On Dec. 31, 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) noted in China a new, SARS-like virus, later labeled COVID-19. By the week of Jan. 20, 2020, Philippine media began covering the contagion that had already spread from Hubei beyond China’s borders. Netizens called for quick action, including a ban on tourists from China, arriving since January at around 4,800 a day and promising to exceed the 1.6 million visitors in 2019. The WHO warning on Jan. 26 of a high-risk global epidemic reinforced public alarm.
On Jan. 29, President Duterte delivered mixed messages. He declared that he would delegate to the proper authorities what precautionary measures to take—after first flagging his concern about the difficulty and unfairness of unilaterally refusing entry to travelers from China. Health Secretary Francisco Duque III readily agreed that even a temporary ban on mainland China tourists would be “very tricky” and “unfair,” as COVID-19 had already appeared in other countries. Responsible for public health, his concern was not medical but diplomatic—“possible repercussions” on relations with China. Sen. Bong Go, chairing the Senate committee on health, echoed this perspective on Jan. 30, asserting that a ban applied only against China would be “improper” and unfair.
China’s Consul General Jia Li had weighed in on the issue, dismissing the need for a ban, since China had already imposed a travel lockdown on Hubei since Jan. 24. Meanwhile, the Department of Foreign Affairs, charged with managing foreign relations, was waiting for advice from health authorities. But the highest health officials had kicked the ball back to the President, whose goal remained fixed on China. Only after the WHO declaration on Jan. 31 of a global COVID-19 emergency did Mr. Duterte ban the entry of travelers from Hubei, extending the ban on Feb. 2 to all of China.
Sen. Vicente Sotto III reinforced the diplomatic dimension of the health issue on Feb. 4, contributing his “interesting, if not revealing” video suggesting that COVID-19 had been deployed as a bioweapon against China. Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. ridiculed the claim as “an example of the craziest video I have ever seen,” prompting Go’s warning against people spreading fake news and Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra’s instruction for the National Bureau of Investigation to probe “alleged deliberate spread of misinformation and news” about COVID-19. (Any suspect can invoke in defense the introduction in a Senate hearing of an unvetted YouTube video peddling conspiracy theories.)
Continuing his discourse on international relations, Locsin debunked any Western hopes that COVID-19 would weaken China. China’s response to the epidemic, he predicted, would project it as “a power that just cannot be defeated even by nature.” He also defended China against allegations that it had suppressed information about COVID-19, recalling the Jan. 7 advisory that the Hong Kong government had sent the Philippine consulate.Netizens wondered why Philippine officials seemed more concerned with the rights and reputation of China than the “health and safety” of Filipinos, later invoked for the travel ban against Taiwan.
Locsin correctly noted that Beijing was sharing COVID-19 information with the world in early January. In December, however, a 34-year-old doctor had already posted for his medical alumni chat group an alert on the new virus that went viral. Chinese authorities were not prepared to circulate such information among its own citizens. Police investigated Li for rumor-mongering and forced him to withdraw his warning. Catching the virus himself, Li Wenliang died on Feb. 7. Hailed as a whistle-blower hero, his death triggered a massive online movement that defied Beijing’s censorship apparatus. In a last interview, Li regretted the delay in defending against the virus: “I think a healthy society should not only have one kind of voice.”
Though more muted in the executive branch, many voices can still be heard in the Philippines, in media, academe, civil society, even in the legislature. Diverse voices make more difficult the crafting of a concerted response to crises. But when the threat is deadly, its origins still uncertain, and its trajectory unpredictable—as with COVID-19—a single voice dictating possibly mistaken diagnoses and treatment risks unmitigated disasters.
Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.
Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club ([email protected]).
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