As if the hardships brought about by the months-long pandemic are not enough, the glaring disarray at the highest levels of the country’s leadership is aggravating matters, causing more public anxiety and confusion.
Take presidential spokesperson Harry Roque’s fatuous hairsplitting on the definition of mass testing. On May 18, Roque said the government was aiming to raise its testing capacity for COVID-19 to 30,000 a day, “but in terms of mass testing like what is being done by Wuhan (in China) where they’re testing all 11 million residents, we don’t have a similar program and we’re leaving it to the private sector.’’
The defeatist, pass-the-buck stance did not sit well with many. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country, the private sector has raised billions to help the administration build quarantine facilities, donated PPE sets to hospitals and frontliners, and continued to provide wages and support for their employees. When the government allowed more establishments to reopen under a modified quarantine, it put the burden of providing transportation for workers on private companies.
Now, going by Roque’s statement, it was also up to the private sector — over 90 percent of which are small enterprises strained to the breaking point by the punishing lockdown — to bankroll COVID-19 testing for their employees.
Dr. Anthony Leachon, who serves as adviser to the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, had to point out the obvious in a TV interview: “The government mandate is to heal, to serve and to lead. We can’t defer to the private sector the responsibility of caring for the people.’’
However, instead of tackling questions on the lack of adequate mass testing more than two months into the quarantine, Roque sought a distraction by conjuring a straw man to phantom-wrestle with. Using “mass testing” was inaccurate, he insisted: “Now perhaps the better term is not mass testing but it should be targeted testing… because I think it’s physically impossible to test 110 million, but we’re aiming to test… 1.5 to 2 percent of our population.”
Roque seems to be the only one confused with the meaning of mass testing; the term had been used and understood by policymakers, health experts, and observers all this time to mean not literally 110 million Filipinos, but a significant, relevant number than the current capacity of between 7,000 and 8,000 individual tests a day. The government itself had no problem using the term: On May 1, the Presidential Communications Operations Office reported about new swabbing centers with 250 testing booths to “enable nationwide” — note those words — “mass testing.’’
After the presidential mouthpiece’s game of semantics came the shock waves of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III’s stunning claim in a Senate hearing last week: “Actually, we are now on the second wave’’ of the pandemic, he said.
What? When did we get over the first wave?
Duque echoed an earlier statement by epidemiologist Dr. John Wong, a technical adviser to the IATF, that the first wave of the pandemic in the country was in late January involving three Chinese tourists from Wuhan, China. But widespread disbelief greeted that claim. Former health secretary Esperanza Cabral noted that the three cases could not be called a first wave as they were too few to form an epidemic curve, and that “(Duque) is just confusing people even more” with his premature pronouncement. Dr. Benjamin Co, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases, agreed: “We’ve never flattened anything yet. We’re still dealing with the first wave.’’
No one appeared more surprised at Duque’s announcement than his fellow Cabinet members. Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea was nonplussed: “Alam mo, hindi pronouncement ’yan ng Presidente. Kailan ba lumabas ’yang second wave?”
Interior Secretary Eduardo Año maintained that the country is still in its first wave, a position shared by National Task Force Against COVID-19 chief implementer Carlito Galvez Jr., who said in his own statement that the country is working to “prevent a COVID-19 second wave.”
Attempting to clarify the disturbing muddle, Roque refuted Duque’s claim, sided with the first wave proponents, and apologized to the country for the mess. Astoundingly, he also said that Duque, the nation’s top health official, only had a “different opinion’’ and that the disagreement was inconsequential (“Maliit na bagay lang ito”).
What a circus in a time of plague. Sick, dying, fearful, hungry, restless citizens can only gnash their teeth at the cosmic misfortune they have been dealt, in the form of so-called leaders squandering urgency and the public’s faith with their thoughtless word games and irresponsibly conflicting voices at this hour of great peril.
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