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EXCLUSIVE: Dr. Susan Mercado On Dealing With The COVID-19 Health Crisis

She has fought for public health throughout her entire career. With the COVID-19 pandemic, she now faces her biggest challenge yet. Check out her exclusive interview on Metro Society's "Inspiring People" special

With a career in public healthcare spanning decades, Dr. Susan Mercado was once the highest ranking Filipino woman in the World Health Organization (WHO) and now the current Special Envoy of the President on Global Health Initiatives (GHI). She never imagined that she, along with countless doctors and healthcare professionals, would be handling a pandemic such as the one we are experiencing right now.


She shares, “A colleague of mine who works in the Philippine General Hospital quoted A Tale of Two Cities of Charles Dickens to describe how it feels like for those of us in public health: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’. It’s terrible what’s happening right now, but we’ve been trained for this terrible moment, where we could put to use what we’ve learned, where we could make a difference. And if we can muster the courage to look for solutions and not wait for them, we can impact so many people.”


Dr. Susan Mercado
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Dr. Mercado’s passion for the work that she does is partnered with her ability to communicate well with others, a gift she was able to harness and share with the public during these uncertain times. Her conversations with the media about the pandemic have put many facts out there, but what is more important is her ability to reach out to others not as a cold, straight-talking physician, but as someone who understands what’s going on and where the public’s anxiety is coming from.


“I like to think I’m a good listener,” Dr. Mercado says, “I study how I can respond in a way that answers people’s questions, yes. But more importantly, how can one address the fears or anxieties of those individuals?”


Something she’s learned in dealing with public anxiety towards the pandemic is this: “The thing that helps people calm down is one, knowing that it's going to pass. Second, that everyone's going through the same thing. And third, that it's normal to feel this way."
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Much fears and anxieties come from the unknown, and Dr. Mercado suggests soothing them by taking the path of understanding, not panicking. “The key is giving a message that people would want to hear. Essentially, you have to communicate that we are in the middle of change, and that there are uncertainties, and it’s okay to feel anxious. Because the moment one acknowledges that, then a person will calm down, because it means that you are directly addressing what they are feeling. So it's not really about what you're saying in terms of information, but how you're responding to them emotionally.


“So when we say, this is really difficult, and I know you're having a difficult time. But it's a period of change, and things will be better in the future. Then people begin to see that this is not a permanent situation, because that's what causes deep anger—the feeling that you've lost everything. This is essentially what people are feeling, they feel a loss of control. We are talking to a highly traumatized audience, across the world where people are feeling pain or suffering. They can't plan. And there are people who are reacting around them in ways that they cannot manage. And therefore, the thing that helps people calm down is one, knowing that it's going to pass. Second, that everyone's going through the same thing. And third, that it's normal to feel this way. There's nothing wrong with you. If you're anxious, if you have doubts, if you're worried, that's okay. But today, this is what you can do.”


Dr. Mercado’s gift in communicating well with others from all walks of life is put into good use in her current government post. She describes her post as “a unique opportunity to bridge strategy issues that affect both the Department of Health and the Department of Foreign Affairs, and also be a liaison officer for these two departments in understanding our participation in the World Health Organization. It’s essentially about understanding the role of diplomacy in achieving public health goals. I’ve worked in the WHO for more than 15 years, and because of that, I think I have very solid experience in how one interacts with people from other countries, other cultures, a framework for understanding to compare health systems of countries. It’s not difficult for me to bridge a conversation between two countries.”


Dr. Mercado’s gift in communicating well with others from all walks of life is put into good use in her current government post as the current Special Envoy of the President on Global Health Initiatives. “Essentially, you have to communicate that we are in the middle of change, and that there are uncertainties, and it’s okay to feel anxious,” she shared.
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But the current posting has not taken her love away for public health, and it’s clear to Dr. Mercado that the pandemic has all the more widened the gap between the rich and the poor, and that there is much to address in the country beyond the virus.


“If you have no water in your home, you can't wash your hands. If you live in a 20-square meter home and there are five of you, you can’t do social distancing. So we've got to do more to address what we call our social determinants of the way we organize our society, so that everyone has a better life. Because if you have decent housing, water, access to employment and education, your chances of being healthy and staying alive are so much greater. Even when a vaccine comes, we will still send them back to the conditions that made them sick. We need to address the conditions that make people sick if we want everyone to stay healthy. Everyone has a right and a chance to have good health, to have information, to have care, and to have resources to be able to stay healthy and alive. I hope our policymakers and decision makers can see the effect of our social inequity on the country.”


Check out Metro Society's "Inspiring People" special below:


Photos courtesy of Dr. Susan Mercado