Failing to meet moving targets
In the beginning, as our old normal gave way to the new normal, the talking head for what passes for our government was the desiccated coconut known as the Chief Presidential Legal Counsel. Then there was a change in talking heads: The official face became the young-ish Secretary of the Cabinet, who sounded fluent when talking about COVID-19-related matters because of his being a graduate of the Philippine Science High School. And then he, too, was replaced when that TikTok sensation, “Hairy” Roque, made a comeback. It was “Hairy” who told the country last Monday, that government “admits that [it] has no program yet for mass testing, saying that authorities will leave such efforts in the hands of private businesses” (according to the tweet by CNN Philippines). This confirmed what I’d foreseen in my previous column, which argued, on the basis of what officials and businessmen close to the government had been saying, that what passes for our government had basically thrown in the towel and was leaving testing to the private sector, which was gasping for air as the economy collapsed. The big players, at least, could test workers and send them back to work while everyone else would be slowly let loose, and everyone would just have to take their chances, because government had run out of ideas as to how to protect public health while keeping the economy alive.
But yesterday, the Secretary of Health, in his opening statement before the Senate (according to CNN Philippines), said, “Our milestones include ramping up our testing capacity to 10,000 tests per day.” A May 11 press release had noted the department “had finally achieved its goal of doing 8,000 real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests for COVID-19 per day.” By its own reckoning, then, government might not be quite up to its stated goal, but was well on the way.
So why the defeatist tone of the former-turned-current spokesperson? Who didn’t get the memo? We have to step back a bit, to get the answer.
On April 24, the Department of Health in a press release said that with the support of the Asian Development Bank, it intended to expand its RT-PCR (reverse transmission-polymerase chain reaction) testing for COVID-19 from the then-current 4,500 per day level, to “at least” 30,000 tests per day by May 30. On May 1, the BCDA in a press release trumpeted that four “mega swabbing centers” would be put up in Metro Manila: the Philippine Sports Stadium in the Philippine Arena, the Mall of Asia Arena, Enderun Colleges in Taguig, and the Palacio de Maynila Tent along Roxas Boulevard, with buses under the auspices of the Department of Transportation to ferry citizens to and from the centers.
Then again, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, on April 7, was reported as chiding the public that just because the government was conducting mass testing, it didn’t mean just anyone could undergo testing “on a whim.” Back then, he said the government’s goal was to conduct as many as 20,000 tests a day by April 27. At the time, government, by its own reckoning, was conducting from 900 to 1,200 tests daily. We know that on April 24, close to its April 27 goal of 20,000 tests, only 4,500 were taking place daily; we know that on that same day, the government then raised its goal even higher, to 30,000 tests a day by May 30. Yet we know that nearly halfway to that date, or on May 11, the DOH had said it was conducting 8,000 tests a day, its own target, but still far from the end-month target of 30,000. As of May 17, using DOH data, an average of 6,504 individuals have been tested daily for the past seven days (which is below the 8,000 a day the DOH had trumpeted on May 11!).
In simple terms, early on, government signed on to the conventional wisdom that to emerge from quarantine, testing has to expand. Not, perhaps, universal testing, but at the very least, aggressive testing of anyone who shows symptoms, as well as people in harm’s way because of their work which exposes them to many people. What has held us back, consistently, is the lack of equipment and materials. Yet government has been repeatedly moving the goal posts, raising its targets while consistently failing to meet them. So much so that out of desperation, businesses that want to stay alive told government, we will test our people, just let them go to work, and government complied.
The Palace, for one, seems inclined to admit this; other agencies seem to believe fixating on a never-fulfilled plan is better than fixating on that other absence: of a plan for the economy, as we all play Russian Roulette by trying to make a living after two months in quarantine.
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