Back to before
To hear presidential spokesperson Harry Roque describe it, the government’s response to the pandemic has been “excellent.”
But numbers and statistics don’t lie, and they show 2021 to be a worrying replay of 2020 for the Philippines. Despite the grave consequences of its follies and missteps last year, the government seems to have learned little or has ignored altogether the lessons from disastrous experience, thus the signposts at this time offering a virtual rehash of early 2020.
Spiking cases? Check. The number of new reported infections has soared to 5,000 a day, with Octa Research fellow professor Guido David saying that given the more contagious variants, the figures could climb to as many as 8,000 daily by end of March. One year since the Philippines went into one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world, data from the World Health Organization showed the country as having the worst coronavirus performance in the Western Pacific Region, with a total of 611,618 infections and 12,694 deaths as of March 12 per DOH. The steep climb has prompted Metro Manila mayors to again impose a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.
Neglected health workers? Check. Last week, health frontliners at the National Kidney and Transplant Institute staged a noise barrage to demand the release of their delayed benefits mandated under the Bayanihan 2 law—essentially the same lament of neglect health workers had expressed in the early days of the pandemic, when they were forced to refashion garbage bags into PPE for want of government supply, work long hours for miserly and delayed hazard pay, and endure being publicly excoriated by the President when they pleaded exhaustion and asked for a break. With COVID-19 cases again breaching hospital capacity, health workers are the first in line to pay a steep price: This month alone, 82 health workers from the Philippine General Hospital, 27 employees at the Philippine Heart Center, 33 at Amang Rodriguez Memorial Medical Center, and nine at San Lazaro Hospital were themselves admitted as patients.
Absurd, incoherent rules? Check. Following a long line of policies imposed without much thought and consultation (e.g., motorcycle barriers), the police recently banned public displays of affection such as kissing, holding hands, and hugging, warning that such acts breached social distancing protocols. Also banned in public spaces are youngsters 17 years and below, despite health experts warning of adverse psychological and mental effects in being cooped up indoors for prolonged periods, and of the benefits of outdoor activities because of better air circulation.
Then there’s the bewildering police habit of breaking up crowds and arresting people for lack of social distancing—only to pack them inside cramped vehicles. The recent “one time, big time” police operation at the Quezon Memorial Circle saw dozens of individuals arrested for not wearing masks and face shields in public, who were then ferried in crowded buses to City Hall where they were fined P300 each for the violation. Rather than treat the pandemic as a health crisis where mass testing, contact tracing, and vaccination should be prioritized, the administration remains stuck at seeing the crisis as a law enforcement issue.
Erring officials? Check. How expect full compliance from the public when government officials themselves violate COVID-19 protocols and get away with it? Last year, now police chief Debold Sinas held a birthday party that flouted all the rules on mask-wearing, social distancing, and the liquor ban. The President himself robustly defended Sinas—in the same address where he also demanded that the public follow the law. This year, Sinas was at it again, skipping the required provincial health screening when he visited Oriental Mindoro on March 11, the same day he would test positive for the virus. No word of reprimand yet from the health department and Malacañang. It’s the same silent condonation accorded Roque when he swam with dolphins, sang at a Baguio karaoke bar, and attended mass gatherings with no social distancing. Roque has also tested positive for COVID-19.
Clueless leadership? Check. On March 8, President Duterte repeated his advice to use gasoline as a disinfectant, a bizarre, dangerous pronouncement first made in July last year that health officials quickly dismissed as only a joke. But this time, Mr. Duterte declared he was serious. “Hindi ako nagpapatawa,” he stressed.
In the face of all these—over 12,000 deaths, at least 600,000 cases, P641 billion in new loans and grants for vaccines that have yet to roll out for the majority of Filipinos, the worst economic contraction since 1947, over 4 million citizens rendered jobless, etc.—the President has characterized the situation as “Maliit na bagay” (a small thing). No wonder we’re back to before—but worse, for an entire year’s worth of bitter, devastating lessons still unlearned.
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