POSTSCRIPT / January 7, 2021 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Duterte comes out stronger in PSG tiff

PRESIDENT Duterte continues to consolidate control over power centers of the government, and it seems nobody is able to do anything to check his overly amassing political clout unto himself.

In his latest move, Duterte warned the supposedly independent Senate against summoning “my soldiers”, referring to members of the 4,000-strong security force guarding him, to testify on their unauthorized clandestine use of COVID-19 vaccines smuggled from China.

Duterte told the Senate in a televised message Monday that there would be “a little crisis”, a veiled reference to something more serious, if it summons members of the Presidential Security Group to answer questions and bring records on the illegally used vaccine.

Knowing first-hand the power bursting from the barrel of a gun, Duterte has been coddling the uniformed services (including the police), cultivating their loyalty with preferential treatment and hefty material benefits.

The relationship has reached a point where he now calls the armed forces “his” soldiers in disregard of the Constitution’s designating them “the protector of the people and the State” (not of the President).

On Monday, Duterte saw another chance to show his concern for “his” soldiers, and he grabbed it. In a televised message to the Senate, which was then poised to summon members of the presidential security assailed for inoculating themselves with illegal Chinese vaccine, he said:

“I will not elaborate on it but do not force my hand to meddle into this affair because, maybe I will not, I am not so keen about allowing (PSG chief Brig. Gen. Jesus) Durante and the rest of the PSG to testify.

“If they will be called to testify in Congress… then I would ask the PSG to just shut up. Do not answer. Invoke the right against self-incrimination and you will not get anything.

“Please do not cite them in contempt by detaining them. I will not allow it. I will go to Congress and get them. If you do that, there will be a little crisis. That’s up to you. I am prepared to defend my soldiers. I will not allow them for all their good intentions to be brutalized in a hearing.”

Duterte justified the inoculation of PSG personnel, saying his security detail must be protected against COVID-19 to carry out their duties: “They have every right to live and to invoke self-preservation. In criminal law, that is the right to self-defense.”

The scare tactics worked. The chamber could have insisted on inviting PSG personnel to testify in aid of legislation, but since majority of senators were on the side of Duterte and the minority was not prepared for a showdown, the senators decided to pursue the hearing without PSG members.

Seeing the Commander-in-Chief come to their defense, the armed forces command also called off its projected investigation although it should look into the apparent misconduct of its men considering that the PSG is part of the AFP.

As for the National Bureau of Investigation, it may have to continue its probe unless its superior, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra, recalls his order to look into “the importation, sale, offering for sale, distribution, administration and inoculation of COVID-19 vaccines that are not authorized by or registered with the Food and Drug Administration.”

The FDA itself, a regulatory agency under the health department, may have to tread lightly in view of Duterte’s stern notice that the vaccines were necessary, and of the possibility that the Chinese vaccines were brought in with his knowledge.

It is an open secret in the Chinese community that vaccines and other drugs from China have long found their way to Manila. There are clinics in Makati City and in Bonifacio Global City catering to Chinese looking for vaccines.

Chinese-Filipino civic leader Teresita Ang-See said Monday in an online media forum that around 100,000 Chinese working in the country, many of them with Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGO), have been inoculated.

As highlighted by the PSG soldiers’ being vaccinated when there are supposed to be no authorized COVID-19 vaccines yet in the country, the availability of the serum in the black market is cause for alarm.

Ang-See said: “We brought it to the attention of authorities because, for me, it’s OK that they get vaccinated, because we do not have much control with them. We don’t have basis to catch them, especially the POGO workers.”

She said the vaccines were supplied by the same source of the PSG. The entire process from smuggling to storage, sale and injection of the Chinese vaccine is illegal, but no one has been arrested even if some of those securing the vaccines are government officials.

Ang-See said the vaccines come from “official channels” without elaborating. It has been bruited about that distributors have connections and that they take advantage of Duterte’s known friendship with Chinese officials.

She criticized the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases being dominated by generals: “Where is the (Chinese-Filipino) community there? Why don’t they mobilize these people who are more efficient than they?”

She added: “Let us not punish those who are doing what they can despite the inefficiency of others. If it’s helping our sick people why do we not allow them? We allow ampalayatawa-tawa for dengue.”

There is a clear need to improve the law creating and empowering the FDA to regulate the manufacture, procurement and use of food, drugs and such items.

That the PSG was able to secure and use COVID-19 vaccines through illicit but known channels is in itself proof that the system is crying for reform. Why cannot the President cooperate with the Congress in amending the law and improving the system?

(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 7, 2021)

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