It took the Integrated Chemists of the Philippines (ICP), not the Department of Health (DOH), to correct the dangerous suggestion — coming from no less than the President of the country — to use gasoline as a disinfectant against COVID-19.
Following President Duterte’s remarks on Friday that he was not joking about his advice to use gasoline to disinfect hands and face masks, the ICP posted this warning on Facebook: “The ICP reminds everyone that gasoline should not be used to clean or disinfect things. It is harmful to people especially if inhaled.”
Following public disbelief at the President’s statement, both the Palace and the DOH characterized it as yet another joke by Mr. Duterte. His original statement on July 21, however, was unequivocal: “For people who don’t [have Lysol], drench it in gasoline or diesel, and that son of a bitch COVID won’t last. Just find some gasoline, dip your hand in it.” His doubling down on it days later merely confirmed that the President was dead-serious about his advice.
One would have expected Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, who was present in the room when the President said this, to at least flinch at the ridiculous suggestion. But that would probably be asking too much, as this health secretary has time and again shown his inability to lead with any firmness, competence, and clarity the fight against what has become the country’s greatest public-health crisis.
How about the real medical and health professionals at the DOH, those who have the sworn duty and responsibility to look after the health of the nation especially during a pandemic? Couldn’t they have spoken to get things right? Couldn’t they have questioned the scientific basis, if any, of such a claim?
The World Health Organization, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US National Public Health Institutes, and the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry all contain literature about the harmful effects of gasoline inhalation and exposure, particularly to children. Unfortunately, the DOH did not issue a categorical and timely statement to counter the misinformation peddled by the country’s chief executive.
Instead, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire gave a coy answer when asked about it: “You know how the President speaks. It’s probably one of his jokes, especially [about] gasoline.’’ Then she reminded journalists “to be responsible’’ in providing information to the public, particularly during a pandemic. “All of us are scared, all of us are worried, all of us are bothered. So it will not help them if we give them wrong information,” she deadpanned.
Likewise, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque tried to put an end to the controversy by trotting out Malacañang’s standard it’s-a-joke card. “Kayo naman, apat na taon na siyang president, hindi nyo pa kilala si Presidente? Joke only. Bakit naman tayo maghuhugas ng gasoline?’’ Roque said, sounding convincingly incredulous himself.
Now Roque is left twisting in the wind, because last Friday, the President declared he was not joking at all. “That’s disinfectant—alcohol, gasoline—just get a fill to disinfect. For those who cannot understand, I am not joking. That was true. You might be thinking that I was only joking,’’ Mr. Duterte said.
At the start of the lockdown, the government implemented strict quarantine guidelines that included a zealous campaign against purveyors of fake news. As of April 6, the Philippine National Police had filed charges against 32 people for allegedly spreading misinformation and causing panic among the populace. But here, distressingly, was the President himself propagating bad science, while the people around him, including designated health experts, were letting slide the harmful advice.
Last June, Vergeire said that part of the communication strategy of the DOH was to provide the public “rapid, reliable and accurate information’’ because of the “tsunami of speculation and misinformation,’’ especially on social media. She specifically cautioned against US President Donald Trump’s debunked suggestion to inject bleach on people to combat COVID-19: “That’s coming from a trusted official of government, and you will mention this kind of thing, definitely those people who really believe in government might follow this practice, which is wrong. It can be very disadvantageous to the health and safety of an individual.”
The pandemic is no time to be making jokes or recommending unproven measures that would put more lives in danger. Is it too much to expect that the President be well-advised on pronouncements impacting the health and well-being of the citizenry? And that the country’s health leaders be steadfast, at the very least, against blatant disinformation prescribing a cure worse than the disease itself, even if — but especially if — it comes from the highest official of the land?
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