‘Not time to keep score’: Robredo focuses on frontliners, not politics

Mara Cepeda

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‘Not time to keep score’: Robredo focuses on frontliners, not politics
In a nation overwhelmed by a pandemic, Vice President Leni Robredo shows how government can effectively work with private citizens to fight COVID-19

MANILA, Philippines – The conference hall in Vice President Leni Robredo’s headquarters where she often holds press conferences is almost unrecognizable now. Boxes upon boxes lie in heaps across the floor. Most of the chairs have been pushed aside. Her staff are all wearing face masks as they go around the room to do their tasks, careful not to stand too near each other. 

In one corner sits the Vice President, hunched over a table filled with sheets of paper, a half-filled bottle of water, an empty tumbler, a cup of coffee, and a pack of takeout meal from a fast food chain. Her hair is tied in a ponytail. She, too, wears a face mask.

It was the 24th of March. Robredo was personally checking the list of the latest batch of public and private hospitals that were about to receive new sets of personal protective equipment (PPE) purchased through the donation drive her office launched with non-governmental organization Kaya Natin! Movement. 

In March, cases of the deadly COVID-19 breached the thousandth mark in the Philippines for the first time. It was also in March when Robredo decided her office would not sit idly by as the pandemic worsened in the streets.

When health workers worried over how difficult it would be for them to reach the hospital during the Metro Manila lockdown, Robredo looked for partners to establish a free shuttle service for them. When frontliners said they had run out of PPEs, Robredo launched a donation drive to solicit funds to buy the missing equipment. When the laboratories cried they had no more means to test COVID-19 swabs, Robredo provided P5.3 million worth of test kits to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine. 

Was she out to “compete” with the national government, as alleged by a critic who has since been fired by President Rodrigo Duterte? 

“This is a time for us to be united. I-set aside muna ‘yong pulitika. Hindi ito ‘yong panahon na nagkukuwenta tayo. Hindi ito ‘yong panahon for us to think that this is a competition,” Robredo told CNN Philippines on April 6. This is a time when not just government officials, but the government and the private sector, should all work together kasi ‘yong pangangailangan talaga, it’s insurmountable.” 

(This is a time for us to be united. Set aside politics for now. This is not the time for us to keep score. This is not the time for us to think this is a competition. This is a time when not just government officials, but the government and the private sector, should all work together because the need is insurmountable.)

‘Strategic’ in a time of a pandemic 

“Filling in the gaps” was how Robredo described the efforts of the Office of the Vice President (OVP) to respond to COVID-19, the fast-spreading disease that has infected over 3,600 in the country as of April 6.

The OVP only has a P664-million budget for the entire year, a measly amount considering the scale of the pandemic that has to be addressed. So Robredo had to be “strategic” in terms of what sector to respond to – the frontliners. 

“The choice of what to intervene in, where to help, is really very good, which is with the frontliners. That’s where the battle will be lost or won,” Tony La Viña, former Ateneo School of Government dean, told Rappler.

“Unfortunately, that’s where the national government has been most impotent. Even with all the resources that they have and the time that they have to prepare for this, they have not gotten their act together. But VP Leni was very strategic about that,” he added.

By focusing on just the frontliners, Robredo and her team were able to come up with comprehensive ways to respond to the pandemic – from ensuring health workers have a roof above their heads by putting up at least 7 free dormitories around Metro Manila to providing food packs to police and military deployed at various checkpoints. 

When PPE stocks started to dwindle around the globe, Robredo herself called up Filipino designers and asked them to create an open-source protective suit design, which could be replicated by others who know how to sew.

Robredo’s motivation in the beginning was simple: answer calls for help sent her way.

“Nagsimula kami ng isang fund drive dahil maraming humihingi sa atin ng tulong – saklolo actually,” Robredo said in her weekly radio show on March 15. “Nag-start sa community workers na umiikot sila pero wala silang sapat na mga, ang tawag nila PPEs… Nag-raise tayo ng funds para sa kanila pero maraming ospital na humihingi ng saklolo.”

(We started the fund drive because there were a lot of people asking for help – they were asking to be saved actually. It all started with community workers who were doing their rounds without their PPEs… We initially raised funds just for them, but there were a lot of hospitals that asked for help as well.)

FREE DORM. Located in Cubao, Quezon City,  services will be on a "first come, first served" basis due to the limited number of beds and the need to implement physical distancing. Photo by Charlie Villegas/OVP

To date, the OVP and the Kaya Natin! Movement have raised over P46 million from private donors, enough to buy 104,665 PPE sets for medical workers. Of that amount, P5.9 million alone came from Robredo’s office. 

A private foundation had to be tapped for soliciting funds because the OVP, as a government office, is not allowed by law to receive money from private individuals. Kaya Natin! buys the PPE sets using the donated funds, then Robredo’s staff and volunteers take over to distribute them to hospitals.

To keep things transparent, Robredo’s official Facebook page posts daily updates on the donation drive, including the total amount of funds raised so far, the number of PPEs that have been purchased, and the hospitals and clinics that were able to receive the gear. 

The Vice President reshares these posts in her personal Facebook account. Her page is also filled with messages of gratitude to donors and volunteers, including mothers from the slums of Payatas and Smokey Mountain in Manila who have volunteered to sew PPEs.

Robredo’s Facebook wall is a means for her to receive feedback on the OVP’s COVID-19 relief efforts. Case in point: the free shutttle service for health workers initially had only 6 routes around Metro Manila. But there came a deluge of comments asking Robredo to open more stops for medical professionals working in hospitals in Lower Antipolo and North Caloocan. By March 27, two additional shuttle routes were opened to service frontliners in these two areas.

When the Department of Transportation (DOTr) was finally able to fully operate its own shuttle services, Robredo decided the OVP’s free transportation service would run only until April 14. DOTr chief Arthur Tugade had even reached out to her chief of staff and Undersecretary Philip Dy to thank the OVP for its initiative to provide the shuttles earlier when the national government was still setting up its own system.

SHUTTLE SERVICE. Health workers wait for passengers outside the Jose Reyes Memorial Medical Center in Manila on March 18, 2020. Photo by Inoue Jaena/Rappler

Duterte’s rare defense 

For now, it seems even the President – the man who has repeatedly belittled Robredo’s ability to lead the country – can see how crucial the Vice President’s role has been in augmenting the national government’s assistance to frontliners against COVID-19.

When Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission (PACC) commissioner Manuelito Luna pushed to investigate Robredo’s COVID-19 relief efforts, Duterte fired him.

Mayroon talagang taong gago. Si Leni was calling on the private sector…maghingi siya ng tulong. Tama ‘yan. Maghingi ka ng tulong sa kapwa tao. Ngayon may tao na abogado sa PACC commissioner, Manuelito Luna. Gusto niya paimbestiga si Leni kung bakit siya nag-solicit. Anak ka ng – Kaya no’ng narinig ko, sabi ko, ‘Fire him,'” Duterte said.

(Some people are really stupid. Leni was calling on the private sector to ask for help. That’s right. Ask for help from other people. Now, there is this lawyer, a PACC commissioner, Manuelito Luna. He wanted Leni investigated for soliciting. Son of a– When I heard that, I said, “Fire him.”)

Robredo admitted she was surprised the President defended her. It was only 5 months ago when a spiteful Duterte appointed her co-chair of the anti-drugs body, only to sack her from the post two weeks later. But today, the enemy is more formidable. Worse, it’s invisible.  

“Nagulat in the sense na for a very long time, hindi natin napapakinggan si Presidente na ipinagtatanggol tayo. Pero ngayon na ipinagtanggol tayo, natuwa tayo. Natuwa dahil tingin ko, kailangan ‘yon sa panahon ngayon. Kailangan sa panahon ngayon na parati ‘yong mensahe magtulong-tulong tayo,” said the Vice President on April 5. 

(I was surprised in the sense that for a very long time, we haven’t heard the President defending us. But when he did, we were happy. We were happy because I think that’s what we need this time. We need to give the message that we should be working together.)

Critical but not combative

Outside her headquarters at the Quezon City Reception House, the Vice President has been using her weekly radio show and media interviews to give suggestions to the Duterte administration, which has been widely criticized for mismanaging the COVID-19 crisis. 

On March 8, she urged the national government to be more transparent about COVID-19 testing, given earlier accusations of underreporting of cases. (READ: Hell on earth: The agonizing confusion over coronavirus testing in PH)

A month later, the Vice President called on the inter-agency task force to “appreciate” local officials who are able to come up with creative solutions to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

She disagreed with the National Bureau of Investigation summoning Pasig Mayor Vico Sotto, whose city government has been lauded for the way it has been looking out for its people during the lockdown.

FOR EXTENSION. The Vice President  backs the extension of the Luzon lockdown, citing the need to flatten the curve or to slow down the rate of COVID-19 infection. Photo by Rob Reyes/Rappler

“At iyong local government units, kailangan ina-appreciate natin iyong mga local officials na nag-i-innovate, iyong mga local officials na creative sa solutions na ipinapakita, local officials na nakikita nating inaasikaso iyong kaniyang mga tao,” Robredo told ANC.

(We need to appreciate local government officials who innovate, the local officials are the ones who come up with creative solutions, local officials who we see are taking care of their people.)

The Vice President also backed the proposed two-week extension of the Luzon lockdown, citing the need to flatten the curve or to slow down the rate of COVID-19 infection. But she also warned Duterte that the continued lack of clear information and concrete aid from the government would likely lead to unrest among Filipinos. 

“Sang-ayon ako dahil ‘yong nakikita natin na mga projections, makakabuti para i-flatten ‘yong curve kung hahabaan pa ito. Pero tingin ko kasi crucial, crucial para mag-cooperate ‘yong mga tao, crucial na naiintindihan nila kung bakit kailangan ‘tong gawin. Kasi kapag hindi nila naiintindihan kung bakit kailangan ‘tong gawin, ‘yong resistance nandiyan,” said Robredo.

(I agree with this because based on the projections we’ve seen, it would help flatten the curve if the lockdown period is extended. But I think it would be crucial for the people to cooperate, crucial for them to understand why there’s a need to do this. Because if they don’t, there would be resistance.) 

No red tape 

The past weeks, however, have not been easy for the OVP either. Much like the national government, Robredo’s office has been struggling with dwindling supplies and drawbacks in delivering PPEs to medical workers. 

While they have raised enough money to buy over 104,000 PPEs, the OVP has distributed only over 42,000 sets so far, given the huge demand for protective gear across the globe.

The localized lockdown imposed in different provinces nationwide has also made it difficult to swiftly deliver PPEs to the hospitals and clinics in need. Thankfully, several individuals and companies have been offering to fly the cargo free of charge. 

“We’re really overwhelmed by ‘yong amount of support na nagbubuhos,” Robredo’s spokesperson Barry Gutierrez told Rappler. “It’s really ‘yong spirit ng Filipino na ‘pag panahon ng krisis, kita mo talaga na maraming willing na tumulong. Naghahanap lang talaga ng paraan kung papaano.”

(We’re really overwhelmed by the amount of support coming in. It’s really the spirit of the Filipino that in times of crisis, you can really see that so many people want to help. They’re just looking for a way to do it.)

The Vice President also pushes to minimize the bureaucracy in their COVID-19 response. Whenever a person reaches out to offer any kind of help – from cans of aerosol to boxes of balut – the OVP finds a way to distribute these goods to whoever may need them.

In the case of the balut, Robredo’s office did an online callout for people who can cook the fertilized eggs and help distribute them. Owners of restaurants that were forced to temporarily close due to the lockdown volunteered to cook the balut, which were then delivered by the OVP staff to different checkpoint frontliners.

FOR THE FRONTLINERS. OVP staff and volunteers deliver a batch of PPEs for medical professionals on duty at the San Lazaro Hospital in Manila on March 16, 2020. Photo by OVP

“We didn’t try to centralize anything,” Gutierrez said. “If people wanted to donate food, they’ll bring it to the office and we’ll find a place to send that food. If people wanted to donate extraction kits, we will find a way how to use them. You also have to find room for the dynamism and the wealth of experience and the volunteerism of the Filipino people to shine.”

The working VP 

At the center of these efforts is the Vice President herself, who spends almost every day – from morning until evening – overseeing operations at her headquarters. 

She sits down with her staff to decide which hospitals and clinics to prioritize in distributing PPEs for the day. She also worked with her team to map out the routes that the buses would take to ferry health workers. When a donor arrives at the gates of the Quezon City Reception House, it’s the Vice President who would welcome them at the lobby. 

“She personally ensures the comments in the Facebook page are answered. She personally ensures the hours and routes of the shuttle services adjust based on the requests that she receives. She personally ensures the every request for PPEs are responded to and every person would receive a kinf of assurance that they would receive the items at some point,” Gutierrez said. 

And the image her people see remains the same – that of Robredo hunched over a table or a box of supplies, making sure that the donated goods go to the people who need them the most.  

It took a while for the OVP staff to finally convince Robredo to lessen the time she spends in the office, now that COVID-19 cases are surging into the thousands. She agreed to start working from home on some days, but not without being active in all the WhatsApp groups they have created to coordinate their COVID-19 response efforts. 

“Really, she’s running the show here,” Gutierrez said.

La Viña said there’s a term for the brand of governance Robredo has been showing during this pandemic: “servant leadership.”

“Your purpose is not for yourself or not for any internal agenda but simply to serve the people. What she’s doing is, she’s simply being a servant of the people,” said La Viña.

COVID-19 TESTING. Boxes of COVID-19 test kits, donated by Robredo's office, arrive at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine on March 19, 2020. Photo by Charlie Villegas/OVP

Robredo, however, does not take all the credit. She once told Filipino musician Yan Yuzon, who was impressed by her efforts, that she is nothing if not for the people who are willing to help as much as she does.

“Masuwerte ako (I am lucky) to be surrounded by deeply committed young people who are only too willing to give so much of themselves para makapagsilbi (to serve),” the Vice President said in a Facebook comment on March 30. “Without them and without the generous hearts of our partners, I am nothing.” – Rappler.com

TOP PHOTO: HANDS-ON VP. Vice President Leni Robredo oversees the preparation of personal protective equipment sets that will be delivered to another batch of hospitals on March 24, 2020. Photo by Charlie Villegas/OVP

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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 mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.