Even by the freewheeling, helter-skelter standards of policymaking that have defined the Duterte administration, the spectacle of confusion that erupted last week among top officials over whether citizens should continue wearing face shields takes the cake.
The government imposed the mandatory use of face shields, along with face masks, in December 2020 as an added precaution against the virus, and the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) directed law enforcers to strictly implement the wearing of face shields in public places.
Do face shields work? Despite studies cited by the DOH that they supposedly provide an additional layer of protection, several lawmakers, local officials, and even some doctors have called for scrapping the requirement. One of these advocates, Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, said face shields were just an additional expense for already hard-up folk (“gastos ‘yan sa utaw’’). Senate President Tito Sotto agreed: Its efficacy is “not proven, [and] no country in the world does it,’’ he declared.
Still, as with anything in this administration, the final word lay with the President, even if he is not a health expert. That was demonstrated all too clearly last week when, per the account of Sen. Joel Villanueva, Mr. Duterte asked senators during a law-
signing event on Wednesday to approach him, and he inquired about the face shields they were wearing.
“So, we made mention about what happened during the (Senate) hearing where it was also asked if there was any other country (that required face shields). But not one of us could say if there was any other country that made it a policy,” said Villanueva. (Peru imposed mandatory face shield use last April.)
“Then, the President himself said, ‘Then you don’t have to wear it.’ So, all of us took (them) off,’’ the senator said.
The President didn’t stop with abruptly changing official policy. He also prescribed that face shields should be required only in hospitals where the risk of virus transmission is high. There is no mention that he cited any data or called on any health expert in his team to back up his assertion, but the casual pronouncement seemingly overturning the regulation was enough to make it the biggest news of the day. Sotto would tweet triumphantly: “Last night the President agreed that face shields should only be used in hospitals. Allowed us to remove ours! Attn DOH!”
The President’s impulsive, off-the-cuff decision-making triggered widespread confusion, and barely disguised consternation among his underlings. In just one day, administration officials exceeded their usual quota of conflicting, uncoordinated statements, leaving the public just as bewildered.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said clarification was still being sought about the President’s decision, so people should wait before going around in public without face shields.
The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), blindsided by Mr. Duterte’s sudden change of heart, reacted by reiterating its position that face shields should stay. The IATF is supposedly in charge of all things COVID-19, but even in this it cannot make the final decision and can only make recommendations to its principal. Thus, “While waiting for the President’s decision on the matter, the existing policy on the use of face shields remains in effect,’’ said Roque.
Earlier, two officials had already figured in a row over the issue: Health Undersecretary Leopoldo Vega first said face shields may be removed in outdoor settings, but Interior Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya insisted that “for the DILG, it is an added protection, whether you are indoor or outdoor.” Health Secretary Francisco Duque III himself rejected the call to drop the requirement, while another of his deputies, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, the designated spokesperson holding daily briefings on the COVID-19 situation, offered a more convoluted clarification: The use of face shields, she said, is only required in specific settings such as enclosed public spaces or public spaces where one-meter physical distancing is not possible and there is a gathering of more than 10 people.
How to implement the incoherent policy? Noting the lack of any final and official guideline for now, Philippine National Police chief Gen. Guillermo Eleazar told his policemen to just warn and not impose sanctions on people without face shields.
Still, Roque confirmed that “the President did say that the wearing of face shield should only be in hospitals.” And “when the President has decided, then that’s the policy.’’ (That should be music to the ears of the International Criminal Court, since, according to just-retired prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, the Duterte administration’s drug war killings were seemingly instigated by the President’s very words.)
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