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The emperor has no clothes

When the Secretary of National Defense announced on a Saturday that the authorities would hold a meeting on Monday to decide what to do about the virtually unprecedented coming together of medical associations pleading for a resumption of lockdown, the public erupted in fury. So much so that the Palace quickly announced that members of the Cabinet would meet much sooner; and indeed, they met and thereafter met with the President last Sunday, with the President’s remarks released late that night.

The televised remarks were quite revealing, as recounted to me by a reporter (after a couple of postponements, I declined to stay up that night). The Health Secretary made a report and recommended the metropolis to be placed under MECQ. The President then launched into one of his trademark rambles, focusing on the NPA and corrupt officials. An hour of this led to the docile Francisco Duque III gently asking the President what his pleasure was: Was he approving resumption of MECQ? The President nodded. Duque gave thanks and praise, and the President resumed rambling. Another observer pointed out the broadcast just faded out, suggesting the government decided to just cut the broadcast while leaving the President to ramble at the camera.

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Viewed through the prism of social media, it was an Emperor Has No Clothes moment. Particularly devastating in the derision it inspired was a clip of the President playing with a device that squirts alcohol while insisting, in his roundabout manner, that he was utterly serious about the usefulness of gasoline as an emergency disinfectant. The President’s having to be coaxed to address — which he did by means of a nod — what was supposed to be the topic of his talk, his convincing impersonation of a senior citizen in the grip of dementia, and his thunderous denunciation of medical associations fomenting revolution — because they made a public collective statement instead of sending a private loyal petition to him first — exasperated the public. But again, this is as it appeared when seen online, when it is well to remember that what we see online is often more a reflection of ourselves than objective reality, because our windows to the online world filter what we see, through algorithms that tailor what we see to things that will please us.

Some years back, when the previous president dared say that Filipinos working abroad were economic refugees and it was incumbent on government to work harder so Filipinos could actually choose whether to work at home or abroad, he was crucified. But I felt then and feel now, he was absolutely right because what had been going on since the Marcos years was that Filipinos working abroad actually allowed governments to govern with impunity, because whatever they did, an umbilical cord to remittances kept the economy afloat regardless of how things were (mis)managed at home. But people preferred the ritual pandering to “heroes” which actually trivializes what heroism is. So we got what we got in 2016 — only for Filipinos abroad, who would lose their jobs because of the COVID-19 pandemic and who had to come home, discovering how utterly worthless all the ritual declarations of their heroism was. Nothing awaited them at home except misery and neglect on the part of an overwhelmed government, and then hostility from their countrymen who viewed their already tragic return home with suspicion.

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The same thing applies to medical and other frontliners: There have been noise barrages to hail them, statements aplenty to honor them, but their reality is being asked to leave boarding houses near hospitals, and their suffering ostracism from neighbors, and all the other things that get your blood boiling when you read about it. We have such a big discrepancy between our community rhetoric and community reality that it makes you realize the truth of Rizal’s saying that as the people are, so is their government.

The only thing that will force the authorities to perform to a minimum standard is the incentive from knowing that elections are just two years away. It serves as a kind of institutional check-and-balance, producing a minimum level of performance and a maximum effort at finding scapegoats, which means some trying to maximize their opportunities for graft just might get found out and exposed, to make possible the election or reelection of others.

Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @mlq3

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