In Duterte take on COVID, clarity lost in attacks vs critics
MANILA, Philippines—President Rodrigo Duterte has been resorting to taped messages or meetings with his Cabinet to address key issues, mainly the COVID pandemic but experts watching these keenly find them lacking in clarity.
Dr. Albert Domingo, a health systems expert, said Duterte’s talk to the people was key to connecting a nation with its leader.
“Whenever a public figure of such prominent stature as the President speaks, almost everyone listens—whether for or against the person holding the office,” Domingo said.
He told INQUIRER.net that this is the reason “every public briefing is an opportunity to deliver crucial public health messages.”
Some indigenous groups, like the Ayta Mag-indi in Porac, Pampanga, keep abreast of what’s happening in the country, especially on COVID, through “fragments of information” from news and online posts.
“A few of us were in the mountains when the community quarantine was declared. We were caught flat-footed. We didn’t know what to do,” Marivic Capuno said.
Capuno was engaged by the Program on Alternative Development of the University of the Philippines’ Center for Integrative and Development Studies (UP CIDS) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) in taking a closer look at the situation of poor Filipinos barely surviving the pandemic.
The Aetas are one of these Filipino groups.
“Without timely and relevant information on the pandemic, the Aetas were left on their own to understand the pandemic given their past experiences and knowledge that were passed on to them by their ancestors,” UP CIDS said.
Domingo said during stressful times, like the still ongoing pandemic, “calming and measured words of assurance can also relieve anxiety.”
Since March 12, 2020, the President got this chance to deliver clear and easily understandable messages to the people about COVID and government response to fight the pandemic.
But in many instances, Duterte devotes his taped, public addresses also to attacking his critics and leaves an incomplete picture of the COVID situation.
Aila Villamor, a worker in Metro Manila who had severe COVID-19 in 2021, said it seemed like Duterte would rather stay silent on COVID response because it could be a source of embarrassment that data show a failure to control a surge in cases.
Last Monday (Sept. 13), Duterte’s address was aired by the government network PTV. He said if vaccine supply would stabilize by October, it was possible for the “general adult population” to get vaccinated.
The address, however, was not fully devoted to COVID response. Duterte also announced that he would require his Cabinet to get his clearance first before attending hearings at the Senate, which is now investigating anomalies in COVID fund spending.
In the same address, Duterte asked Wilkins Villanueva, director general of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), to discuss a 2004 report about a clandestine drug lab operation which Villanueva said was the first operation that led to the dismantling of a crime network that was manufacturing illegal drugs in the Philippines. But Duterte was not president at that time and it wasn’t clear why he made it part of his address to the people.
Since Aug. 26, a week after Sen. Richard Gordon, head of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee, started a motu proprio (on its own) investigation on pandemic spending, Duterte started using his address to the people as a venue to attack the senator and the Senate in general.
On the same day, COVID cases in the Philippines drew nearer to 2 million—1,899,200.
In his address on Aug. 26, Duterte condemned the Senate investigation saying it will “lead to nothing.” He also appealed for more vaccines from China and the United States.
Duterte didn’t discuss what the government was doing to control the COVID surge that is believed to be fueled by Delta, a variant of SARS Cov2 that is more contagious.
He told the people, though, to prepare for “imponderables that would come our way any time” that could be linked to the “vagaries of politics.”
Duterte then allowed his other officials to make their reports—Health Secretary Fransisco Duque III, National Task Force COVID-19 Chief Implementer Carlito Galvez, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque and Metro Manila Development Authority Chair Benjamin Abalos.
No questions came forth from Duterte about the officials’ reports. “Thank you,” was his last word to them.
During the same address, Duterte asked Filipinos not to believe in investigations by Congress and trust that he would not involve himself in corruption because he was “the last person who will fool you.”
“You trusted me; you voted for me,” Duterte said on the same day, addressing himself to the people.
While he didn’t devote much of his address to COVID matters, Duterte discussed his candidacy for vice president, thanking Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo for “the endorsements that you have secured for me.”
In his taped public address on Aug. 31, Duterte discussed the COVID case tally on Aug. 30—22,366 new infections and said there was a need to “recalibrate our response.”
He said there had been positive effects from the recent enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) imposed in the National Capital Region (NCR) to lower the virus’ reproduction rate.
“We are also evaluating whether granular or localized lockdowns would work best in our current situation,” Duterte said.
He, however, said the Philippines was in a better situation than other countries like United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, which have high COVID death tolls. “Our deaths are not that much,” Duterte said.
He also discussed the controversy over special risk allowance (SRA), which the law mandated for distribution to health workers on the frontline of the fight against COVID. Duterte said the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) had released P311.79 million on Aug. 25 to the Department of Health (DOH) for the SRA.
While he reminded Filipinos to stay safe, Duterte quickly reverted his talk to the transfer of P41 billion from the DOH to the Procurement Service—DBM (PS-DBM).
At the start of his talk, Duterte attacked Gordon, saying the senator should lose weight because “you’re kind of different.”
“I feel dizzy looking at you,” he told the head of the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee.
Trying to defend his administration against corruption allegations, he said the Philippines was in the same boat as other countries in the world because no nation was prepared for COVID.
The fund transfer was in accordance with his order to Duque to “buy immediately, never mind about bidding” supplies needed for COVID. “I’m sure there’s a law somewhere which would allow you to buy these things without a bidding,” Duterte said, recalling what he told Duque.
‘Price of Aquino PPEs higher’
Last Sept. 2, a day after the Philippines reached two million COVID-19 cases, Duterte pointed to the positive side of the data—1.8 million individuals had already recovered, which he said was a “very good reflection of what our health people are doing.”
Duterte also said 33 million doses of vaccines were already administered in the Philippines and that he was expecting 25 million doses to arrive soon.
But he quickly returned to defending the purchase of billions of pesos worth of PPEs by the PS-DBM, saying the items were not overpriced.
He also claimed that the administration of the late President Benigno Aquino III bought more expensive PPEs worth P3,500 per set, much higher than the costs his administration paid for the same items—P1,910 per set.
Duterte said no funds were wasted as the COVID supplies bought by PS-DBM were inspected and delivered.
But during the Senate investigation, it was revealed that the inspection report for the PS-DBM orders of PPEs was signed even if the items were still in China.
On the same day, Duterte accused Gordon of milking Philippine Red Cross, which Gordon heads, for the elections.
‘There is no corruption’
Last Sept. 8, the President started his talk by asserting the need to present data for Filipinos to understand the government response to the pandemic.
He discussed the health emergency and its death toll, but only as a means to defend PS-DBM transactions with Pharmally Pharmaceutical Corp, which won P8.82 billion worth of COVID supply contracts despite having only less than P600,000 in paid-up capital.
Duterte also said he wants health care workers to know that if the government had resources, they would already receive SRAs, telling them that they should “give us time to adjust the finances.”
The President, however, dedicated most of his time attacking Gordon, claiming that the lawmaker is evading a state audit of the Philippine Red Cross because “he is afraid.”
Trying to defend government transactions related to the COVID-19 crisis, he reiterated that “there is no corruption,” and he was the one who instructed Duque to “buy all things because doctors are dying.”
“That was my order. I take full responsibility for that. I’m the one who instructed; I’m the President. I am the one blamed if people are already dying,” he said.
‘Nobody was prepared’
Last Sept. 11, Duterte started with the presentation of the “successful operation of the security units of the country” against illegal drugs.
Afterwards, he talked about COVID-19 and the strict lockdowns that the government imposed since last year to defend the contracts made with Pharmally.
“Back then, the situation was becoming dire as we also had very limited supplies of PPE in our hospitals. At that time, nobody, no country was really prepared,” he said.
However, he dedicated most of his time to attacking lawmakers investigating government contracts and defending his former economic adviser Michael Yang.
“This Michael Yang for the last 20 years was a businessman of Davao. He was the one I instructed to make contact with the Chinese. Of course, he has businesses, so he wants in. He’s a businessman, of course. What can you do?” he said.
He also defended Pharmally, saying that senators “have no say” on the young company’s technical and financial capabilities to bag government contracts in the midst of the health crisis.
Irritated by the continuing investigation led by the Senate, he asked Sen. Franklin Drilon about his links to individuals involved or allegedly involved in corruption and drugs—Janet Lim Napoles and former Iloilo City Mayor Jed Mabilog.
Duterte also threatened Gordon: “I will write you a letter to open up your records because I will also request Aguinaldo, and I am sure he knows his business, that there is money in Red Cross belonging to the government which he has to look into.”
Influencing public behavior
Domingo said he hoped that the President is briefed properly, “not only on the actual content of the reports but also on the opportunity to influence public behavior.”
In May 2021, the Social Weather Stations (SWS) said 31 percent of the people replied “uncertain” when asked about their confidence in government vaccine experts’ evaluation of vaccines to be used in the Philippines.
It said 18 percent was “very confident,” 34 percent was “somewhat confident,” 12 percent was “somewhat not confident,” while 5 percent said, “not at all confident.”
The SWS said in July that 36 percent would “surely” receive vaccines, 9 percent would “probably” get vaccinated, 21 percent was “unwilling,” while 24 percent was “undecided.”
In October 2020, an SWS report revealed that Filipinos are divided on government data on COVID cases—39 percent believed the data are probably higher, 31 percent said these were smaller numbers, while 23 percent said the data were “probably right.”
Reaching 2 million
While the President spent much time attacking the Senate, the Philippines continued to see a rise in COVID cases, with a peak of 26,303 cases on Sept. 11.
Here’s how the Philippines reached the two million-mark from 1,899,200 infections last Aug. 26.
- August 26:
Total cases: 1,899,200
New cases: 16,313
Active cases: 131,921
- August 31:
Total cases: 1,989,857
New cases: 13,827
Active cases: 145,562
- September 1:
Total cases: 2,003,955
New cases: 14,216
Active cases: 140,949
- September 2:
Total cases: 2,020,484
New cases: 16,621
Active cases: 146,510
- September 8:
Total cases: 2,134,005
New cases: 12,751
Active cases: 151,135
- September 11:
Total cases: 2,206,021
New cases: 26,303
Active cases: 185,706
- September 12:
Total cases: 2,227,367
New cases: 21,411
Active cases: 181,951
- September 13:
Total cases: 2,248,071
New cases: 20,745
Active cases: 180,293
- September 14:
Total cases: 2,248,071
New cases: 20,745
Active cases: 180,293
Villamor, the COVID survivor, said he thinks Duterte has no interest in public health, COVID or millions of people suffering as a result of the crisis.
“His only interest is to save himself and to attack his critics. He is not crazy like having his own world. There is a method in his madness,” she said.
Villamor’s thoughts were shared by Arjay Estefa, a worker whose father died of COVID in April. “It is outrageous that the President has nothing enough to say regarding the COVID-19 crisis in the country,” she said.
“I really can’t understand what the President wants to prove. I am dismayed with how the government responds to the health crisis,” she said.
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