Senate of the Philippines

Senators hit Duterte admin’s ‘ningas-kugon’ approach to pandemic

Mara Cepeda
Senators hit Duterte admin’s ‘ningas-kugon’ approach to pandemic

LITTLE PROGRESS. People wearing face masks and face shields against COVID-19 queue at a bus stop in Quezon City on December 23, 2020.

File photo by Lisa Marie David/Reuters

Senators say the Philippines is 'back to square one' despite the government imposing one of the strictest lockdowns in the world

Senators said the Philippine government’s mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic has brought the country back to square one with the recent spike in cases.

Senator Nancy Binay slammed what she described as the “ningas-kugon” approach of President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration to the COVID-19 crisis, saying curfews and ordinances would be futile if government officials themselves are violating protocols.

“‘Wag sanang ningas-kugon – ‘yung sa umpisa lang tayo masigasig, tapos dedma na,” said Binay in a statement on Monday, March 15. (Let’s not resort to ningas-kugon – where we work hard only in the beginning then become negligent later on.)

“No matter how long we impose curfews, or even considering enacting ordinances as an institutional response to abate the surge of COVID cases, lahat ‘yan ‘di magiging effective (all of that will become ineffective) if we continue to display a relaxed atmosphere in the midst of a worsening public health crisis,” she added.

Ningas-kugon is a Filipino term for the tendency of individuals to start a new task with much enthusiasm, only to stop working on it entirely soon after. It literally means the burning of cogon grass, which burns brightly only during the few seconds after it was lit.

A year since the Duterte government imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, COVID-19 cases continue to increase, with infections now over 621,000. A total of 4,899 cases were recorded on Sunday, March 14, alone. 

The recent spike prompted Metro Manila mayors to impose uniform curfew hours from 10 pm to 5 am for two weeks, starting Monday. Quezon City, which has tallied the most number of cases in the entire country, reimposed a liquor ban and closed down gyms, spas, and internet cafes.

Despite the steady rise in COVID-19 cases these past months, several government officials and celebrities have violated health protocols.

The Duterte government is also scrambling to secure enough COVID-19 vaccine doses for Filipinos, and yet several people close to the President received smuggled vaccines – a violation of the prioritization plan set by the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF).

Senator Risa Hontiveros likened the past year to “365 days of hypocrisy from some of our highest officials.”

“Instead of rolling out aggressive health-based approaches, the government responded through undeserving promotions, pats on the back, and premature celebrations. The consequence of this is that we now face 5,000 cases daily, almost 13,000 deaths, an increasing debt of $14 billion, and only .1% of the whole population vaccinated,” said Hontiveros in a statement. 

She also criticized the IATF for resorting to “silly and ineffective band-aid solutions.”

For Senator Joel Villanueva, all officials part of the Duterte government should be “anniver-sorry” to Filipinos, whom they have failed to protect against the pandemic.

“Kaya dapat matuto o natuto na ang mga awtoridad at hindi na umulit sa mga sablay. Sa lagay po natin ngayon, parang bumalik po tayo sa square one. Split na po tayo sa COVID, makipag-break na tayong tuluyan,” Villanueva told reporters. 

(The authorities should have learned their lesson and not repeat their failures. In this case, we’re back to square one. We have to break up completely with COVID-19.)

Senate President Vicente “Sotto” III believes the Duterte government has “done what is necessary to respond” to the pandemic, but agreed that “a lot remains to be done.”

“As we watch and listen to news reports of more of our kababayans (countrymen) getting sick, let us be mindful that going out would endanger the health of our families. Now more than ever in the past 12 months, it is safer to stay home and protect ourselves from catching the virus,” Sotto said.

He also urged Filipinos to get themselves immunized against COVID-19 once the vaccines are widely available.

Overhaul IATF, set clear vaccine plan

For Senator Imee Marcos, a Duterte ally, the President should “overhaul” the IATF.

“Nakaka-one year na tayo – one year nakapreso sa bahay, one year na walang natututunan ang mga anak, one year na walang kinikita,” Marcos told reporters. (One year has passed – one year stuck in our homes, one year of our children not being able to learn properly, one year with no decent income.)

“It’s an anniversary not worth remembering or celebrating. The only way to commemorate this continuing misery is for [the President] to overhaul the IATF,” she added. 

Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto advised Malacañang to craft a 100-day plan setting clear targets for its COVID-19 vaccination drive from April to June.

“We need a battle plan that will not only unify the nation, but will lift our spirits and assign us the role we have to play. This is the clear tunnel vision we need,” said Recto.

He said this should now be in the government’s to-do list ahead of Duterte’s final State of the Nation Address in July. –

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at or tweet @maracepeda.