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Adding fuel to the COVID-19 inferno

It’s hard not to envy the Singaporeans. Through a televised address on March 12, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong laid out in a mere 11-and-a-half minutes the state of his country amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and his government’s plan of action. The speech was clear, concise, and, most importantly, reassuring, the gist of it being: We are wading on uncharted waters, but your leaders are on top of things.

How nice to have a government—or even just a head of state—that actually knows how to talk to its people, instead of sending them into alternating states of panic and paranoia.

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The same day as Lee’s address, President Duterte also faced his nation. He was two hours late to the scheduled broadcast, and when he finally appeared, it was to announce—in increments—the provisions of the Metro Manila quarantine. “Announce now, details to follow” was the gist of the whole affair, as if the document he was reading were the most banal and unimportant thing.

Days later, his lackey, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo, also took to the podium. Mind you, this was before the actual announcement of the “enhanced quarantine”—now the whole island of Luzon was to be locked down. Among the many things Panelo said: The Cabinet was about to propose a Luzon-wide lockdown to the President (so why was he already blabbing about it to the media?); the country was taking South Korea’s lead in locking down (Korea has done no such thing); eating bananas and gargling saltwater would prevent you from getting COVID-19 (they won’t); and the operations of such services as supermarkets and food cargo deliveries would be impeded (the Department of Trade and Industry had to quickly go on record to refute that statement).

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Neither instance was out of character; anyone who has lived through all three-and-a-half years of Mr. Duterte’s presidency should by now be familiar with its penchant for chest-beating and noise-making set to maximum. “We can say what we want and get away with it” has always been the gist of this government.

It’s only rational, then, to think that, for all the proactive actions it has indeed taken, this government remains blithely unaware of just how extraordinary and precarious a time we are living through—that now, more than ever, the unhinged minds occupying its highest echelons must take responsibility for every single word they utter.

In the two instances cited above, what transpired afterward was only expected. Perhaps for the nth time within the span of two weeks, many people in Metro Manila found themselves panic-buying, prodded by vague, doomsday-like proclamations from above to head to groceries, pharmacies, and other establishments. In other words, crowding in public places—and, quite possibly, transmitting the virus among themselves. The pictures of these crowds—the indirect result, it must be emphasized, of the government’s reckless mouth—are just some of the stuff that health care workers’ nightmares are made of these days.

And it isn’t just its mouth this government can’t control; it also doesn’t care about the kind of messages it sends out to its already anxious and agitated people.

The country running short on testing kits for the virus? Let’s have asymptomatic politicos get tested, anyway, violating the algorithm set by the Department of Health, and have them parade their results in public. Meanwhile, patients under investigation for COVID-19 are dying in our hospitals without even knowing if they were positive for the virus.

A pandemic laying siege to our fragile health care system? Let’s have a law-and-order solution to this public health problem, with checkpoints manned by the military, ill-equipped and clueless about the necessary hygienic precautions (though hopefully not as clueless now).

Nobody expects any government to get through this pandemic perfectly. But the least it can do is provide a reassuring voice to its people, and show them it is exhausting every possible means to get them through this unprecedented time—something numerous local government units, through the leadership of their mayors and governors, seem to be achieving.

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Our national government, on the other hand, is only adding fuel to the Philippine COVID-19 inferno. Not only are we facing a virus the world still knows very little about, we must also deal with leaders who don’t know how—or don’t care—to talk to us like they actually want us to survive this pandemic.

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Vincen Gregory Yu is a medical doctor, fictionist, poet, and theater reviewer for Inquirer Lifestyle-Theater.

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