But, SP Sotto, who is to blame? | Inquirer Opinion
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But, SP Sotto, who is to blame?

/ 04:00 AM March 30, 2021

Senate President Tito Sotto has been the true leader of the Senate in the last five years. He heads a large bloc of politically aligned senators, enjoys a real rapport with almost every member of the chamber, and, with his fourth term almost completed, shares with Minority Leader Frank Drilon the distinction of having served the longest among incumbent senators.

He could have been Senate president from the first day of the 17th Congress if he had wanted the post. I wrote in “How Pimentel became Senate president” (7/26/16) that he, together with Loren Legarda, then a senator, “began to reach out to [Koko] Pimentel. They had also done the math, and recognized that Pimentel had the best chance of putting together a working majority.” But other senators told me Sotto was simply not yet ready to move his bloc behind his own candidacy. When he finally replaced Pimentel in 2018, I acknowledged, in “Du30’s facial powder and the limits of political will” (8/28/18), that in the Senate under President Duterte, “Sotto is an independent power, and the center of an influential power bloc … [who does] not really need the President’s blessing to win the leadership of [his] peers.”

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A summary of his current standing among his peers may be read in “Let Leila join Senate teleconferences” (5/12/20): “Despite his residual reputation as a political lightweight because of his background in show business, Sotto actually enjoys his peers’ respect for his readiness to protect the Senate’s institutional dignity. After he was elected president of the Senate in 2018, he paid a long, cordial, and productive visit to De Lima. When the police suddenly showed up in the Senate’s parking area later that year to arrest Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, he strongly criticized the lack of courtesy and allowed a stand-off that lasted for weeks. And earlier this year, he defended the right of the Senate committee on public services to hold a hearing (aired nationwide) on the ABS-CBN franchise over the vociferous objection of Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano.” We can add more examples.

Perhaps some of the President’s advisers and some of his department secretaries underestimate Sotto, but as he has proven again and again in the Duterte administration’s continuing attempt to change the Constitution, he will not allow the institutional dignity of the Senate to be trivialized. In a period of accelerated democratic erosion, this is no small thing.

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It was bracing, then, but not a surprise, when in April 2020 he led a majority of senators who passed a resolution calling on Health Secretary Francisco Duque III to resign, for “failure of leadership, negligence, lack of foresight, and inefficiency” in the government’s pandemic response.

It was more surprising, but not completely unexpected, that almost a year after, when new record highs in the number of new daily COVID-19 cases were being set again, Sotto joined calls for the abolition of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), the inter-agency task force headed by Duque that is in charge of the pandemic response. “Something is wrong,” he said.

It’s possible he heard back from the President’s inner circle, because three days after criticizing the task force for its arrogant nonresponsiveness and its failure to stem the pandemic, and the Department of Health for its “gross incompetence,” he tried to shield President Duterte from the consequences of his own criticism. “I could not imagine any other President in the past [who] would be able to handle this pandemic, yes, in the ideal way that we would want it to be,” he said in a Rappler interview. “I will not go to that extent of saying that the problem we’re in now is because of the President. I don’t think so.”

But Senate Resolution No. 362 carefully laid the predicate for Duque’s resignation, listing at least 15 decisions, policies, pieces of wrong advice, and failures all attributable to the health secretary, together resulting in endangerment of “the lives of our health care professionals, other frontliners, and the Filipino people.” The resolution was carefully couched; the language of appeal was addressed to Duque, not his principal—but President Duterte immediately came to Duque’s defense. The fact that the incompetent health secretary remains in office: Who is to blame for that?

On the day the resolution was filed, the country had 5,453 confirmed cases and 349 deaths. Today, the total number of confirmed cases is 731,894, and the number of deaths 13,186. If Duque had been replaced, by a competent medical professional with a background in public health and a greater sensitivity to the public interest instead of the government’s political objectives, how many lives could have been saved? The fact that the number of cases grew by a staggering 132 times, and the number of deaths increased 37 times: Who is to blame for that? The primary reason the IATF continues to mismanage the pandemic is it follows a peace-and-order template, rather than a public health approach. When Sotto vented on the IATF’s failures, he said this in Filipino: “If the set-up is like this and we cannot handle it well, let’s have the doctors handle it.” He was referring to the reality that the IATF is led mainly by ex-generals. But — real talk — who is to blame for that?

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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