COVID-19 in the Philippines: What Is Going On?

YUSUF ASHRAF “Joey” TUGUNG

In any type of disasters, be it man-made or natural, invariably we unite as a warm-hearted nation and rally behind the disaster-response of the government. In Philippine context, the innate “Bayanihan” spirit of the Filipino people normally rises to the occasion. This is no different with the current response to the coronavirus disease pandemic that we are showing. At the height of the SARS-CoV-2 breakout, we made huge sacrifices to help the government defeat the virus by following the lockdown and stay-at-home orders of the IATF-EID. And true to their Hippocratic and Nightingale oaths, our frontline healthcare workers risked their lives to tend to those who were infected by the COVID-19. All the business establishments, whether large or small, sacrificed their profits for the greater good and interest of the country.

However, five months into the pandemic, we noticed that the COVID-19 situation in the Philippines has gone unabated – it continues to persist. Meaning, the curve has not yet been flattened despite having the world’s longest and strictest lockdown and having five conundrums of quarantine level. In fact, recently some of the cities and provinces have returned to the second stringiest form of lockdown – MECQ.

Under such circumstance, and by default, the critics of President Rodrigo Duterte have conveniently blamed the failure to his administration. On the other hand, to deflect the blame, the Duterte administration and its supporters, have instead blamed the people i.e., accusing them of being undisciplined, reckless, and irresponsible and with the opposition as the bogeyman. In either case, this is what we know – this is nothing but nakedly political. However, for those of us who stand in the middle of this dysfunctional state, we objectively look at the situation based on the data and the success of other countries that were able to tamed this invisible beast.

Understand infectious diseases are data-driven and here are the facts. As of today, Philippines has 122,754 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 2,168 deaths and both of these numbers are rising on a daily basis. Contrast this with the rest of the 10 Southeast Asian (ASEAN) nations, the Philippines has already surpassed Indonesia and we now rank number ONE (1). Ergo, Philippines has now the worst coronavirus outbreak in Southeast Asia. Moreover, if we are to compare the COVID-19 numbers of the Philippines with the world at large, we now ranked TWENTY (22) out of 213 countries and territories.

There is no doubt that we have a President who is laser-focused on the COVID-19. His sincerity is so glaring in all of his meetings with the IATF-EID. To defeat the virus, through the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, Congress has provided the Duterte Administration with all the necessary authority and financial resources in order to mitigate, if not to contain the spread of the coronavirus. To cushion the social and economic effects on those who were affected by the lockdown, financial assistances were given in the form of Social Amelioration Program. Other than financial incentives, logistical resources were also given to all the frontline healthcare workers.

The President has not only activated the IATF-EID (that gives him advices, recommendations and guidance in the formulation of a national strategy and policy) but he also created a coronavirus task force in order to implement the COVID-19 national strategy. The local government units have also been given the authority to implement the policy. The resources of the PNP and the Armed Forces of the Philippines have also been marshalled in order to enforce the lockdown and quarantine, including humanitarian missions for the Locally Stranded Individuals (LSI). Former military generals were also tapped to enforce the different facets of the national strategy.

And yet, despite all of these institutions that have been put in place and the dedicated actions that have been taken by the Duterte Administration, the COVID-19 cases in our country keeps on rising. This now begs the question, why? It is easy for us to conveniently blame the people for being hardheaded. There is no doubt, this exists! However, on the other hand, have we also pondered and ask the question, how about the government? If they are not at fault or blameless, then logically speaking we should have long controlled this insidious beast and flattened the curve.

My point is that our government should also humble itself by admitting its failure and assume responsibility. To be outrightly dismissive of the well-meaning critics and the sincere suggestions of the healthcare workers (worst accusing them as fomenting a revolution), which is what we have seen consistently in this administration, is not only the height of arrogance but counter-productive in our desire to have a united effort to fight the virus.

Let us take a closer look at the composition of the IATF-EID, which is the de facto coronavirus task force of the Duterte Administration. Except for the DOH Secretary, not one of them is a public health expert, an immunologist, epidemiologist, and neither, an infectious disease expert. All of them are government bureaucrats who acts, thinks and speaks like your typical politicos. We have not seen either any career public servants from institutions similar to the CDC, FDA and NHI.

Infectious diseases understood and treated thru science and to control the effects of the virus must be science-based. Hence, in biological disaster, only scientist knows its behavior and how it behaves. Thus, the formulation of strategies, plans and actions are science-based in nature. Moreover, giving the right message to the public in order to modify their behavior, in response to the virus, is also science-based. All of these require experts in public health and infectious diseases. Instead, the front and center of the government’s response to the COVID-19 are politicians, lawyers, businessmen and former military generals. One must understand that virus is a biological phenomenon and not a political, military, and economic one. While DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III is a medical doctor, yet, ironically, he walks and talks like a politician. Worst, instead of serving the public health needs of the people, he is busy and shamelessly pandering to the president!

With that being said, it is high time for President Duterte to defunct the PNoy era created IATF-EID and revamp the composition of the Coronavirus Task Force. And most important, to immediately get rid of Secretary Duque (who specializes not in medicine but in the science of “political bootlicking”). And in the new Coronavirus Task Force, President Duterte should surround himself and get advices and recommendations from any of the following: public health experts, infectious disease specialists, immunologist, epidemiologist, nurse professionals, mathematical modeling specialist, sociologist, psychologist, mental health specialist, economist, statisticians, laboratory specialist, communication technology experts, and emergency management experts. Why am I saying this? It is because almost all the countries that were able to slay the beast had this kind of composition. Moreover, if we look at their institutional model, it is so glaring that their political leaders, lawyers, government bureaucrats and military officials have zippered their mouth and took a back seat in favor of the scientists.

There is no doubt that the public’s confidence to combat the virus is eroded when politicians, lawyers, police, and military officials talk. And certainly, the nation is now into come-to-God moment; and for God’s sake, it is about time then that we have to change horses in midstream and let our doctors and scientists speak and shape our COVID-19 national strategy! YUSUF ASHRAF TUGUNG

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