Online doc surprises many as Philippine VP wannabe

MANILA (Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network): A physician with a huge online following raised eyebrows even among his peers after confirming that he would be running mate to the latest presidential candidate, Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso.

Dr Willie Ong (pic), whose main advocacy is health system reforms, had never spoken publicly, until now, about the alleged misuse of government pandemic funds, or the slow pace of Covid-19 testing and vaccination, according to a doctor who requested anonymity.

But Inquirer health columnist Dr Rafael Castillo, who personally trained Ong as an internist, described him as intelligent, kind, compassionate, and of help to the poor for more than 25 years.

“I think he’ll make a good vice president. Some [health workers] may not agree ... but I think the majority will support him,” Castillo said.

Ong, who sometimes appears with his wife, Dr Liza Ong, in giving health tips online, has had over 5.9 million subscribers on his YouTube channel since 2007.

He has about 975,000 followers on Instagram and 16 million more on Facebook.

Dr Tony Leachon, equally active on social media, said Ong was “a qualified candidate for the improvement of our healthcare system.”

But whether Ong’s millions-strong following will translate into actual votes in 2022 remains to be seen. In 2019, after all, he sought a Senate seat but didn’t make the cut.

In his speech on Wednesday, Ong apologised for taking people by surprise.

“This was unplanned and in fact I was ready to stay quiet and help in my private capacity, but there were just too many coincidences [like Domagoso’s programmes] on [Covid] hospitals, medicines, high flow cannula...,” Ong said, adding:

“On my way here to Baseco (Tondo, Manila), I saw in people’s eyes that they needed medicines, vitamins, money, hope. I wanted these to reach them.”

Ong, who is also a cardiologist, is known for his charity work with poor communities.

He has partnered with private companies to raise donations and occasionally waives his medical fees in exchange for food and medicine that he donates to the needy.

But it was also Ong’s business dealings that some doctors cited as comprising “conflict of interest,” such as the proposed privatisation of the Philippine Orthopaedic Center. He denied this in a 2014 newspaper report.

Another doctor who also sought anonymity said many were “dismayed” when, in the 2019 election campaign, Ong strongly opposed the anti-dengue vaccine Dengvaxia, “thus contributing to vaccine hesitancy.”

But in his speech on Wednesday, Ong urged people to get vaccinated against Covid-19 and encouraged frustrated healthcare workers to return to the hospitals.

He promised, if elected, to build more hospitals, send more doctors to the barrios, provide cheaper medicine and health services, and bring better Covid-19 vaccines into the country.

Domagoso, who worked through the pandemic with a doctor, Honey Lacuna, as his vice mayor, said he made the right choice in picking Ong because both of them wished to improve the government’s pandemic response.

Ong said he was not afraid to lose another election. “It’s okay if I lose as long as [Domagoso] wins. I am sure he will do everything and I am ready to help,” he said.

House Majority Leader Martin Romualdez, the president of the Lakas-Christian Muslim Democrats (CMD), said Domagoso made “an excellent choice” in Ong, who is the party’s vice president for health services.

He described Ong, a close friend, as “a decent man whose heart is in the right place.”

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