MAY 15, 2020 – It isn’t everyday that one gets to converse with the Cabinet Secretary about the role of lawyers in a pandemic. The participants of the Universitas Lawyers’ Quarterly (ULQ) held last May 5, 2020, however, had the fortune of attending a Zoom online conference on this topic with no less than Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles as the speaker. 

The Cabinet Secretary, as a co-chairperson of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID), has been at the forefront of the country’s battle against COVID-19, particularly in the aspect of governance. In his talk, Cab. Sec. Nograles was able to give the participants a glimpse of his life as a public servant in these pressing times. Most importantly, being a lawyer himself, he gave insights on how lawyers can offer their expertise at the service of the common good in this so-called “new normal.”

The legal bases for the government’s acts

The Cabinet Secretary began his talk by giving a brief introduction on how COVID-19 came about in our country. According to the Cabinet Secretary, the threat of a possible epidemic breaking out in the Philippines came to the attention of our health officials on Dec. 31, 2019. As a result, the IATF-EID was convened. Come February 2020, a travel ban was issued against those coming from China, Macao, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

It was only on March 6, 2020 that DOH had recorded the first local COVID 19 infection, and on March 8, the President declared a state of public health emergency. Later on, on March 16, a declaration of a state of calamity was issued, along with the imposition of Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) in Luzon.

A particular point of interest for lawyers and law students would be the legal documents that have been issued in the course of the government’s response to the pandemic. The Cabinet Secretary mentioned that a number of documents have come out in different forms, such as statutes, presidential proclamations, administrative orders, executive orders, among others. Foremost of these would be the Bayanihan Heal as One Act that was enacted by Congress, and on which many other executive acts are based. 

These legal documents are significant in that they serve as the foundations on which many of the acts of the government and its different offices are based. The Cabinet Secretary mentioned that the ability to identify the nuances of each document and their implications is one that is intrinsic to lawyers and law students.

In defense of rights

But aside from the ability to examine legal documents, the Cabinet Secretary also touched upon how lawyers can intervene in the current situation we’re in, that is, by offering their services to those whose rights are being or have been violated. He shared a report saying that, as of then, there had been 104 recorded incidents of  attacks and discriminatory acts against health care workers.

He mentioned how sad and alarming it is that the ones who are practically our heroes in this time of crisis are receiving such an ungrateful treatment from their fellow countrymen. In addition, Cab. Sec. Nograles also shared the bleak reality that even those who have already recovered from the pandemic would sometimes experience unjust discrimination from their neighbors.

He then mentioned a joint statement that was released by the Department of Health and the National Privacy Commission, emphasizing that the information of COVID 19 patients can only be made available to public health authorities for no other purpose than that of contact-tracing and management of the disease. In other words, the data privacy rights of patients must be protected.

Cab. Sec. Nograles then acknowledged the efforts of a volunteer group, the Volunteer Lawyers Against Discrimination (VLAD), a group of over 125 volunteer lawyers coming from different law schools nation wide, which has already handled numerous cases of discrimination against COVID 19 patients.

The Cabinet Secretary thus encouraged the lawyers among the participants to volunteer in similar endeavors, or to find ways of lending their expertise to the defense of other people’s rights.

“Indeed, it’s a very challenging time for all of us. The country is in quarantine, our courts of justice have temporarily ceased full operation, and the conduct and practice of law will surely change once we settle into this new reality,” he said. Extending his congratulations to those who just passed the 2019 Bar Examinations, he told them that their duty and obligation is “to find their place and find their own respective roles in this novel legal and professional environment.” He then expressed his hope that they would do their part in protecting the rights of their fellow men and women. 

Before proceeding to the open forum, Universitas CEO Atty. Angela Butalid thanked the Cabinet Secretary for sharing his time with the fellows and participants of Universitas despite the busy schedule he had. She then reiterated the Cabinet Secretary’s call  to protect the rights of other people in these tough times. “I hear that there are a lot of discussions of taking the easier route – setting aside temporarily the rights of people for this lofty notion of common good. But I think it’s important for every lawyer to understand that common good is actually individual, it’s the ordinary happiness of each person,” the CEO remarked.

CEO Atty. Angela Butalid sharing her reflections on the talk that was given by Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles

Aside from the CEO, Universitas Project Manager and Senior Fellow Dr. Amiel Villanueva also gave his reaction. Speaking on behalf of his fellow medical professionals, Dr. Amiel encouraged the lawyers to play an active role in this battle against COVID 19, side by side with the health care workers. “May you, learned people of the law, assist us in upholding our rights,” he stated. “Help us to do our jobs with adequate protection and humane working conditions. Lobby access for services that help us fulfill our duties. Allow us to speak justly about our experiences. And, together, let us defend human dignity and protect the most vulnerable in society.”

Project Manager and UFP Senior Fellow Dr. Amiel Villanueva giving his reaction to the talk of the Cabinet Secretary

The man behind the public servant

During the open forum, many interesting questions were posed to the Cabinet Secretary, ranging from those that relate to his job as a government official as well as those that touch on his personal life. Taken together, they form a picture of the man behind the public servant.

One of the participants asked the Cabinet Secretary to share what his personal learnings are from his experience of having been at the forefront of the battle against COVID 19. With a smile, Cab. Sec. Nograles answered, “[n]othing prepares you for this event, by the way. Nothing at all. But I think life is full of these surprises, and I think it’s important for you to keep your feet firmly grounded.”

He further added that it’s important to learn how to listen. “A lot of bad decisions are made if you don’t listen to people around you and the people who are affected by your decision. So it’s always important to involve stakeholders, especially for us in government. We try to always engage different stakeholders or make mechanisms for them to be heard, and that helps us in making decisions.”

Cab. Sec. Nograles also shared about the challenge of having to weigh different factors in arriving at a decision, especially when one has to balance different interests. In moments such as this, the Cabinet Secretary shared that “it’s important for you to go back to the basics.” He further stated that “it’s important for you to go back to certain basic laws and tenets. [I think] that’s where the Constitution plays an important role. Because you will get muddled with so many things, and you just have to look for a foundation somewhere to guide you. If you find that foundation, then you’ll know that you’re making the right decision because it’s based on a fundamental tenet or principle.”

Another interesting question asked by one of the participants was how his training as a lawyer helped the speaker in fulfilling his tasks as a Cabinet Secretary. In answer to this, Cab Sec Nograles shared that his perspectives had significantly broadened and a whole new horizon had opened up for him as soon as he entered law school, and even more so after graduating and practicing as a lawyer. 

“First of all, your training as a lawyer basically teaches you to be a problem solver. And because of this training, you get to approach certain problems from that perspective. That is quite helpful when you’re in government where you are called to make decisions and to solve different types of problems,” he noted. 

Furthermore, he shared that his knowledge and grasp of the Constitution as well as the other laws and how they relate with one another help him in the performance of his duties as a government official. “All of these pieces of information are just sort of stored inside your brain, and certain questions and triggers just release these information from your memory.” As such, he advised the participants, not to think that all of the cases and law books that they have read will go to waste. “Somehow, it’s just there, it’s just stored in your memory banks, and certain triggers will just open them up,” he remarked. 

Lastly, Cab. Sec. Nograles also talked about the discipline that one acquires in the process of one’s training as a lawyer. “[S]taying up, spending countless hours reading and studying, and the patience and perseverance that come with it, these are very helpful tools that come into play in any problem you approach, whether in your professional career or even in your personal life,” he said.

The Cabinet Secretary shares a light moment with the participants as he reminisces his experiences in law school and law practice

To end the evening, the Cabinet Secretary addressed a final question about what it is that keeps him grounded in spite of all the pressure in his work. “I guess my answer to [that] is prayer and family,” he said. “It’s quite important that you have the support of the people that you love.

“I guess we all believe that God has plans for all of us, and sometimes it’s a mystery,” he stated further. “You really don’t know what it is and you just go with it. But while you surrender yourself to God and allow yourself to be used by Him, you also have to collaborate. And that means He’ll put you in certain situations because He trusts that you know what to do. And you’ll know what to do –  you do the right thing.”

Cab. Sec. Nograles also shared that knowing that God is there to help him and protect him takes a lot of weight off his shoulders. He shared that he would often have conversations with God in his prayer, asking Him to speak through him, and to make his decisions conform with His. He also added that he would always ask for the intercession of Mama Mary. 

Whenever he encounters problems that tend to overwhelm him, he simply reminds himself that with God, nothing is impossible. “Everything is smaller than Him and He has control anyway, even if you think you’re losing control. If you know and are certain that God has control, you won’t get lost.”

NOTA BENE: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and the speakers mentioned in the article, and not necessarily to the Foundation.

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