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Duque must go

/ 04:06 AM May 26, 2020

On April 16 — about a month into the #Luzonlockdown — the Senate majority adopted a resolution calling on Health Secretary Francisco Duque III to resign immediately. It was an extraordinary political moment: the administration coalition in the Senate calling for the resignation of the administration’s health chief in the middle of a pandemic.

The resolution was addressed to Duque, not his principal. The senators did not call on the leader of their coalition to terminate the secretary’s services. If I understood them correctly, they crafted the resolution precisely to spare the President the political embarrassment of having to fire one of his own alter egos.

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Duque declined to take the hint, however, and in a comical combination of wounded pride and pandemic flag-waving indulged in the following outburst: “It’s just unfortunate and I’m really hurt that it is at this time that the Senate is calling for my resignation when it is time for us to come together. We need to unite when we have such an invisible enemy. How I wish the Senate had been more magnanimous and appreciative of the efforts that we have put in place by the time the COVID-19 began in this country.”

To the Senate majority’s damning list of his liabilities — “failure of leadership, negligence, lack of foresight, and inefficiency in the performance of his mandate,” which resulted in “poor planning, delayed response, lack of transparency, and misguided and flip-flopping policies and measures,” which in turn “endangered and continue to endanger the lives of our health care professionals, other frontliners, and the Filipino people” — we can add yet another: political tone-deafness.

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Duque missed the meaning of the unusual moment. These senators were his principal’s own allies. They had fully cooperated with the administration in drafting and passing the emergency powers the President said he needed to fight the pandemic. They have national constituencies of their own. And (as some of the senators later publicly admitted) they were receiving a lot of feedback about Duque’s general fecklessness from their own sources, their own networks. People on the ground were telling them that the health secretary was (what is the word?) unhealthy for the government’s coronavirus response.

The resolution was not an antiunity plot; it was, from the point of view of the governing coalition’s internal dynamics, a deliberate effort to prepare a more cohesive response to the pandemic — by eliminating what the senators considered the main source of dysfunction.

It is in detailing the dysfunction that the Senate resolution becomes, not merely a legislative measure or even a political statement, but a social document of the time. The particulars paint a damning portrait of the initial government response, including the failure to ban direct travel between Wuhan, the source of the pandemic, and the Philippines; the inadequate contact tracing done on the co-passengers of the first two COVID-19 positive persons (both Chinese nationals); the failure to “alert the medical community and, fundamentally, the public” of already existing cases; the tragic undersupply of personal protective equipment for health care workers. The details pile up, ending in the following final “whereas” clause: “knowing fully well the danger posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in the beginning of the year, Secretary Duque failed to put in place the necessary precautionary measures to lessen, if not at all prevent, the impact of this health crisis …”

In filing the resolution, Senate President Tito Sotto was joined by Senators Ralph Recto, Migz Zubiri, Sonny Angara, Nancy Binay, Grace Poe, Manny Pacquiao, Win Gatchalian, Francis Tolentino, Joel Villanueva, Bato dela Rosa, Imee Marcos, Lito Lapid, Bong Revilla, and Ping Lacson. All but Recto signed the resolution; after it had been filed, the opposition senators made known that they also supported the move to force Duque’s resignation.

But Duque hid behind the traditional excuse of serving at the pleasure of the President—effectively putting the pressure on his principal.

It has been almost six weeks since the senators issued their appeal, and the government’s response continues to be hobbled by Duque’s initial sins of omission: the lack of planning, the lack of urgency, the lack of public health leadership. His befuddled remark last week, that the country was already in the second wave of the pandemic, was not only unscientific. It showed, yet again, the lack of clarity Duque has about the emergency he is supposed to deal with.

In fighting an invisible enemy, it doesn’t help to have a general visibly unequal to the task.

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On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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