COVID outlasts Duterte administration, persists under Marcos
(First of two parts)
MANILA, Philippines—This year, as the country witnessed the end of one administration and the start of another, one thing remained constant—the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic, and its threat on the lives of millions of Filipinos.
Over 60 million Filipinos cast their votes during the national elections this year—31 million of them choosing Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the namesake son of the late dictator Ferdinand Sr., as the 17th president of the Republic of the Philippines.
READ: From 2016 to 2022: Provinces’ flip key to Marcos win
The inauguration of Marcos Jr. marked the end of Rodrigo Duterte’s six-year term as president, which was marked by accomplishments as well as scandals, most of it made more noticeable by the impact of COVID.
Aside from the Duterte administration’s so-called legacies, it passed on to the Marcos administration the immense responsibility of managing the COVID situation and the aftermath of several controversies that hounded Duterte’s COVID response, including one of the biggest corruption scandals in the country’s history.
In this first part of the COVID yearend report, INQUIRER.net looks back at how the Duterte administration managed the pandemic as well as how it addressed—or failed to address—the string of controversies surrounding this.
This report will also discuss how these controversies, which have seeped into the current administration, have influenced recently passed COVID policies and how it would impact the government’s future pandemic response plans.
What was left behind
In an interview with INQUIRER.net, Dr. Tony Leachon, a health advocate and former special adviser for the National Task Force on COVID-19, said he would give the Duterte administration a score of 6 out of 10—or 60 percent—for its COVID response and management.
In the past two and a half years since COVID hit the country, the Duterte administration’s pandemic response has been heavily criticized mainly due to its “iron fist” approach.
Then President Duterte’s worrying statements—including his “shoot them dead” warnings against quarantine violators—were denounced both by local and international groups and organizations.
READ: Reckless statements behind jab panic: If that ‘somebody’ is Duterte
For Leachon, however, the assessment of the previous administration was based on the biggest issues hounding its pandemic response and management.
“The first one is the late arrival of the vaccines. We had the opportunity to have the vaccines way back in December 2020, but I think somebody dropped the ball […],” Leachon said.
“We could have actually protected the population early with the best vaccines available based on the efficacy rate and quality,” he added.
He also cited the questionable pricing and costs of the vaccines, which were investigated in a series of Senate hearings last year.
“Number three is one of the longest lockdowns in the world. Basically, because of the nonscientific way of doing it. There should be a partnership with the medical community on how to handle this,” he said.
He also noted the appointment of “perhaps incompetent [people] or persons not fit for the job,” including the military men assigned by Duterte to spearhead the country’s pandemic response.
Lastly, Leachon listed the controversial Pharmally scandal last year, which revealed transactions between the Department of Health (DOH), Procurement Service-Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM), and little-known company Pharmally Pharmaceuticals Corp.——a questionable deal which cost the government tens of billions of pesos with middlemen earning billions as Filipinos suffered and battled COVID.
READ: Pharmally scandal: When middlemen profit even during a pandemic
Past issues ‘rolled over’
According to Leachon, this myriad of issues under the previous administration “rolled over” into the Marcos administration.
“I think the past administration’s level of ineptitude rolled over into the current administration. This is very evident with the absence of the secretary of health,” Leachon said.
“The expectation of most people since you’re coming from the COVID pandemic situation, there must be a competent, agile person or a leader with a sense of urgency to come up with a COVID exit plan,” he added.
Five months under the new administration, the Philippines remains to have no Department of Health chief despite the continuing threat of COVID and its emerging versions.
In June, before then Health Secretary Francisco Duque III officially vacated his post, he said that the next head of DOH must be experienced in dealing with COVID.
The following month, Marcos appointed Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire as officer-in-charge of the DOH. Other key DOH officials were also appointed last month.
When asked why there is no health secretary yet amid the continuing fight against the pandemic, Marcos explained that the DOH’s job was not limited to dealing with COVID-19.
“We have to remember that the DOH is not about COVID alone. It’s about public health in general. That’s another side of it, and it’s as important as COVID is,” the President said in a television interview.
Despite numerous calls urging the immediate appointment of a new DOH chief, Marcos said he would name a health secretary once the country’s coronavirus situation “normalizes” from its current state of calamity.
READ: Gov’t told: Permanent DOH chief needed now, not later
This was an assessment he made last October, after the DOH confirmed cases of immune-evasive Omicron sub-variant XBB and variant XBC in the Philippines.
READ: Marcos to name DOH chief once Covid situation ‘normalizes’
According to House Deputy Minority Leader France Castro, the President’s decision to hold off appointing a health secretary reflects how much the administration prioritizes health.
“By not appointing a health secretary up till now, [it] shows that the health of the nation is not a priority of the Marcos administration. These problems cannot be fully addressed by an officer in charge because they have limited powers, and their initiatives can be overturned when an appointed secretary steps in,” Castro said in a statement.
READ: Not picking a DOH chief shows Marcos not prioritizing health – solon
In a recent statement, the President said he still has no nominee yet for the top DOH post and added that DOH OIC Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire is “doing a fine job.”
“We have not yet nominated someone for DOH Secretary,” Marcos said.
Leachon stressed that the appointment of a new DOH chief remains crucial in addressing the country’s COVID situation.
“Going to the fifth month of the current administration of President Bongbong Marcos, we have yet to see a secretary of health,” he said.
“Particularly now that we have new variant cases coming in, wastage of vaccines again being put forward, and of course a lot of things related to Minimum Public Health Standard (MPHS)—in which the executive orders were issued to make masks optional both indoors and outdoors when you know that the booster rate of the country is quite low,” he added.
READ: To wear, or not wear, face masks vs COVID: The zigzag road PH is taking
“These are important issues because I would think that the present government would learn from the past by actually stepping up to the plate.”
Achieving goals, fulfilling promises
Appointing the country’s next secretary of health could also help Marcos fulfill the promises on COVID response that he made during his first State of the Nation Address (SONA), according to Leachon.
In his speech, which was around 2,800 words and 25 minutes long, one of the first things Marcos dwelt heavily on was focusing on the country’s future under his administration—which included the government’s COVID response and other health-related plans.
READ: Marcos’ inaugural address: What was said, promised, left behind
Without mentioning the previous administration, Marcos highlighted the shortcomings of his predecessor’s COVID response. He promised to fix these shortcomings and assured that his government will no longer have secrets in public health.
“There were shortcomings in the COVID response. We will fix them. Out in the open, no more secrets in public health. Remember, I speak from experience. I was among the first to get COVID. It was not a walk in the park,” the new president said.
“We won’t be caught unprepared, under-equipped, and understaffed to fight the next pandemic. To start with, we never got over the pandemic of poor, if any, free public health.”
Marcos also vowed that there would be no more lockdowns imposed in the country despite the increase in COVID-19 infections.
“For our health situation, the threat of COVID-19 is still there, especially now that variants are being discovered. But we cannot afford another lockdown,” Marcos said, speaking in Filipino.
“We will not implement another lockdown. We have to balance our health and the welfare of our citizens at one end and the economy on the other.”
Still, the President decided to retain the current COVID-19 Alert Level System in the country while a new health restrictions classification is being studied.
In the past years, during the pandemic—and under the previous administration—many hospitals in the country became overwhelmed by the high number of COVID patients.
Hospitals ran out of beds, intensive care units (ICUs) and wards were packed with infected persons, there was a lack of mechanical ventilators, and the exodus of burnt-out healthcare workers emptied hospital corridors.
READ: Nurses’ exodus: Hailed as heroes, treated like peons
READ: PH health workers: A pandemic of big work, small pay
Marcos, during his SONA, promised additional health centers and hospitals—including specialty hospitals—and better health services.
“We will construct additional health centers and hospitals [in the country],” Marcos said.
“Beyond the issues that the pandemic has brought, the need for a stronger health care system is self-evident. We must bring medical services to the people and not wait for them to come to our hospitals and health care centers,” he continued.
READ: Health group to gov’t: Ensure planned specialty hospitals provide quality care
The President also pledged to establish the Philippines’ own Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and establish the country’s virology center.
READ: PH virology, vaccine institute: Benefits outweigh risks
READ: Focus on benefits, manage expectations of PH virology institute
“These are big audacious goals which the President has promised,” Leachon commented.
Making the same ‘mistakes’
The previous administration has been repeatedly slammed for the lack of public health experts involved in its COVID-19 pandemic response team.
Duterte had previously appointed former military generals to lead his pandemic crisis response team, including:
- Then-Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana: Chair, National Task Force Against COVID-19
- Then-Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, former chief-of-staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP): Vice Chair, National Task Force Against COVID-19
- Then-Peace Process adviser Carlito Galvez Jr., former AFP chief-of-staff: National Task Force Against COVID-19 Chief Implementer and Vaccine Czar
- Then-Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu: Cebu City COVID-19 Response Overseer
- Retired Major Gen. Restituto Padilla: Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) spokesperson
- Baguio Mayor Benjamin Magalong, a retired police general: Contact Tracing Czar
“A health or medical expert along with an experienced progressive economist or national planner would have been better appointed as co-chairs and implementers as they would be more attuned to what is needed to address the crisis we are facing — one that requires not a militarist framework,” Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate previously said in a statement.
Duterte defended his preference for appointing former military officers, saying that those spearheading the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic need not be doctors.
“You’re asking me: ‘Why are you so attached to those who were in the military? They know nothing.’ This is a mechanical act. It is not a study of medicine. This is like a transaction in business,” Duterte said, speaking partly in Filipino, in one of his pre-recorded televised briefing.
“You need not be a doctor here because you are transacting a business. It is not really a matter of medical science you are talking of,” he said.
READ: Those spearheading fight vs COVID-19 need not be doctors, says Duterte
According to Leachon, the current administration under Marcos might have already started to make the same mistake.
“With the current administration, because of the lack of a secretary of health, they have repeated mistakes—or even make worse because they don’t have yet a secretary of health, they named a health undersecretary who is not even a physician and a PNP chief of police—not that we’re underestimating his capacity to serve as undersecretary—but you’re committing the same mistakes done in the previous administration,” Leachon said.
Last October 23, the DOH confirmed the appointment of former Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Camilo Cascolan as one of the agency’s undersecretaries
The Alliance of Health Workers (AHW) strongly denounced the appointment of Cascolan and said it showed Marcos’ lack of concern for the lives, health, safety, and welfare of health workers and Filipinos in general.
“Cascolan’s appointment is a huge insult to our health experts, who are most qualified to administer and run the affairs of the DOH,” AHW said
READ: Ex-PNP chief joins DOH: ‘Insult to health experts’
In an interview, Marcos explained that Cascolan will mainly do “an administrative audit”—focusing on the DOH’s functions, including tracking possible syndicates at the agency, instead of the health issues handled by the agency.
READ: Bongbong Marcos defends choice: Cascolan to see DOH functions, not health issues
“This will actually affect every one of us, considering if there’s a lack of medical experience—as well as persons with a sense of urgency, leadership, and governance—I think we will commit the same mistakes that we suffered under the last administration,” Leachon warned.
(Next: COVID-19 in PH in numbers, long COVID, projections, endemicity?)
For more news about the novel coronavirus click here.
What you need to know about Coronavirus.
For more information on COVID-19, call the DOH Hotline: (02) 86517800 local 1149/1150.
The Inquirer Foundation supports our healthcare frontliners and is still accepting cash donations to be deposited at Banco de Oro (BDO) current account #007960018860 or donate through PayMaya using this link.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.