‘Optimism and hope’?
Threats and a full frontal attack marked President Duterte’s fifth State of the Nation Address on Monday. But there was nothing to chew on in terms of what was most awaited: a straightforward presentation of where the nation stands in the fight against COVID-19, and the administration’s strategy to address the pandemic as well as the massive unemployment now choking the economy and the people, particularly the poor.
Communications Secretary Martin Andanar had telegraphed it, after all: an address “full of optimism and hope” and focusing on the government’s response to the pandemic and its effects on the economy.
As it happened, the Department of Health’s daily bulletin registered 1,657 additional cases of COVID-19, raising the total to 82,040, at the same time that Mr. Duterte was delivering his speech. The reminder of a steadily climbing count served as a damper on his opening lines—“Let us not despair, vaccine is around the corner”—and on his assurance that the Philippines was now in “a better position to weather” the public health crisis.
He didn’t say what constituted that better position, or how government action prevented 1.3 million infections. (His spokesperson once gleefully claimed victory over University of the Philippines analysts who had estimated the number of infections by June’s end, as though they were the enemy.) The promised optimism and hope couldn’t quite come home to roost.
What unfocused the President’s penultimate accounting of the state of the nation was his attack on Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon, a double-barreled blast that bookended his speech and that stemmed from Drilon’s response to his proud announcement in Jolo that he had dismantled the oligarchy without resorting to martial law. He said Drilon had “arrogantly” defended the Lopezes, owners of the disfranchised ABS-CBN, of whom he claimed to have been “a casualty.”
After ending his speech with “Together we shall overcome,” the President called Drilon a “hypocrite” and in effect accused the latter of being part of the law team that drew up the water concession contract of the Ayalas, another family in the oligarchy that he had ripped apart. It was a startling attack, which Drilon’s swift riposte through the media rendered imprecise, shrill, and ultimately inelegant.
Equally startling was Mr. Duterte’s call to Congress, which he praised for being hardworking—a spot-on observation, the supermajorities having quickly passed the anti-terrorism law and killed the ABS-CBN franchise—to reinstate the death penalty for crimes under the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002. The trade in illegal drugs that he had sworn to crush in the first few months of his presidency is apparently such a monkey on his back that he needs capital punishment to back his bloody war on drugs that has earned for the Philippines international disrepute. (Take it from Sen. Imee Marcos, who leads the claque in the Senate: Congress has a lot on its plate.)
Mr. Duterte also threatened telcos Globe and Smart with expropriation for bad service, and gave them till December to shape up. (Early yesterday, the signs having been wisely read, shares of the telco-come-lately surged on the trading floor.) He issued threats as well against opportunists profiting from the COVID-19 crisis, those who had illegally made off with “ayuda,” and criminals in general. As long as he was president, he said, “there can never be runaway crime.” The killing of National Center for Mental Health chief Roland Cortez and a companion on the day of his Sona took the gloss off his words, as did the assorted killings of women, including two sisters, last week, as well as the expert hit job on Manila prosecutor Jovencio Senados early this month. And whatever emerged from the inquiry into the smuggling of crystal meth worth billions of pesos through the ports? The proverbial blank wall?
In the end, jeepney drivers desperate to eat merited a mere promise of aid. Still-devastated Marawi seemed not to exist in the landscape of misery. Cops and soldiers were praised for the coercive bent of the anti-pandemic efforts.
And the President once more unreeled the movie in his mind: that standing up for our territory means going to war against mighty China. “Inutil ako diyan,” he said, admitting a specific worthlessness vis-à-vis upholding the nation’s rights in the West Philippine Sea. Right.
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