Dear Barbados Free Press
On a point of principle, the Prime Minister’s health is nobody’s business but his own.
I refer to Julius Gittens’ article “Tell Us More – P.M” (online edition of “Barbados Today”, July 6, 2010, and his blog of same date). Mr. Gittens states that he thinks that “while the PM is getting great medical advice he might not be getting – or taking – the best communication advice. He is the prime minister and the public have a right to know as much as they possibly can, both for his own benefit and for ours”. Accordingly, the P.M. should give us “full, frank disclosure”.
Presumably, Mr. Gittens refers to whatever diagnosis, or diagnoses, may have been made of the PM’s medical condition. I respectfully dissent for the following reasons.
As a general rule, the PM is under no legal, political or even moral obligation to disclose the nature of his illness. We did not elect him as political leader and P.M. because his health, physical or mental, was better than Mr. Arthur’s at the time. Despite the fact that he is PM, Mr. Thompson still retains his right of privacy. Since when did the public’s “right to know” (per Mr. Gittens) supersede, trump or outweigh his right to privacy?
And, while we are at it, what at any rate is the basis of the public’s “right to know” the intimate details of Mr. Thompson’s health: and do we also have a “right to know” the Governor General’s health? The Chief Justice’s, or the members of the judiciary who sit in judgment on us? The Archbishop’s, who is the spiritual leader of many of us? Where does Mr. Gittens draw the line?
Indeed, based on the physician/patient privilege, even his doctors cannot disclose the PM’s medical condition without his express consent. In promising during his initial interview of May 14, 2010, to give periodic reports on his medical condition, the PM arguably may in his natural generosity have spontaneously and inadvertently waived his privilege under the stress of his illness and questionable advice. But, even this is doubtful, to the extent that he also entered the caveat that “we would make whatever information is necessary available”. In his more recent statement, he correctly indicated that there was nothing to report.
While US presidential tradition and an investigative press in the US may seem to require statements about the President’s health from time to time, that is not the Barbadian tradition. In this vein, Barbadian political leaders and the Barbadian public need not be mere American mimic men. The Barbadian public never knew the late Sir Grantley Adams’ health issues while he was Premier. Nor did it know the late Dr. Cummings’ health status. Nor did it ever know Mr. J.M.G.M. “Tom” Adams’ health condition while he was PM. Nor yet again did it know Mr. Barrow’s health condition at any time, while he was in office. Yet again, we did not know the health condition of Messrs. Sandiford and Arthur, Mr. Thompson’s immediate predecessors in office. The rules of engagement are therefore different. To posit such a requirement in Mr. Thompson’s case would therefore set a dangerous precedent, which would essentially violate his individual right to privacy, absent express waiver on his part.
We live in a world where the passage of time almost invariably brings with it the ravages of illness and disease, where diabetes, high blood pressure, cataracts, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer, and so on are all too common place. Yet, which one of us would wish the most intimate details of his or her medical history to be bruited about to all and sundry? What therefore is the authority for requiring that the P.M. to disclose his medical condition to all and sundry, to be bantered about, even globally, and spirited around the worldwide web? What practical, useful purpose would that serve? Would it aid Mr. Thompson’s recovery in any way, which must be his first priority?
It cannot be that there is some sort of legal requirement for the P.M. to make such disclosure; nor can it be a universal best political practice for sitting PMs to discourse on their health, even if ailing. For, historically, we have had Presidents, Prime Ministers and Justices, who have been physically or mentally incompetent while in office, and many have never made the “frank, full disclosure” your columnist would seem to require.
As to the public’s “right to know as much as they possibly can”, it is in some cases perhaps only prurient if not partisan political interest which fuels such inquisitiveness, eventual gossip and feigned concern. I do not say that this is so in the case of Mr. Gittens; but on a point of principle there appears nothing in law, logic, history, or common sense which dictates that Prime Minister Thompson abandon his right to privacy and self-determination in such matters and disclose in any further detail his medical condition, good, bad or indifferent. Our right to privacy in matters of health can never be in dispute. Our health can never, and should never be the substance of public opinion, or even the grist of the public rumour mill.
Finally, most reasonable persons would say that it is enough to know that the PM is ill, and to sincerely wish him a speedy and complete recovery. I therefore see no basis on which the P.M, ailing as he is, need say anything more. Indeed, to say more as Mr. Gittens requires of him might well be characterized as impolitic, injudicious, unnecessary and unwise, and to persist in compound error.
Dr. Caleb Pilgrim