The last thing anxious Filipinos need right now amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic is a Department of Health (DOH) that reverses itself once too often.
Last Saturday, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire declared categorically, in plainspoken language, that some of the COVID-19 test kits sent by China were only 40-percent accurate, and hence were no longer used. “Sa mga naunang pinadala sa amin na test kits from China na nakapagpakita ng 40 percent accuracy, hindi po namin ito ginamit dahil nakita nga po na mababa po ang accuracy natin dito, kaya ito na lang po ay ating itinago,” said Vergeire.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not take that sitting down. It fired off a statement the next day refuting Vergeire, saying it had “immediately checked with DOH” and got a “clarification” that the test kits donated by the Chinese government were “of high quality and standards and have no accuracy problems.”
Huffed the embassy: “Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic, China has continually provided assistance as needed to support the Philippines’ battle against the epidemic… The Chinese Embassy firmly rejects any irresponsible remarks and any attempts to undermine our cooperation in this regard.”
About an hour later, a chastised DOH officially retracted its statement. It apologized for the “confusion” and explained that the defective test kits referred to were “another brand of test kit that was proposed to be donated by a private foundation.”
What was going on? Was Vergeire in any way attempting “to undermine” Philippine-China relations with her disclosure, as the Chinese embassy was so quick to claim (talk of “irresponsible remarks”!) — or was she simply stating a fact? The DOH retraction, bare of necessary details, was expectedly met with widespread skepticism, immediately seen as yet the latest indication of the Duterte administration’s mortal fear of offending China’s feelings.
The Philippines is not even the first country to raise this issue.
Last Saturday, the Dutch health ministry announced it was recalling 600,000 face masks imported from China as “the quality of this shipment did not meet the required standards.” Spain likewise announced that it would return some 9,000 rapid testing kits it had purchased from a Chinese company as these had a detection rate of just 30 percent, far below the minimum of 80 percent. Turkey rejected a sample of Chinese-made rapid testing kits as these, too, showed inaccurate results, while the Czech Republic declared that as much as 80 percent of rapid test kits from China were “faulty.”
Four European countries so far rejecting China-made COVID-19 products: Would the Chinese embassy also accuse them of attempting to “undermine cooperation” with Beijing? Or is the simpler, more plausible explanation the obvious one — that the kits they were sold were evidently substandard, and so, seeing the grave danger that would pose to their efforts to contain the pandemic, these countries, as aggrieved customers, had no compunction crying foul and publicly rejecting the faulty goods?
The Philippine government, however, has none of that spine when it comes to the country President Duterte has repeatedly expressed profuse gratitude to for its supposed help in the COVID-19 fight, ignoring how such lopsided special relations helped bring the Philippines to this sorry pass in the first place, where it now has to scramble for medical equipment for its beleaguered frontliners and must appear grateful for any help from Xi Jinping’s government — never mind if some of that help may turn out to be, as Vergeire plainly put it before she was apparently admonished for her candidness and the DOH had to change its tune, “mababa ang accuracy.”
The DOH’s abrupt about-face does nothing, at the very least, to assuage Filipinos’ fears, and can only further damage the credibility of the very institution depended on to be the voice of authority in the battle against COVID-19.
This month alone, the DOH had to clarify that Dr. Celia Carlos will remain director of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) and that the memorandum signed by Duque replacing her with DOH Assistant Secretary Nestor Santiago was “an erroneous draft of the document which was inadvertently posted but immediately taken down.” The RITM also had to apologize to ACT-CIS party list Rep. Eric Go Yap for saying he was positive for COVID-19 when he was not, putting that staggering error down to a “clerical oversight.”
As Luzon enters the third week of the quarantine and Filipinos become even more anxious about whether the government is doing enough to address the crisis, and whether ordinary citizens will get the help they were promised, the DOH has some healing of its own to do — and some honest, transparent reporting it must immediately make to the public about the true quality of those made-in-China kits.