Citizens affected by leaders’ health

When Gabrielle Giffords was discovered to be among the victims of the fatal Tucson shooting in 2011, the media followed her relentlessly. We watched her functionality progress and prayed for her cognitive and motor skills to improve because not only was she the face of the outcomes of the shooting, she was also a blossoming politician in a struggle to get back on her feet. She was a high-profile Democrat involved in a high-profile news event, suffering from a high-profile medical case.

But when the public official’s medical history is far from high-profile — not even necessarily remarkable — it becomes a fuzzy, gray matter if the public has the right to be informed.

In Venezuela, incumbent presidential candidate Hugo Chavez dances, sings and attempts to cast his history of cancer aside from the public eye to win a third term this Sunday. Since he was diagnosed with cancer last year, he has sought treatment in Cuba — then announced in July that he had been “cured” of that cancer. But he refused to release his medical records for the Venezuelan people during his campaign.

A 180-degree opposite to Chavez is Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who has allowed for his medical records to be made public and announced this week that he will undergo surgery for his prostate cancer Wednesday.

An individual’s medical condition is an incredibly private matter, especially when life-changing events like cancer threaten your health. But if such a condition deteriorates and, subsequently, takes out a politician from properly addressing his or her role to the people, isn’t it a part of his duty to make the public aware?

All over the world, there seems to be a recurring example of top officials “refusing” their citizens the right to know about the productivity of their government — and those individuals’ health statuses are a part of that. Over the summer, the death of the former Ghanaian president shocked the nation’s people as no one was even cognizant that he was battling throat cancer, according to a report by The Post Newspapers, a leading news source in Zambia. Those who had heard of his untimely death found out via foreign media outlets — which is like finding out from your Facebook newsfeed that Grandpa died.

America is no exception. Notable examples of presidents that have fallen ill during their terms include Woodrow Wilson (who suffered from a stroke during his second term, making him unfit to fill his role during his last two years), Franklin Roosevelt (who was nearly dying when he ran for his fourth term and was confined to a wheelchair, though the media never showed this) and even John F. Kennedy (who became America’s youngest president ever elected but suffered from severe pain, due to Addison’s disease, quickly deteriorating bone condition and adrenal dysfunction). All hid their health failures from the public, especially when they were in the midst of a campaigning season.

The reasons behind not disclosing their medical condition are understandable, though: No one wants to throw a pity party for themselves; your candidacy gets thrown into question, even if you have a nondisruptive condition; and illnesses scare off people.

When then-71-year-old Sen. John McCain was running for the presidency in 2008, one of the Democrats’ attacking points was his health and age — that he couldn’t fulfill his duties as president because he was just too gosh-dang old. McCain had to quell these claims by releasing a statement by his internist about his excellent health. Even through the campaign, it was hard for McCain to overcome worries about his health — much like how Obama had to dispel Birthers’ theories.

But if questions come up about a leader’s continued absence from the political scene, questions need to be raised. Unlike any other citizen’s private medical issues, politicians’ issues will affect the progress that needs to be made in their governing role. Transparency in discussing their effectiveness as leaders includes discussing their physical ability to lead.

Let us take the leadership styles of Venezuelan and Colombian presidents Chavez and Santos as examples of how politicians’ policies on being open about themselves will impact their citizens’ satisfaction with their governing bodies. There might be no code as to if the world’s politicians should publicize each medical case, but their decision to disclose or remain closed should keep in mind the peoples they represent.

Nora is a senior in LAS. She can be reached at

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