Not a few jaws dropped last week when, instead of taking responsibility for the unconscionable delay in the release of mandated benefits due health workers who died or were infected with COVID-19, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III committed a cardinal sin in leadership and pinned the blame squarely on his staff.
“Nakakahiya talaga, sir,” a miffed Duque told President Duterte during a televised meeting in Davao City. “Namatayan na nga tapos nagpawardi-wardi yung mga tao ko na parang walang sense of urgency. Kaya po ang sama-sama po ng loob ko.” (It’s truly embarrassing, sir. Despite the deaths, my staff didn’t seem to have a sense of urgency. That’s why I really feel bad.)
Duque, already under constant withering criticism for his perceived lack of leadership in the biggest public-health crisis in the country’s history, later walked back on his statement. As health secretary, he bore the ultimate responsibility, he said, to implement the provision in the Bayanihan to Heal As One Act granting P100,000 compensation for each of those who got sick fighting COVID-19, and P1 million to the families of those who died in the line of duty. Still, there was no apology offered to subordinates he had thrown under the bus.
If this were the first time Duque thrashed his people to deflect responsibility for his failures, it would already reflect dismally on him. But, in fact, this was merely a reprise — as if Duque never learns from past blunders. Back in February, when the Philippines was just coming to grips with the newly-arrived pandemic, Duque was quick to criticize “ some of the operating units of the Department of Health” for the delay in the contact-tracing of fellow passengers of the earliest COVID-19 patients, even dragging the airlines into his blame game.
What followed was a series of more unfortunate events that exposed the folly in Duque’s early boast that the Philippines was a “model country” in terms of its pandemic response. At every turn, the health department’s shortcomings and missteps were laid bare, steadily chipping away at public confidence that the DOH chief was on top of the situation — from the severe lack of personal protective equipment in hospitals, to the shockingly paltry hazard pay offer for frontliners, the issue of possibly overpriced medical equipment, confusion over whether the country is on the “first” or “second” wave of the pandemic, down to the baffling use of the terms “fresh” and “new” to refer to the latest count of COVID-19 cases.
Most egregious of all, some three months after lockdowns were imposed across the country, the DOH continues to miss its daily testing targets for the infection. In April, it said the daily testing rate would be up to at least 8,000 by the end of the month, a target reached only in May. Then the target was raised to an ambitious 30,000 a day by end-May. Again, a failure, the daily rate barely budging upward to an average of 9,500.
These and other costly missteps had prompted a majority of senators in April to make a rare move: to call for the “immediate resignation” of Duque, a Cabinet official—for “failure of leadership, negligence, lack of foresight, and inefficiency in the performance of his mandate… resulting in poor planning, delayed response, lack of transparency, and misguided and flip-flopping policies and measures in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic…”
More recently, the Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines Inc., an association of 744 hospitals that includes some of the country’s largest private health institutions, sent a letter to President Duterte stating that it had had enough of the promises of the DOH and PhilHealth to act on their pleas for reimbursement for rendered services, and asking that the President replace Duque as “he seems to be already so exhausted that there is need for fresh blood and a fresh mind to lead the Department of Health and the PhilHealth.”
The President not only rejected the Senate’s call two months ago. In the wake of the revelation that health workers had been waiting an agonizing three months for what was rightly due them, Mr. Duterte also joined Duque in berating DOH personnel, even threatening to fire some of them—while once again sparing the health chief and defending him from criticism. What’s behind this inexplicable inability to let go of an alter-ego so dysfunctional in his work that the President himself had to micromanage even the administrative function of dispensing benefits already mandated in the law?
There is one conclusion to be drawn from this protracted, slow-motion debacle in the DOH leadership, the consequences of which are only leading to greater instability and public mistrust in the government’s COVID-19 response: Nakakahiya talaga, Mr. Secretary — staying in your position, that is. Please do the right thing and heed Sen. Panfilo Lacson’s advice: “Just go.”
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