Duterte is the weakest link
Slowly, less than steadily, but finally, it seems the national government is responding to the global coronavirus pandemic with a more or less functioning infrastructure, under a more or less coherent plan, and at more or less the appropriate scale. The main obstacle to fighting the invisible enemy, however, remains the same: the sickly, self-indulgent, sadistic Commander in Chief.
The plan to conduct “mass testing” by April 14, announced by the chief implementor of the government’s response, former Armed Forces chief of staff and current Presidential Peace Adviser Carlito Galvez Jr., is a month late, at best, but at least it is by the experts’ consensus the right initiative, backed by the necessary preparations. (The conversion of parts of sports centers and convention halls into quarantine facilities, which should be complete soon, is a requirement before mass targeted testings can commence.) This complements the designation of COVID-19 referral hospitals (again belated, done only under pressure from doctors’ associations) and the increase in the country’s capacity to conduct tests.
The shift in framework for understanding the ongoing health emergency, explained in part by Dr. Tony Leachon, one of three senior advisors to the Department of Health, is also belated but welcome. “Our strategy now with the mass testings in full swing is to make the public the front liners and make the healthcare workers the last line of defense,” he tweeted on April 4. As that viral series of Facebook posts from retired Marine general Orlando de Leon had forcefully reminded us, it was strategically wrong to think of the hospitals as the front line; it was an admission that the “war” was being lost.
The work of communicating these policies, handled ably by Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles as the spokesperson for the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, has succeeded, by and large, in cutting through the information clutter; not all questions have been answered to the satisfaction of the general public or, I should also say, to that of Nograles and company, but it is good to have a steady intelligence applied to the urgent tasks at hand.
Because we started late in responding to the emerging health emergency, because the decision to impose a lockdown was sudden and underprepared, and especially because this extraordinary health emergency magnifies the everyday inequality that defines our society, many Filipinos and foreigners living in the Philippines have suffered unnecessarily as a result of the government’s initial, faltering response. The defeatism of the DOH in the beginning was responsible for the failure to contain the spread of the virus from tourists and travelers from China. The chaos in the first days after public transport was shut down was a terrible aggravation to commuters who were also classified as essential workers. And Cavite Gov. Jonvic Remulla’s recent open letter to the President convincingly made the case that the government should render financial assistance not only to the poor, but also to those precariously in the middle class, who have “built much but not enough.”
That there seems to be widespread support for extending the Luzon-wide quarantine for a couple of weeks, and then perhaps imposing a modified version of the quarantine for several more weeks after that, suggests that more people today than, say, a month ago understand the “flatten the curve” objective.
But the biggest hindrance to the success of the antivirus campaign is the same leader who, on Feb. 10, a couple of days after the first COVID-19 death outside China was recorded in the Philippines, dismissed the threat. He did so first by attacking the critics of the government’s response as “all pessimistic,” accusing them of just wanting to spread fear (“All na gusto lang talagang magkaroon ng takot”). Then he called the act of sounding the alarm “stupid.” (In a mix of English and Filipino, he said: “If there’s only one death, and you hardly cannot [sic] connect it with the coronavirus, then that is like you sound an alarm there and it’s a stupid thing.”) His subsequent speeches on the emergency have been just as bad: deluded, rambling, anxiety-causing, small-minded, deliberately threatening, confusing — and late. With every speech, he seems ready to undermine the hard work of health care and other essential workers; with every impromptu remark, the best work of his own appointees. His have not been words of wisdom; his has not been a steady hand. He should just go back to sleep.
On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]
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