‘Nakasandal sa pader’: Duque secures grip in DOH with Duterte backing
But applied to government officials, it connotes a high level of confidence that no matter what, the official is safe and secure in his position.
This was what became clear in the saga of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, who can be considered leaning on the toughest wall in the bureaucracy—the unquestioning support of the President.
President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly taken up the cudgels for Duque since the pandemic started in 2020 and critics who saw the inadequacy of government response saw the rope leading to the highest official of the Department of Health (DOH).
The most recent case of Duterte putting up a shield to protect Duque was when the Commission on Audit (COA) found deficiencies in the DOH’s use of P67.32 billion in funds for COVID-19.
The controversy grew when netizens pointed out that, at a time when pandemic response needed to be hitting its targets, officials still had the gall to mess up with limited resources that should be devoted to defeating COVID-19.
Duterte declared “you did nothing wrong”, addressing himself to Duque and castigating COA for its supposedly malicious intent in having media write about the report. COA did not issue any press release on its DOH audit report. It was among those posted on the COA website in keeping with the agency’s transparency mandate.
But this was not the first time that Duterte shielded Duque. Throughout the pandemic and the now nearly two-year lockdown in many parts of the Philippines, Duterte stood by Duque, declaring him guiltless even before investigations can start.
In April last year, as senators called for Duque’s resignation over alleged dismal handling of the pandemic, Duterte ordered the health secretary to “stay put.”
“Yes. The President has made a decision for Health Secretary Duque to stay put,” said Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea.
Medialdea added that Duterte expects Duque to work harder, though.
The following month, the Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines Inc. (PHAPi) asked Duterte to replace Duque as the country’s health chief and lead official in crafting national health policy which was a task made more urgent by the pandemic.
However, instead of heeding the call, the President advised Duque not to dwell on criticisms and issues being hurled against him over his alleged poor performance in light of the country’s fight against COVID-19.
“Don’t be so touchy on issues because always there will be pros and cons. Just take note of these because this is a democracy,” Duterte said partly in Filipino.
“I know you, you’re hard-pressed. I know your situation, you just tell us if that is the one that’s in the gray matter in between your ears. Tell them if they don’t believe you that’s their choice,” Duterte said.
When Ombudsman Samuel Martires ordered an investigation on Duque and other DOH officials and employees over alleged irregularities in the agency’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Malacañang said Duterte was confident that his health chief can answer the allegations thrown at him.
“The President has time and again expressed his continuing trust and confidence towards Secretary Duque. The President is confident that Secretary Duque can answer all the allegations of the Ombudsman,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said partly in Filipino.
On June 24, Duterte vouched for and defended Duque amid the investigation launched by the Ombudsman.
According to the President, the DOH chief could not have been involved in corruption because he was already wealthy.
“He wouldn’t do that because Duque is already rich. He has a hospital, a school, everything including the most beautiful wives, he has them all. They are all beautiful—this is important,” Duterte said.
In his “Talk to the People” aired June 30, Duterte came to the defense of Duque and lauded him for a good job in the DOH.
“I saw Secretary Duque in the many meetings that we had. He was working, doing his job. I never saw him as incompetent,” Duterte said.
In July, at a pre-SONA forum, Duque announced that the Philippines had already “flattened” the COVID-19 curve since April. Hours later, however, he backpedaled and clarified that what he meant was “bent” the curve of COVID.
The Department of Health chief’s pronouncement immediately drew criticisms from the public as well as some senators.
Duterte, on the other hand, did not call out Duque for his mistake.
“There was no scolding that happened,” Roque said in a televised Palace briefing.
Duterte again responded to persistent calls for Duque’s resignation and told critics Duque “did not import COVID.”
“Secretary Duque, they want your neck. Then I said: ‘Okay, you want me to fire Duque?’ Let me be satisfied. What was his sin? He did not import COVID,” Duterte said, speaking partly in Filipino.
“He was there all the time and the infection was overwhelming not only for the Philippines. I do not want to compare it with any country, but it was a global thing,” he added.
Even when the Department of Justice (DOJ) launched an investigation on alleged corruption in the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth), where Duque also serves as ex-officio chair, Duterte refused to let his health chief go.
“Secretary Duque, this is not the time for you to resign. I have heard stories about, you’re going to resign. I have full trust in you,” Duterte told Duque in a televised speech.
“There’s an investigation going on, let it be, if you’re not guilty of corruption…corruption is my enemy,” he added.
Duterte said he understood the weight of Duque’s responsibilities.
“If you handle a big organization—I had a chance when I became mayor and then president — you will really become negligent because you can’t catch up sometimes. Sometimes, papers disappear,” the President told Duque.
“What matters is corruption. If you’re not corrupt, you do not have any reason to resign,” Duterte added.
The president also jokingly told Duque to go on a vacation accompanied by Americans somewhere in the disputed Spratly Islands.
“One of these days, I’ll call for a vacation. We’ll go on vacation. Choose a place, secretary — just not outside the Philippines,” the President, speaking partly in Filipino, said, laughing briefly.
“Just here,” he added. “Maybe we’ll visit Spratly but we’ll also invite the Americans to come along. We’re going sightseeing, too.”
“For the life of me, I cannot really find a good reason to prosecute an innocent man,” said Duterte in a taped speech which aired on Oct. 5.
“Mine is to not really prosecute just for the sake of somebody being prosecuted. My job is to see to it that the rule of law —the rules for or against a person — are followed,” the President added.
Duterte’s statements were still linked to the PhilHealth controversy that involved Duque as PhilHealth chair.
Duterte said that he looked at the initial findings of the multi-agency task force he created to run after officials of the state insurance firm who had allegedly misused billions of pesos in COVID funds. The President said he did not find probable cause to charge Duque.
“I’m a lawyer and I know what is probable cause and prima facie [evidence],” Duterte said, speaking partly in Filipino. “These are two phrases that are important before you file cases in court. Problem is, I have reviewed [the report] — a cursory reading maybe — and I have yet to find what they’re saying that Duque would be sued because he did something wrong.”
Duterte continued to defend Duque that month.
“Congress wants me to suspend Duque. I said ‘For what?’…What ground would I base my decision on?”
“Would I just obey the cry of one million as against my assessment of Duque who did not steal anything when it comes to money…maybe some other things, he might be in some other things. But corruption, money? Nothing,” said Duterte.
Duterte’s trust in the DOH chief remained strong.
Over a year since the pandemic hit the country, the President hailed Duque and called him “the hero” behind the government’s “good” response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Compared with other countries, which is not the time to make comparisons, we’re doing good in the fight against COVID,” Duterte said in a pre-recorded speech.
“Secretary Duque is the hero there.”
Most recently, amid deficiencie in the DOH’s management of P67.3-billion in funds for COVID-19 response flagged by the Commission on Audit (COA), Duterte insisted on keeping his health secretary despite growing clamor for Duque to either resign or be fired.
“I know that you already want to resign,” Duterte told Duque, speaking in Filipino during his weekly taped briefing that aired on 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.
The President instead chastised COA for publishing its findings, which he said tended to be taken by the public as “gospel truth” and be misinterpreted as corruption.
A faithful servant?
Duque, for his part, did not fail to express gratitude for Duterte’s unwavering support.
In April 2020, despite admitting that he felt “really hurt” by the call of several senators for him to step, Duque said he will keep his position.
This was after Medialdea said that Duterte has decided that Duque will “stay put” in the DOH.
“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,” Duque said.
In May 2020, Duque said he would “take a bullet” for Duterte.
“Because of the President’s trust in me, as the saying goes, ‘I would take a bullet for this guy’,” Duque said in a radio interview.
“His confidence…is incomparable, including his appreciation of our efforts,” he added.
In June 2020, Duque again said that he serves at the pleasure of the President.
In response to the new calls for his resignation, Duque said he had no problem with quitting but “I was requested not to” obviously by Duterte.
“I have no problem with resigning. President Duterte knows that I’ve resigned several times, but I was asked not to step down,” he said.
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