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Did Duterte just blink?

Last Sunday evening, President Duterte lashed out at a consortium of medical societies for allegedly going to town with press conferences and press releases about how government has been remiss in supporting health care workers (HCWs) in their fight against COVID-19. Nobody heard the doctors mention “revolution” in any of their presentations. Artists, not doctors, sang a Filipino version of the revolution song in “Les Misérables.” Is the old man now displaying a worsening and worrisome state of confusion? The glib Harry Roque explained it away as simply a figurative expression of the President’s pique at the doctors’ supposedly self-indulgent cry for attention at a time of crisis.

But Mr. Duterte may have been right all along. Railing against an incompetent government that brings misery to the people creates a revolutionary situation. The Duterte governance is the revolutionary situation. The main fault of the HCWs in the eyes of Mr. Duterte is that they brought their sentiments and recommendations to the people. The subtext here is, public opinion will make stubborn Mr. Duterte listen. Despots become humiliated when you do that, not giving them the chance to change your mind in private.

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A subset of doctors have come out with another open letter, a “Second Opinion” that looks more like a second salvo, more accurate and more piercing:

“We join our colleagues in the urgent, real, and valid demand for a ‘time out’ amid the rising tide of COVID-19 cases. However, we advise against reverting back to any Duterte-style enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) or lockdown. Doctors and health care workers must reclaim quarantine for what it should be: a public health measure aimed at saving lives by stopping the spread of disease. We must reject the distorted forms of ‘community quarantine’ being imposed on us, as these are devoid of scientific sense and health purpose, and serve only to oppress our people.”

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Then the Philippine College of Physicians may have fired the third salvo when it sent a respectfully defiant rejoinder to President Duterte, saying they did not mean to accuse the government of incompetence. In the same breadth, they intimated that the President fumbled because they had sent him the same sentiments in April. Staff or presidential failure? Either way, that is a charge of incompetence.

I do not know about doctors, but we political scientists consider “reclaim” as a revolutionary concept, especially when applied to an area of policy that is central to determining the locus of power. In this case, it seems that Mr. Duterte blinked. The HCWs were able to make him do what he otherwise would not do. At the end of the meeting last Sunday where he lashed out at the HCWs, he relented and granted what they asked for: a two-week MECQ, the hiring of 10,000 new HCWs, and a basket of benefits.

Unless Mr. Duterte finds a way out of a repetitive ECQ-MECQ-GCQ loop and regains credibility and control, there may be interminable “time outs” in the country’s immediate future. If pushed against the wall over and over, the HCWs will in turn continue jerking Mr. Duterte’s leash.

It seems innocuous, even laughable, but the Duterte plan to call military reservists to active duty is a dangerous move toward the precipice. Mr. Duterte and the military need to be careful to frame the call to active duty of military reservists as a complementation and not as a substitution of the existing HCW force. Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. recently twitted ominously how it is now the olives (military) vs the whites (HCWs).

And apparently the military is playing into this hazy course of action. In April, then Philippine Army commander Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay ordered the fast-track recruitment of physicians and other HCWs for deployment against COVID-19. According to the Philippine News Agency, these newly recruited doctors will have an initial rank of probationary second lieutenant with a base pay of P38,366, plus allowances and other benefits. Once commissioned, they will be promoted to the rank of captain with a base pay of P56,582 and additional benefits.

However, with Mr. Duterte and the military’s take-charge mentality, I cannot see a complementation scenario. HCWs might simply withdraw as individuals from the COVID-19 arena of battle, leaving the military to die for their country.

Doctors are generally calm, logical persons, not your usual revolutionary types. But the relative certainty of their evidence-based decision-making may be the bane of voodoo governance. Acting on their convictions, they on occasion become Che Guevaras and Jose Rizals, and spawn revolutions.

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