‘Mayor of the Philippines’ leaves LGUs blind amid COVID-19

Rambo Talabong, Pia Ranada, JC Gotinga

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‘Mayor of the Philippines’ leaves LGUs blind amid COVID-19


PART 2: President Rodrigo Duterte missed many opportunities to provide direction and concrete guidance to local chiefs on the front lines of the health crisis

READ: PART 1 | Pandemic unravels Duterte’s 2016 promise of decisive leadership

MANILA, Philippines – Rodrigo Duterte hates being called President.

“Just call me mayor, Mayor of the Philippines,” he has said time and again.

It comes as no surprise since Duterte reached national prominence through his 3-decade rule as Davao City mayor. In his 2016 presidential campaign sorties, he promised to empower mayors and other local chiefs everywhere if he won Malacañang.

Observers were excited to see a long-time local executive take the national reins, expecting to see leadership that went down to the details, that understood the challenges of local governments.

Fast-forward to June 2020, Duterte is 5 months deep into an unprecedented health crisis that requires top-tier coordination between national and local governments.

It should have been his turn to shine. Here was an opportunity to show his government could seamlessly roll out a national policy alongside policies of mayors and governors on the front lines of the pandemic.

But local government officials Rappler spoke with say the national government has been unable to provide direction and unity. Pronouncements by Duterte were confusing and contradictory, leaving local chiefs to act on their own only to encounter problems later on due to different national government policies.

When it came to directly advising or getting inputs from mayors and governors, Duterte was largely missing in action, leaving the task to his Cabinet officials, specifically the ex-military generals leading the National Task Force (NTF) COVID-19.

Noong umpisa, umaasa ka pa na may tulong, na may game plan. Wala namang game plan eh. Bahala ka sa buhay mo eh (At the start of the crisis, I was still hoping for help, for a game plan. There was no game plan. We were left to fend for ourselves),” said one Metro Manila mayor Rappler spoke to.

Missed opportunities

Local governments in the Philippines are, for the most part, independent of the national government. Presidents have long learned to respect this autonomy. 

But in national crises like the coronavirus pandemic, both have to coordinate because local officials will turn to the national government for resources and guidance on the proper medical supplies and facilities, while the national government will rely on local chiefs to help implement national policies.

The person at the top of this effort is the President, one reason why he is also called the Chief Executive.

The perfect time for Duterte to have provided direction and guidance to local chiefs was on February 10 when he had gathered them at the SMX Convention Center precisely to discuss the pandemic.

At the time, there were only 3 confirmed cases, all imported, and over 200 people under investigation. But the specter of local transmission loomed. 

Yet instead of providing a detailed and concrete action plan to guide local chiefs in preparing for a worst-case scenario, Duterte spent great chunks of his speech talking about his drug war and cursing at America.

“Well of course it’s public health because it would require hospitalization, treatment, everything. So it becomes also a public health. Pero itong droga, sabihin ko sa inyo until now, until now, you read the crawlers. isinisingit nila palagi sa TV ‘yung tumatakbo, they are called crawlers… At this late day, the drug problem is still with us and by the millions. Puta, walang mangyari sa Pilipinas niyan,” he said.

(But these drugs, I tell you that until now, you read the crawlers. They always insert it there on TV, it’s always moving, they are called crawlers…At this late day, the drug problem is still with us and by the millions. The Philippines is hopeless then.)

When he began his speech talking about the coronavirus, it was to downplay the threat and even joke about it.

“If you want to cough, do it now. If you want to sneeze, sneeze it. Walang problema dito. Ako, I don’t believe in that…Tutal hindi ako bilib, itong mga SAR[S], SAR[S],” he said.

(There’s no problem here. Me, I don’t believe in that… I don’t believe this SARs, SARs.)

The written speech prepared for him by his staff was relegated to the last portion of his speech. Even then, it was mostly vague statements about taking “urgents steps in preventing the spread of this disease” and caring for those who get sick.

He ended by telling local chiefs to just do what the national government says.

Sumunod ka lang, sumunod ka lang (You just obey) because I do not want a quarrel with you…If the worst happens, it is the government who takes control – the national government. Well, we will listen to you,” he said.

No real consultation

Despite this vow, 3 local government officials, including two Metro Manila officials, told Rappler that there have been key decisions made by the national government without real consultation with LGUs.

What they got instead was a barrage of memorandum circulars from departments or confusing policy pronouncements from Duterte’s late-night rambling speeches. The Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) made it clear they would not hesitate to sue local chiefs unable to comply.

Another Metro Manila mayor told Rappler that while he appreciated the President’s leadership, the departments he commanded largely failed them in responding to the crisis, specifically the most critical ones: the Department of Health (DOH) and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

In the structure of the national government’s virus response itself, there is little room for LGUs to get involved. The only local government representative in the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) itself is the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA). While its policy-making body is the Metro Manila Council, composed of the region’s mayors, the MMDA is led by Duterte appointees – its chief Danilo Lim and general manager Jojo Garcia.

Eventually, Regional Task Forces (RTFs) were created as the local counterparts of the NTF. The MMDA and the Bangsamoro Interim Chief Minister Murad Ebrahim lead their RTFs but elsewhere in the country, it is led by the Office of Civil Defense regional director who is still a part of the national government apparatus.

To top it all of, RTFs and the regional IATFs are to be supervised by the Cabinet member assigned to their region by Duterte, based on IATF Resolution No 35.

These Cabinet members are called CORDs or Cabinet Officers for Regional Development and Security. The system was devised by National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr.

The primary way IATF officials spoke to LGU officials was through evening Zoom meetings that would last an hour or two hours. Usually present were Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, DILG Secretary Eduardo Año, and then later IATF Chief Implementer Carlito Galvez Jr and coronavirus testing czar Vince Dizon.

Duterte never joined these sessions.

One local official present described the meetings as “useless” because there was no discussion of a national strategy on testing or lab accreditation – the topics the leaders needed the national government to decide on. 

“We were sending test results to DOH hospitals. It would take 3 weeks, but they were pressuring us to contact trace. How do we know who to contact trace, if the person’s result is not yet back?” said one Metro Manila mayor.

“When it comes to testing, I’ve given up hope on relying on the DOH,” the mayor added.

While the IATF officials presented a united front to the public, they haven’t been able to give LGU officials any “direction,” said one local official. They have caused confusion instead.

One major gaffe that Metro Manila officials saw was when Duterte endorsed the purchase of rapid test kits, only for them to be barred by the DOH as it was still hatching a policy for procurement.

At least two Metro Manila mayors, according to a Rappler source, were on their way to purchase tens of thousands of rapid test kits from Singapore in April after Duterte’s endorsement, only for the transaction to be canceled by the DOH.

The DOH eventually allowed the purchase of the rapid test kits, but the local officials had already obtained kits through donations. While localities waited like sitting ducks, the virus was already busy spreading through their populations undetected.

“Things weren’t well coordinated with local governments. It was a top-down style. They [national government] would get mad at people who would innovate, or look for other ways,” said political science expert Ela Atienza of the University of the Philippines political science department.

Such was the perception when Duterte ordered local chiefs to “stand down” and obey national directives after Pasig City Mayor Vico Sotto appealed for tricycles to be allowed to ferry workers, the sick, and the elderly.

After Duterte threatened sanctions against mayors who didn’t toe the line, Sotto was summoned by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) for “disobeying national government policies.” Sotto asked the NBI to explain what the issue was, and asserted that Pasig complied with all guidelines. The matter appears to have fizzled out.

Though Duterte distanced himself from the NBI’s actions, an impression was already made on the public and other local executives that acting independently had consequences.

At least 3 Metro Manila officials also said insufficient consultation marred the government’s roll-out of its emergency subsidy program.

“Social amelioration was disorganized because the communication was one-way. We would talk to them (DSWD) but they wouldn’t talk back to us,” a mayor told Rappler.

The President promised help for all poor households only for the DSWD to inform LGUs this was not possible because of the limited slots they allotted based on an outdated list.

Local officials were forced to only give to the poorest of the poor and to face the outrage of those they could not accommodate. (READ: Duterte chaos leaves barangay officials ‘helpless’ amid lockdown)

Quarantine decisions

The national government has also left local officials in the dark when it came to one of the most important decisions of all – what quarantine classification their LGUs would be placed under.

“We just get it from the news outlets. IATF doesn’t inform us in advance,” said an LGU executive from outside Metro Manila.

Malalaman na lang namin na may desisyon na (We would just find out that there was already a decision),” said a mayor who sits in the Metro Manila Council.

ACTING AHEAD. Local chiefs like Marikina City Mayor Marcelino Teodoro move on their own to put up testing centers. Photo from Marikina LGU

Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte told Rappler back in early May that while she is “very satisfied” with the national government’s responsiveness to her, mayors should have been informed of lockdown measures earlier.

“Perhaps the only suggestion I can make at present is for some decisions, like MECQ, ECQ, or GCQ, and guidelines to be made known to us earlier than they are announced publicly so we are given a heads-up and more time to think about our local plans,” she said.

The IATF eventually did just this, at least for the latest decision regarding Metro Manila’s quarantine classification from July 1 to 15. The mega city’s mayors were told of the IATF’s recommended classification on June 26 or 4 days before the new classification would take effect.

But this was not always the case.

When the national government was deciding on quarantine classifications for May 16 to 31, the Metro Manila mayors were asked to vote on what category the capital region should be placed under. It was placed on modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ).

When mayors met with IATF officials for recommending the quarantine category for June 1 to 15, mayors were no longer asked for their votes. Instead, according to two officials present in the MMC meeting, MMDA General Manager Jojo Garcia just said that they will already recommend placing Metro Manila under GCQ.

Garcia, one Metro Manila official recalled, phrased the decision as a question to make himself sound consultative: “If it’s okay with you, we will tell the IATF that our recommendation is GCQ.”

No mayor raised objections. According to one mayor, he could not argue with the national government because they did not receive enough data from the DOH to make the decision themselves.

There was again no real consultation when the IATF decided to recommend extending Metro Manila’s GCQ status until June 30. At the June 13 Zoom meeting called two days before the supposed end of GCQ, two officials got the impression that the IATF had already made a final decision.

The GCQ extension came as a surprise to some because of the spike in new Metro Manila cases.

One of the officials recalled Año in the meeting as saying: O, i-re-recommend na natin sa Malacañang na we consulted you (Okay, we will now tell Malacañang that we consulted you)”— even though they apparently weren’t.

Duque backed up Año, downplaying the rise in cases.

“Duque said, ‘We are now just between 200 to 230 cases daily.’ That’s what he says before Metro Manila mayors, but we’re seeing different figures in the papers,” an official said. (READ: PH reports record 1,150 single-day rise in COVID-19 cases; total now 31,825)

According to Rappler’s sources in the MMC, Duque’s statement fit with what they saw as his general lack of urgency in the pandemic.

“I don’t get to feel the sense of urgency in his tone, neither do I get the sense of urgency in the way he moves. It’s just like today was just like a regular day…The house is already burning but he’s just taking his sweet time,” one mayor said.

When asked to evaluate Duque’s leadership, another Metro Manila official burst into laughter then said, “What leadership? No comment. Ano ba ang ginawa niya (What has he even done)?”

The officials Rappler spoke with said that they have lost confidence in Duque, and instead have been turning to the health department’s undersecretaries and regional officers for proper information.

Duterte, meanwhile, took every opportunity to defend Duque each time he faced controversy.

Duterte told a room full of local chiefs in early February, “Duque has the expertise. Ano, mga kalaban lang nila ‘yan sa politika (Those are just his enemies in politics). But he is the most seasoned Cabinet member diyan. Maniwala ka (Believe me).”

They noted that the semblance of a direction only came when Galvez and Dizon joined their meetings after their appointments in the middle of the crisis.

Rappler sought the comment of Duque, Año, and Garcia through text messages. Año declined. Duque and Garcia have yet to reply as of posting.

Divisive, distracted Duterte

For anyone looking to Duterte for direction, it did not help that the Chief Executive seemed fixated on other issues.

Amid the piling problems of his administration’s pandemic response, Duterte fell back to his comfort zone – threatening communists and critics. Outside of his own words, actions by his appointees and allies pursued perceived critics – network giant ABS-CBN and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa.

Then as most of the country emerged from strict quarantine measures, he certified as urgent the anti-terrorism bill widely feared to be designed as a weapon against legitimate dissent.

The net effect of these actions is a perception of, at best, a “distracted” Duterte, at worst, a president using the pandemic to suppress freedoms, said political science expert Atienza.

A recurring theme in Duterte’s speeches during the pandemic is the communist rebel group New People’s Army (NPA) as a “pernicious enemy.” Triggered by reports of guerrilla attacks on soldiers assisting government social welfare efforts, Duterte on April 24 threatened to declare martial law if the NPA didn’t leave the military alone to help fight the coronavirus.

The way the President paints the scenario, communist insurgents are out to sabotage the government’s response to the pandemic, and so fighting the virus entails fighting the communist rebels, too, whom the military refers to as “terrorists.”

Ex-military generals in Duterte’s Cabinet – Esperon, Delfin Lorenzana, and Año – have long been pushing for the new anti-terrorism bill. They said it would give them more maneuvering space to catch and prosecute terrorists. It also allows them, as members of an Anti-Terrorism Council, to say who are terrorists.

The administration has a pending court petition to officially proscribe the NPA as a terrorist organization, which would add it to a list that includes the extremist, ISIS-linked Abu Sayyaf Group. If the bill becomes law, the council may authorize a preliminary proscription.  

That the legislation of the anti-terrorism bill came to a head during the pandemic may have been coincidental – the measure was a carry-over from the previous Congress. But Esperon, the national security adviser, said he did urge Duterte to certify the bill as urgent, allowing it to breeze past the House of Representatives early in June. The Senate passed it back in February.

“I was one of those who recommended that it become a priority bill of government…. It was also the position of the Security, Justice and Peace cluster of the Cabinet,” Esperon said in a media briefing on June 15. He also said the bill is meant to address extremist terror threats, not stifle activism.

OUTRAGE. Thousands brave the rain to protest the anti terrorism bill during the 'Grand Mañanita' Independence Day rally inside the University of the Philippine campus in Quezon City. Photo by Jire Carreon/Rappler

But with the anti-terrorism bill and all his talk of the NPA, Duterte tried to frame a national crisis as an issue of public order, as he did with his war on drugs.

“It’s still the same tactic – focus on peace and order, militaristic solution – except this crisis has affected the whole country,” said Atienza, the UP political science professor.

“Although it’s a health crisis, [to Duterte] the issue is still peace and order, ‘yung mga pasaway (the troublemakers),” she added.

The heavy-handed approach does little to inspire confidence during a crisis that requires collaboration, consensus-building, and consultation from the top honcho in Malacañang. – Rappler.com

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Rambo Talabong

Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and local governments for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.
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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.
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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.