Questions for PCOO
How much does it cost to be tested for COVID-19? Government hospitals offer it for free, but with most public hospitals swamped with patients of every kind, where should people go to have themselves tested for possible COVID-19 infection, and how much would that set them back? Can anyone, in fact, just walk into a hospital and ask to be tested? What happens during the test? And if the results come out positive, what does it mean for citizens to be quarantined? Where will they stay, will the government shoulder their daily food and other basic necessities, will they end up using their vacation leave or sick leave credits at work, what sanctions do they face if they break the quarantine?
So many questions, and just on the testing and quarantine procedures alone—yet with answers altogether unclear to ordinary Filipinos now waking up everyday to new COVID-19 cases being announced by the Health department. Nothing illustrates the shortcomings of the communications agencies of the Duterte administration more than the stark lack of basic information on the government’s program for addressing the burgeoning epidemic, more than two months now since the first cases in China were reported and over four weeks since the first case on Philippine soil was announced on Jan. 30.
The Department of Health (DOH) website carries guidelines on home quarantine, how schools, workplaces, and other public establishments should respond to the health threat, procedures for OFW repatriation, etc., but all in forbidding official memos. Where are the accessible, easy to read information materials that can be disseminated far and wide throughout the archipelago, even in towns and barrios in the provinces unreached by the internet where a COVID-19 outbreak may be seen as remote at this time, but where communities should nonetheless be kept updated and prepared for any eventuality—especially because the virus may hit poor people with poor immune systems the hardest?
And when it does, those questions again: Where do they go? How much would they have to spend, if not for testing then for treatment, when they have barely enough to begin with? How long do they have to cut themselves off from their livelihood and community? What assistance can they expect from their government? Is there any?
The Health department is obviously struggling to manage not only the outbreak but also the need for prompt public updates—so why are the other communications agencies of the administration seemingly not stepping up adequately, when utmost information transparency and thoroughness are key to encouraging trust in institutions and stemming the public’s fear and anxiety?
Take the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO), which is mandated to inform and engage the public on “all matters of governance.” A check of the PCOO website as this is being written reveals that its main story, posted on March 6, is “President Duterte inspects P6.5-billion harbor link project.” The other news releases mention Marawi, the ABS-CBN franchise issue, the swearing-in of new officials—practically nothing on the coronavirus outbreak and the urgent steps the government and citizens must do to address the health crisis.
Sen. Nancy Binay was right to chide PCOO head Martin Andanar to cease jet-setting around Europe for a “roadshow” to sell the idea of a Philippines free from human-rights abuses and press freedom issues, “dahil dapat Pilipinas muna ang bigyan natin ng focus para labanan ang paglaganap ng COVID-19 (The focus should be on the Philippines and the fight against COVID-19).” In response, Andanar claimed the PCOO “will continue to be the lead communications arm of the government which has been at the forefront in delivering timely, accurate, and reliable information about the COVID-2019,” and reeled off numbers meant to impress: “70 informational videos, more than five radio plugs, more than 1,250 social cards, and approximately 20 infographics on the COVID-2019, 750 online news articles, more than 400 broadcast news items, close to 30 print articles, more than 500 situational reports, more than 450 text blasts, more than 280 news tweets, more than 70 radio live interviews, approximately 350 flyers in English and 350 flyers in Filipino about the coronavirus.”
Has the citizenry felt any of that? If ordinary Filipinos can now answer the most basic questions not only about how to make themselves safe from the virus, but also about access to and options for treatment, its possible costs, what getting quarantined (or the refusal to) entails, and other concerns with gut impact on their lives, then Andanar may pat himself on the back. Can they now? Otherwise, weeks into the outbreak, the PCOO is still falling short as “the lead communications arm of the government.”
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