Incoherence and incompetence
“Just obey’’ pretty sums up the government’s strategy in putting Metro Manila under a “community quarantine’’ to combat the spread of COVID-19 — despite the glaring absence of clear and coherent guidelines to warrant the public’s cooperation.
Between March 12 — when President Duterte announced that the capital region would be locked down for a month — and midnight of March 15, officials merrily contradicted each other on the specifics of the lockdown. In the ensuing confusion and uncertainty, thousands swarmed transport hubs for that last flight/trip out of the metropolis, while others went on panic-buying sprees in supermarkets.
The haphazard and incomplete announcement of the community quarantine on the night of March 12, when the President declared that all domestic land, air, and sea travel to and from Metro Manila would be banned from March 15 to April 14, among other “social distancing’’ measures, elicited more questions than answers. But that was only compounded when officials began singing discordant tunes about its implementation.
Confusion No. 1: Will those working in Metro Manila but living outside the capital be allowed to enter? No, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said in a radio interview on March 13, adding that employers should instead implement flexi-work or telecommuting arrangements. Yes, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said in another radio station interview, clarifying that workers living outside the metro can still enter provided they have identification and proof of employment in the city.
Confusion No. 2: Will those violating the lockdown be arrested? Not only will they be arrested, they will also be charged, according to National Capital Region Police Office chief Maj. Gen. Debold Sinas. “Arrest those who will not follow the guidelines. What are we gonna do with them, hold a dialogue?” But Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said there would be no arrests, “just being physically prevented from entering or exiting” the metro — unless “the person assaults the law enforcement agent, or slanders him, or bribes him…”
Confusion No. 3: Curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.? In a press conference on Saturday, Metropolitan Manila Development Authority general manager Jojo Garcia said the curfew was to take effect on Sunday after the Metro Manila Council, composed of all mayors, passed a resolution. But Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya then insisted that no curfew could be imposed until the local government units had passed their ordinances. Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo chimed in, saying the move also needed the President’s approval. But what illustrated the chaos most was when Communications Secretary Martin Andanar decried the curfew announcement — made by the MMDA itself — as “fake news.’’
Do these officials even talk to each other? The tone-deafness extended to Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, who casually said in a press conference that workers living outside Metro Manila should just rent housing in the city for the duration of the lockdown: “Umupa muna sila para less ang movement ng tao. Sa ganoong paraan din, malilimitahan talaga yung pagpasok labas ng mga tao dito sa Metro Manila.” The suggestion immediately drew flak for its gross ignorance of the plight of workers who are unable to afford city housing in the first place.
Panelo shared the award for most insensitive comment when he reacted to a worker’s lament that they might die not from COVID-19 but from hunger. “Walang namamatay sa gutom. Ang isang buwan, hindi ka pa mamamatay,’’ said the presidential spokesperson.
There is no arguing the need for stringent measures to protect one and all from this pandemic. But at an extraordinary time of fear and threat, the government’s most fundamental task is to demonstrate calm, coherence, and competence in dealing with the emergency, and communicate its command of the situation in the clearest way possible to ensure public trust and cooperation.
On Saturday night, the administration deployed battalions of soldiers to begin imposing the metro lockdown. None of the soldiers were outfitted in proper protective gear, not even with face masks — but they were in full battle regalia, and toting long guns.
By Monday morning, in checkpoints all across the metro, the scene was uniformly horrendous: thousands of commuters heading to work massed cheek by jowl against each other, waiting for their turn to be checked with the limited thermal scanners available and their IDs inspected, or crowding stops to wait for scarce transport (many buses, ordered to drastically reduce passenger load and seat people apart, simply refused to ply their routes).
So much for crucial social distancing — but the inevitable result of the shoddy, ill-considered actions by a negligent administration.
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