Allies and enemies
Third time’s the charm? Not in this case.
Health advocate Dr. Anthony Leachon’s departure from his post as special adviser to the National Task Force Against COVID-19 (NTF) marks the third resignation in weeks by a Duterte administration official or insider in frustration at the government’s response to the pandemic — or, as Leachon itemized it, pertaining to the Health department’s failings: its “lack of sense of urgency, problems in COVID data management and transparency in communication process.”
Economic planning chief Ernesto Pernia left in April, hinting politely but gravely that “When the orchestra is not well-orchestrated, then you have a little problem.”
Department of Information and Communications Technology Undersecretary Eliseo Rio Jr. followed in May — forced to quit, he said, when President Duterte abruptly accepted his months-long-pending resignation, over what Rio claimed was his opposition to an “ineffective,” problematic contact-tracing app that certain top officials were curiously dead-set on acquiring.
Now, it’s the turn of Leachon, who worked directly with NTF chief implementer Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. The health adviser said he felt forced to resign on June 17 when Galvez talked to him about how he had angered the President and two of his officials — presidential spokesperson Harry Roque and Health Secretary Francisco Duque III — with his public posts expressing deep misgivings about the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Roque confirmed the story, and reduced the issue to two things: “You do not have the monopoly of the truth and we have never lied,” he said to Leachon. And — why was he acting like an enemy? “Talagang lahat po ng miyembro ng strategic task force ay talagang nagtatanong, bakit tayo tinitira ng sarili nating kakampi?” (All members of the strategic task force are asking, why are we being hit by our own ally?)
Leachon first vented on Facebook and Twitter on June 13, prompted, he explained, by the “very bad numbers” that day, when the DOH reported 504 new cases of COVID-19 infections with 22 deaths, the highest in a single day in more than a month. “I think DOH has lost focus in everything,” he lamented. “Risk communication, priorities, data management, and execution of all plans…”
In another post, Leachon was even more pointed: “I’m extremely frustrated with the lack of sense of urgency of the DOH leadership in data management. As a team player, I should not have uttered those words. But I hope somebody would take data management seriously.” Translation: He was not being heard inside.
The blowback was swift: By the time the IATF met on June 15, Leachon’s time in the NTF was over. He had to go, not because his complaints were invalid or baseless, but apparently because he dared stray from the official government narrative that the dire situation was under control and that the DOH was winning the war against the pandemic. Take note of Roque’s language: Leachon was supposed to be a “kakampi,” loyal and unquestioning. The moment he spoke up, however, he was now effectively an enemy, to be cast out in the name of the never-ending war of political attrition in the administration’s mind in which dissenters and critics of its missteps are reflexively categorized as such, even in the midst of the greatest public health crisis in the nation’s history when rallying the citizenry to a concerted cause is paramount.
Is there any doubt that the country needs to do better at this point? The Philippines — which has just marked its 100th day under lockdown, the longest in the world — is no closer to “flattening the curve,” with 30,682 confirmed cases as of June 22; 1,177 deaths; and on track to hitting at least 40,000 before the end of the month.
Meanwhile, the economy is in tatters, and millions are out of work. But, instead of acknowledging the reasonableness of Leachon’s main point — that the DOH is still failing to provide timely, real-time, accurate, and more granular data that have life-and-death implications for government policy-making—Roque et al. seemed more offended by the temerity of an “ally” to opt for honesty and transparency.
Leachon is not even an outlier in his views. So many others have called out the government’s blunders and squandered opportunities. The Senate demanded Duque’s resignation in April. And last week, Ombudsman Samuel Martires ordered a probe of the DOH’s COVID-19 shortcomings.
Leachon’s crime was not that he spoke falsely, but that, by going public with the true state of things as he saw it, he violated the regime’s cardinal rule: Toe the line, or else. The public had every right to hear what the administration governing in its name, and with the people’s money, was doing to address the pandemic. Malacañang, however, chose to see it in the Manichean way it has always seen things in the last four years: If you’re not with us, then you’re against us.
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