14 senators want Duque out
Saying Filipinos’ lives were at risk, a majority of the senators on Thursday called for the immediate resignation of Health Secretary Francisco Duque over what they said was his failure of leadership, negligence, lack of foresight and inefficiency in handling the new coronavirus threat.
They cited, among other failings, Duque’s earlier reluctance to ban travel to and from China, his failure to stock up on test kits and personal protective equipment, and his failure to facilitate the accreditation of testing centers for the coronavirus, as seen in the delayed inspection of the one in Marikina City. (See related story in Metro, Page A9)
Senate President Vicente Sotto III and 13 of his colleagues signed the resolution filed on Thursday morning.
Those who signed were Senators Juan Miguel Zubiri, Nancy Binay, Joel Villanueva, Imee Marcos, Sherwin Gatchalian, Ramon Revilla Jr., Panfilo Lacson, Sonny Angara, Grace Poe, Francis Tolentino, Manny Pacquiao, Ronald dela Rosa and Lito Lapid. All belong to the majority bloc in the Senate.
Sen. Bong Go, the health committee chair and President Duterte’s former aide who frequently meets with him, was not among those who signed the measure.
In a statement, Go said he respected his colleagues’ position and agreed that Duque and the Department of Health (DOH) had shortcomings in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, but that he was not backing calls for the health chief’s resignation.
It’s difficult to change “captains” in the middle of a war, Go said.
“Let us just help him and work together so that we can soon overcome this challenge,” he said.
Go defended the DOH, which he said could not fight the coronavirus threat alone. But the senators’ call for Duque to step down should be an eye-opener for the agency, he said.
The DOH, he said, should do its duty and act quickly when needed. It has no excuse, he said, because the President had given it his trust and the resources it needed.
Duque rejected the senators’ call for his head, lamenting in an online meeting with the House of Representatives special committee on COVID-19 that it came at a time when the country needed unity in the battle against the coronavirus.
“I serve at the pleasure of the President and for as long as he continues to put his trust and confidence in my capabilities I will lead the DOH and the (Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases) in putting forward a very effective response [to] COVID-19 in this country,” Duque said.
He said he respected the senators’ “fair opinion,” but he wished they had been “more magnanimous and more appreciative” of the efforts of the DOH and the task force in trying to defeat the coronavirus.
The Philippines, he said, was one of the countries that imposed an absolute ban on visitors from China and its two administrative regions, which delayed the spread of the coronavirus to the Philippines.
“No less than the World Health Organization itself had cited the Philippines for being one of the countries that did not report any cases of COVID-19 for more than three weeks, and, in fact, to be exact, four weeks,” he said.
In a statement released by the DOH, Duque said he would answer the senators’ allegations “in due time.”
“But right now, we will continue to be in the trenches with our health-care workers and front-liners,” he said.
President Duterte dismissed the senators’ call for Duque to resign. Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea said the President had “made a decision” for Duque “to stay put.”
“Secretary Duque was made aware of the sentiments of the senators, and the President expects him to work even harder to set aside any doubts on his capacity and sincerity to serve the public during these difficult times,” Medialdea said in a statement to the Inquirer.
The senators said Duque’s failures led to “poor planning, delayed response, lack of transparency, and misguided and flip-flopping policies and measures in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic that endangered and continues to endanger the lives of our health-care professionals, other front-liners, and the Filipino people.”
“Knowing fully well the danger posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in the beginning of the year, Secretary Duque failed to put in place the necessary precautionary measures to lessen, if not at all prevent, the impact of the [health] crisis,” they said.
Duque’s actions, they said, had made things worse.
“Due to the improper advice and manner of handling the present pandemic by our Department of Health officials, our country is foreseen to face ‘quite negative dynamics’ in the coming weeks due to the ‘inefficiency of government management’ as the Philippines has earned the lowest mark among the Asia-Pacific countries COVID-19 safety ranking based on a study that evaluated the crisis performance of 150 countries and territories,” they said.
No local transmission
The senators cited Duque’s objection on Jan. 29 to a ban on visitors from China, where the virus emerged late last year. At that time, the health secretary warned of repercussions of such a ban and said coronavirus cases were not limited to China.
The DOH also failed to conduct immediate and proper contact tracing after the Philippines reported its first coronavirus case, the lawmakers said.
Duque, they said, did not immediately alert the medical community and the public that there were patients with symptoms of the disease in local hospitals and insisted that there was no local transmission.
This exposed health-care workers and ordinary Filipinos to the danger of the disease, they added.
The DOH had also been criticized for its delay in releasing information about the spike in the number of coronavirus cases in the country, which prompted hospitals and local governments to make their own announcements, they said.
The senators also hit the DOH’s failure to provide adequate personal protective equipment to health-care workers, many of whom were prompted to appeal for donations.
The Philippines is one of the countries with the largest numbers of coronavirus infections and deaths of health-care workers in the world, they noted.
Duque likewise failed to stockpile enough polymerase chain reaction kits for the country, they said.
And even after the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of antibody test kits, he rejected these rapid test kits for mass testing and said public funds could not be used to buy these.
Fortunately, the President countermanded the DOH secretary on this matter, they added.
Duque did not promptly accredit testing centers as well, they said, citing the delays in the inspection of the Marikina Testing Center. —WITH REPORTS FROM MELVIN GASCON, JULIE M. AURELIO AND TINA G. SANTOS
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