‘Tapang at malasakit’
Life in the time of the pandemic would have been easier if only President Duterte had lived up to his slogan, “tapang at malasakit.” From 2016 until today, Mr. Duterte has talked much about his “political will” and “resolve” to end corruption and illegal drugs. If only that political will and resolve had also translated to swift and decisive action against the spread of COVID-19 in early January last year, our families would not have had to endure a sinister mix of panic, fear, and suffering as the country plunged into a crisis. Our families would not have had to experience working at home, or children to stop attending school physically. Medical workers would not have had to push themselves to their limits, as they do heroically to this day.
Instead of recognizing the grave threat of COVID-19, on Feb. 3, 2020 the President would go on record saying: “The response of the people from the initial reports of coronavirus was almost hysterical when there was really no need for it actually. And if there is really a virus going around, why do you have to be hysterical?” He even pretended to cough at times to make people laugh: “Bakit? Pinipigilan ninyo? Kaya namumula ‘yung mukha ninyo eh. You are suffocating yourself. Feel free. We do not… Eh ako magkati ‘yung… [coughs].”
When people experienced the very first pandemic-related lockdown in March 2020, Mr. Duterte focused on promoting discipline, setting the stage for putting the blame on the people. The public was asked to be patient as the government waited for what the President referred to as the “magic pill” that would combat COVID-19—vaccines—“just as an antibiotic would kill a bacteria.” In April 2020, Mr. Duterte ordered the military to shoot lockdown violators. Even as some public officials failed to lead by example, the rest of the population were expected to subject themselves to law and authority.
Fast forward to today: Mr. Duterte has admitted that the nation is almost “back to zero” in its pandemic response.
Curiously, missing numerous opportunities to prevent and combat the spread of COVID-19 still did not put a dent on Mr. Duterte’s popularity; surveys in fact showed increased approval ratings for him. Despite all the government blunders and policy disasters, narratives that express ardent support for Mr. Duterte invariably point fingers at anyone and everyone else except the President. Media that were critical were portrayed as promoters of fake news and accused of triggering unnecessary fear for self-serving interests. Frontliners and medical workers were accused of complaining too much. People who had to go out of their homes to find food for their families were depicted as “pasaway” or “matigas ang ulo,” while those who expressed discontent at the government missteps were tagged as either “salot,” “rebels,” or “communists.” Instead of attributing the crisis to the inadequate government response, these narratives blamed the people’s alleged noncompliance as responsible for COVID-19 deaths and suffering.
The country’s worsening state has also been framed as an inevitable consequence of the global crisis. However, this claim begs the question: Was it indeed unavoidable? How does one explain the resilience of our neighbors such as Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia?
Accountability is essential to improving the pandemic response. But how can the government improve if it does not even recognize its incompetence and mistakes? Believing the spin that puts the blame on others helps Mr. Duterte and his administration evade accountability. It also causes more suffering that could have been avoided in the first place.
One cannot help but consider the “what ifs,” especially when there are testimonials from nations that responded to the pandemic effectively. There’s the experience, for instance, of our northern neighbor, Taiwan: Swift and decisive action against the spread of COVID-19 helped Taiwan’s economy withstand the global depression that many nations suffered. Good governance prevented the severe hampering of production lines. Local tourism flourished as the population was limited to domestic travel. As cliché as it may sound, the old saying “prevention is better than cure” has worked wonders for Taiwan.
As many Filipinos are again subjected to lockdown, “tapang at malasakit” remains the key to improving the country’s dire situation. Not the “tapang at malasakit” that Mr. Duterte espoused, but rather the courage to hold public officials accountable, and the compassion toward fellow Filipinos as we struggle to protect our families’ and each other’s welfare.
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Fernan Talamayan is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Social Research and Cultural Studies, National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University, Taiwan.
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