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The Long View

Mixed messages

On one hand, the President was trying to reassure the public when, after a Cabinet meeting on the 2019-nCoV ARD virus, he said, “everything is well in the country” and assured everyone the virus “would die a natural death.” Yet only days before, before he appeared in the Navy’s change of command ceremony, the audience was warned not to touch the President, because of coronavirus concerns.

Of course presidents are spared petty details like crowd control; and it is entirely possible this president is spared having to make most decisions. So it is not surprising, having freely delegated after establishing the broad strokes of policy, that the President’s people sometimes seem to be even more freewheeling than him.

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In his Senate testimony, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III cited the following numbers when he was asked how many were under observation for possible 2019-nCoV ARD virus infection (and where): two in Ilocos, one in Cagayan Valley, 15 in Central Luzon, 27 in Metro Manila (which has had two confirmed cases, with one death), four in Mimaropa, eight in Western Visayas, 11 in Central Visayas, one in Eastern Visayas, five in Northern Mindanao, and five in Davao. That is, in every major part of the country, there are people under observation. Early on, the people initially under observation roughly correlated to the major tourist destinations in the country; Duque’s latest list of places simply reveals how every region is, in the end, connected to, and reached by, global travelers.

What caused a temporary tempest in the Senate was the question of contacting passengers who turned out to be on flights in which people confirmed or suspected to be infected with the virus were passengers themselves. Duque let loose a bombshell by saying only 17 percent or 331 of such passengers have been located; when pressed further, Duque claimed airlines weren’t cooperating, citing the data privacy law as a justification for redacting lists or refusing to release contact details for passengers to the authorities.

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The airlines objected to this statement, as did the Civil Aeronautics Board and the Civil Aviation Authority, and to this merry mix of disagreeing and discombobulated officials was added the bellowing of the secretary of foreign affairs, who demanded that the head of the Manila International Airport Authority and the Civil Aeronautics Board be thrown under the bus for failing to track down passengers. The two cops in the Senate showed their respective mettle: Bato dela Rosa angled for a PNP-led manhunt, saying the passengers would be apprehended in 2-3 days. Panfilo Lacson, for his part, told the secretary of foreign affairs to pipe down, and stated that baying for the blood of immigration officials or the Civil Aeronautics Board was the wrong thing to do. There was a failure of leadership, which was lodged firmly on the doorstep of the Department of Health (DOH).

Yet all the DOH had tried to do was what all other agencies of the government had tried to do, which was to try to stem the tide of public opinion and hold the party line as put forward by the President: Do not antagonize China by engaging in any act aimed at travel to and from China. The problem was that airlines, susceptible to the ups and downs of the market, took the cue from public opinion (who vote with their wallets) and started announcing the cancellation of flights to and from the mainland. Countries like Singapore officially did the same; and such was the incoming tide that Senator Go announced that visitors from the epicenter of the virus outbreak in China would be declined entry into the country.

What was interesting was how the original announcement was phrased: Initially, Go said the President had decided to accept the proposal to forbid entry to arrivals from Wuhan. It was only later on that the words changed: then the President was “ordering,” had ”instructed,” and doing other firm-sounding things. That’s because a Chinese tourist had died, giving the Philippines the dubious distinction of being the first place outside China where someone died of the virus.

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TAGS: Manuel L. Quezon III, nCoV, novel coronavirus, Rodrigo Duterte, The Long View
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