is doing a fine job.”
The back and forth continued, with Duterte noting that he has been forcing Duque to remain in the position and that the health secretary would be happy to see Duterte “give it away.” To this, however, Fr. Austriaco suggested that he give it away “to another Thomasian.”
The Philippines, a country of about 110 million, has currently vaccinated fewer than 40 million. According to ABS-CBN, the island nation has had more than 2.8 million COVID-19 cases, with more than 13,000 still active.
Duterte and the Catholic Church
Duterte has had a strained relationship with the Catholic Church, which has been outspoken about extra-judicial killings that have taken place during the regime’s “war on drugs.”
According to official government numbers more than 6,000 people involved in the drug trade have been killed. Human rights and news organizations and estimate that over 12,000 have been killed.