Walk the talk
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque was at it again last week — going viral for all the wrong reasons when he was shown speaking before a tightly packed crowd in Bantayan, Cebu, where mandated physical distancing was all but ignored.
Doctors, unsurprisingly, were aghast at the scenes of throngs of people that had gathered to mark the launch of the Bantayan Island Airport attended by high-ranking politicians, including Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia, as there were clear violations of the government’s own rules on mass gathering and physical distancing.
Dr. Gene Nisperos expressed exasperation in a tweet: “Ilang restrictions ang na-violate dito? Bakit pa kayo naglalabas ng advisories kung mismong matataas na opisyales ay hindi sumusunod? Did not expect such a huge crowd? Come on, the governor was in attendance so an audience was a must! This is shameful.”
Dr. Jai Cabajar was equally blunt: “Not only is this stupid, it’s also dangerous.”
The potential of mass gatherings to quickly spread the COVID-19 disease cannot be underestimated. Forbes recently reported, for example, that a 55-person wedding in a small town in Maine in the United States, where many guests did not wear masks or observe physical distancing, ended up with half of the guests contracting COVID-19, leading to an outbreak involving 177 people and killing as many as seven.
Community gatherings “have the potential to be SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes COVID-19] super-spreading events,” warns the the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Increased transmission risk at such events might result from failure to maintain physical distancing and inconsistent use of masks.”
Roque, who earlier drew flak for cavorting with dolphins in Subic amid quarantine restrictions and then “unloading” at a karaoke bar in Baguio City a day after Typhoon “Ulysses” battered the country, himself acknowledged during the event that physical distancing was not being followed. But he tried to justify what he knew was a problematic scene with a crafty excuse: As long as people wore masks, he said, “okay na ’yan dahil open air naman tayo.”
He conveniently forgot, however, that physical distancing and other rules remain in force as part of the DOH and Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases’ quarantine protocols—the same regulations the Duterte administration has no problem enforcing when cracking down on ordinary citizens.
Will Roque ever be sanctioned for his multiple violations? Were police chief Debold Sinas and Sen. Koko Pimentel, just to mention two other high-profile violators, punished for theirs? Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said an investigation will be launched to look into the liability of those behind the Bantayan event, and also the relief distribution effort led by Sen. Manny Pacquiao in Agoncillo town, Batangas province that similarly drew a huge crowd.
Without mentioning the senator and his Cabinet colleague, Año called on the public — “including government officials” — to refrain from activities if “you cannot implement health standards, particularly physical distancing… Just don’t push through with it because you cannot say sorry that you were not able to control [the transmission of the virus].”
Wise advice — but one he should have given Roque before the guy’s latest caper. As it is, Filipinos already chafing under quarantine controls after over eight months may just choose to also break the rules. After all, if their leaders can do it, why can’t they?
And if enough Filipinos decide to ignore the guidelines and push through with reunions, parties, and family gatherings during the holiday season, there will be an inevitable increase in COVID-19 cases, according to the Octa Research Team.
DOH undersecretary and spokesperson Maria Rosario Vergeire shared the same fear: “Let us remember that the virus is still here. Even if you are wearing your mask and face shield, but would go to a crowded place, you could still get infected. The risk is there and it is very high.”
The government’s forked tongue when it comes to enforcing health protocols only messes up its COVID-19 response message and undermines its very efforts, while alienating and angering a weary public. World Health Organization health emergencies program executive director Mike Ryan reminds those in position of authority and influence that they should be the exemplars of behaviors expected of their citizens to help address the pandemic: “No matter what it says on the posters and no matter what it says in the guidance, if that behavior is not being modeled by leaders and influencers, populations get confused and the issue becomes politicized. That helps nobody.”
Doctor and former special adviser to the NTF Tony Leachon put it more succinctly: “Everybody’s sacrificing — at home, in the workplace, and in the community… As leaders—we need to Walk the Talk.”
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