POSTSCRIPT / July 30, 2020 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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No COVID plan cited because he had none

PRESIDENT Duterte showed the true state of the nation when he spent time recycling old grudges in his fifth annual report before a joint session of the Congress without outlining the recovery plan that people reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic had been primed to hear.

The President’s 100-minute State of the Nation Address in his Batasan echo chamber left an impression that the administration is still groping for the best way to grapple with the rampaging COVID-19 pandemic and a stalling economy that are both requiring quick action.

With government media themselves building up expectations for a road map out of the crisis, the SONA was to have been the occasion to present and explain a cohesive rehabilitation plan. But seven months after COVID-19 hit the country, the President still did not have it.

Instead, Duterte poured out vitriol on telecommunications companies Globe and Smart, warning them to improve their services by December or else. Outside, meanwhile, some of his friends have been reportedly preparing to crash into the telecoms business.

Duterte’s attack on Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon (for his alleged part in preparing the ABS-CBN franchise) and his warning Smart and Globe about their poor service succeeded in distracting attention from his failure to prepare an anti-COVID action plan and a post-pandemic rehabilitation strategy.

One positive COVID-related item that Duterte shared was that China President Xi Jinping had promised him that the Philippines would get a priority share when Beijing starts mass-producing a vaccine.

No timetable was given although he mentioned September as when the vaccine could be available. He did not give assurance that the decision to source vaccines from any of the competing foreign developers would be based on medical and not political considerations.

Malacañang is still talking of measures to be taken – aside from shuffling the categories of quarantine areas – to slow down the spread of the virus that has catapulted the Philippines to No. 1 position in Southeast Asia with its over 55,000 active cases.

The Department of Health itself said the health system is getting “overwhelmed” as cases continued to rise. It said the utilization rate of intensive care unit beds has reached 53 percent, isolation 51 percent, and ward bed 57 percent, putting the nationwide occupancy rate in the “warning zone.”

The President is scheduled to go on TV today to report on recommendations of his inter-agency task force on lockdown measures to be imposed on Aug. 1. That weekly late-night show with the task force appears to have been the main COVID-related activity of Duterte.

It has been observed, as the pandemic claims more victims, that the surge and spread of COVID cases actually favor Duterte. We are not saying that he welcomes a manageable increase in cases, but we note that he is able to use the pandemic to push his political agenda.

The leaps and bounds of the deadly virus help scare people, enabling Duterte to use quarantine rules to justify legal shortcuts, control movements of people, curtail civil liberties, stifle dissent, and keep the opposition in check.

He sends his police, pampered to the max, to enforce quarantine health rules to quash political situations. Oppressed and disgruntled sectors are prevented by the police garbed in military camouflage uniforms from gathering and airing grievances that are unrelated to health issues.

We have gotten the impression also that the military — whose overwhelming presence in the Duterte setup is obvious – has been dominating government responses to the public health problem. We wonder if this is the best approach.

As Duterte leap-frogged in his SONA from one topic to another, sometimes straying from his prepared text, other concerns were briefly highlighted.

In a public confession of his being inutile, Duterte repeated — although there was no urgent need to do so — his old line that he dared not tell China to keep away from Philippine maritime areas because he was afraid to go to war with the land-grabbing neighbor.

In the context of rising tensions in the region and his espousal of an independent foreign policy, Duterte said he was against the United States again acquiring a naval base in Subic Bay. He said that would make the site close to Manila a target in case hostilities erupted.

As to the government’s social amelioration program which he said was not perfect, he claimed that it was able to give aid to over 92 percent of the poor hit by the pandemic. He said also that the government aims to conduct 1.4 million COVID-19 tests by the end of July.

On the holding of classes, he reiterated his stand that face-to-face teaching should not be allowed if there is a risk of contamination. The Department of Education has been preparing a mixed program dependent on local conditions.

He asked the Congress to pass the Bayanihan-2 Actto fast-track approval of the Corporate Tax Reform Law, and to study ways of pump-priming the recovery of small businesses. He batted for Build, Build, Build projects as the springboard to economic recovery.

Duterte endorsed the Balik-Probinsya program, asking banks to give low-interest loans to overseas workers who have returned, and supported the creation of a department for OFWs. He also asked lessors to be lenient with tenants who cannot pay rent due to the hard times.

In reporting that the health system is almost overwhelmed by the rising number of cases, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the National Capital Region and Calabarzon (Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal and Quezon) are classified as “danger zones” with hospital bed occupancy at more than 70 percent.

To address the problem, she said the DoH is implementing the One Hospital Command System to improve coordination among public and private hospitals and manage better their referral system so no hospitals will be overwhelmed.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 30, 2020)

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