When ‘crocodile tears’ are shed: Duque and his shrinking space
MANILA, Philippines—Resounding calls for his resignation are filling the airwaves and social media.
But instead of what some might say as taking the high road, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III chose to cling on, responding tearfully to accusations he’s been incompetent, to say the least, in effectively dealing with the pandemic.
Critics said Duque shed crocodile tears, a term which meant a display of remorse that lacked sincerity.
Whether Duque was sincere or not in his tearful response, it was not the first time, though, that the embattled health secretary would insist he was doing his job just fine and would not resign.
His boss, President Rodrigo Duterte, said as much, which was a big confidence boost to Duque. As the Commission on Audit (COA) marked questionable spending patterns in the Department of Health (DOH) worth more than P67 billion, Duterte declared what could be music to Duque’s ears—no funds were stolen—even before an investigation could start.
Since the pandemic struck, Duque has successfully dodged controversies by publicly saying sorry and showing that he’s hurting as a result of the accusations. Critics, however, said something was missing in Duque’s responses. There was no explanation.
This as thousands of families weep for loved ones who died of COVID-19. As of last week, the death toll reached 30,000 and is increasing.
Over a year into the pandemic, Duque made a public show of tearing up as his way of telling people he is being wrongly accused.
Pandemic hot seat
As the DOH chief, Duque has been in the hot seat over what some lawmakers said was his failure of leadership, negligence, lack of foresight, and inefficiency in handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
As early as April 2020, few months after the first COVID-19 case in the Philippines was confirmed, senators questioned what they said were shortcomings in government, particularly DOH, response.
Among these was Duque’s earlier reluctance to support a ban on travel to and from China, where the SARS Cov2 virus that causes COVID-19, originated.
Duque was also taken to task for allegedly failing to stock up on test kits and personal protective equipment (PPE) and early failure to accredit private laboratories as coronavirus testing sites.
In response to senators’ and critics’ demand for him to give way by quitting, Duque said he was “really hurt” by the accusations but would stay in his post.
“It’s just very unfortunate and I am really hurt that it is at this time when the Senate is calling for my resignation when in fact we need to come together,” Duque said.
“We need to unite. We have such a formidable enemy,” Duque said.
“This is a war. This is against an invisible enemy. How I wish that the Senate had been more magnanimous and more appreciative of the efforts that we have tried to put in place from the time the threat of COVID-19 began in this country,” he added.
Duque pointed at the direction of Malacanang—he stays as long as Duterte trusts him.
“But this I have to say. I serve at the pleasure of the president and as long as he continues to put his trust and confidence in my capabilities, I will lead the DOH and IATF in putting forward a very effective response against COVID-19 in the country,” Duque said.
Never mind if his critics think that he is the problem.
While Duque remains firm on clinging on, he has also admitted lapses in his department’s COVID-19 response.
In March last year, Duque admitted there were “gaps” in reporting confirmed cases after suspicions were raised that cases were being underreported.
“This would require a policy review as to when the antigen test results will be counted if positive,” Duque said.
“This is something that is going to be addressed by the concerned office, which is our technical arm in terms of testing,” he said, referring to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, an agency under the DOH which conducts tests on respiratory samples to determine if these were contaminated with coronavirus.
“We’ll get their recommendation with regard to your very well-taken point,” Duque said.
In April, as senators chided him for “failure of leadership, negligence, lack of foresight” in addressing the pandemic, Duque once again apologized to the public.
“I will be the one to admit, I also have shortcomings and mistakes and I apologize,” he said.
However, he said the disease was new to the Philippines and the rest of the world and no one has any experience addressing this kind of pandemic.
“This is new so we don’t have any past experience in handling such a virus,” Duque said.
In August 2020, Duque admitted to “a lot of gaps” in the DOH’s pandemic response.
It was not Duque’s fault alone, however, according to the DOH.
“The secretary has been working so hard since the start. He has been able to guide the whole DOH into this response,” said Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, who is also DOH spokesperson.
“Even though there have been a lot of gaps—we all know that—it’s not just the secretary. But also this is not just really DOH’s fight. It is the fight of the whole country, the fight of the whole government,” she added.
Vergeire said that Filipinos “should all move forward,” help each other, and do their duties in curbing the virus’ spread.
Last April, Duque said there might be a need to look at the pandemic from a “different angle.”
“Well you know, the 1 million cases can be viewed also from a different angle,” he said. “That we are also going to sooner than later reach a million recoveries.”
“I’m not saying we are successful. All I’m saying is there’s always an opportunity which we grab each time to do things better,” he added.
Who dropped the ball?
Last year, Duque clarified that no one had “dropped the ball” in acquiring doses of vaccines from Pfizer, which was considered as a preferred brand.
“First of all, there is no such thing as dropping the ball,” Duque said.
In response to Sen. Panfilo Lacson, Duque said he was not the one who dropped the ball by failing to comply with requirements for the Pfizer deal.
“There’s no such thing, that I did not act quick enough,” Duque said.
“The thing is, you go through a process and when you go through a process you cannot just be hurrying up things just like that. You have to be cautious, especially you are talking about a brand new, novel vaccine,” explained Duque.
The DOH chief went as far as sharing the timeline on the process between Pfizer, DOH, and other government agencies.
Amid claims of massive corruption in the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth), Duque, who serves as chair of the PhilHealth board, came close to stepping down from his post.
Among allegations of corruption raised against PhilHealth officials, including, Duque, were the allegedly overpriced deal to install an IT system, the release of funds through interim reimbursement mechanism, and manipulation of the agency’s financial records.
By September, Sen. Christopher “Bong” Go, Duterte’s closest confidant, said Duque had been “close to tears and would really want to let go” of his position after he was linked to the PhilHealth mess.
But Duque’s public response would belie Go’s story.
“This is all just part of the job,” Duque had said.
“First of all, I did not ask for this position. I was invited by the President to help him in his administration. You know that I have been a health secretary before, right?”
“This is the second time. In other words, what else do I have to prove, right? Nothing, except to work for the country and to help the administration of President Duterte become a success. So I will just work,” he said.
In June, Sen. Manny Pacquiao accepted Duterte’s challenge to name corrupt government agencies in the current administration and identified DOH.
Duque responded by saying he felt “disheartened” by the “baseless accusations.”
“While we are disheartened by these baseless accusations from our government officials, we submit ourselves to inquiries from legislators as this is a part of the checks and balances in our government,” said Duque.
“I have always been a champion of good governance and the DOH has always been transparent with regard to our fund utilization,” he added.
Most recently, Duque again turned emotional following the Commission on Audit’s (COA) report which found more than P67 billion in deficiencies in spending by the DOH for COVID response in 2020.
“Since Wednesday when this came out, I cannot sleep, my colleagues at the DOH also can’t sleep,” Duque said. “Why, you ask? Because of shame. We were bloodied and bludgeoned with this issue and if it’s like this every time, how can we move on?”
“So this is really painful for us here because we are the primary agency at the forefront responding to these times,” he said. “I’m telling you my people got sick, isolated, went on quarantine and some died but my God, can you have pity, can you try to come here and do our jobs?”
“Our civil servants who are doing good—we know what you’re saying—is precisely because of these findings that it was shown because we are cognizant of the state of public health emergency that we are all given in this pandemic that has brought the whole world down to its knees,” Duque said.
“You destroyed us, you destroyed the honor of the DOH,” Duque said. “You destroyed every one here, we cannot face people because so many things are being said against us, so many accusations. I still cannot sleep, for several nights already.”
Critics and lawmakers, however, were not moved by Duque’s display of emotions.
During the Senate hearing on the findings of the COA report, Sen. Grace Poe said “despite numerous probes in the past, shouldn’t Secretary Duque be suspended by now if we are going to apply the same judgments as what happened to the PhilHealth officials?”
Sorsogon Gov. Francis “Chiz” Escudero, a former senator, called out Duque for being emotional but failing to properly explain the use of the P67 billion flagged by the COA.
“Of all the many things you said, not one answered even a single statement of COA,” said Escudero.
“Explaining to the public both our actions or inactions is part of our job as public servants,” Escudero said on Twitter.
“No need to cry or pander…#YungWalangTinatagoWalangKinakatakutan #WalangKinakatakutanAngWalangTinatago,” he added.
While groups continued to urge Duque to step down, Duterte has already made it clear that he would not accept his health chief’s resignation if it came.
“I know that you already want to resign,” Duterte said in Filipino, addressing Duque at his weekly taped briefing that aired late Monday (Aug. 16).
“But you also know that I will refuse you. In the past, you have attempted to resign twice. I expect you to say something after this. You will resign. I will tell you, ‘No.’ You did nothing wrong. Why should you resign?” Duterte added.
As the government investigates the ongoing controversy involving Duque and DOH, and as the drama unfolds, the COVID infections continue to increase and new threats are emerging from two variants of the virus—Delta and Lambda
As of Wednesday (Aug. 18), the DOH recorded 11,085 new COVID-19 cases. This pushed the total number of cases to 1,776,495. The DOH said a total of 1,640,721 had recovered while 30,623 had died.
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