[ANALYSIS] Duterte fails in coronavirus crisis leadership

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

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[ANALYSIS] Duterte fails in coronavirus crisis leadership
He is strong on control, but weak on public health


On February 14, 2 weeks after the Philippines saw the first coronavirus death outside China, President Duterte encouraged Filipinos to travel with him around the country, assuring them that everything was safe. “Pasyal tayo dito sa atin. Unahin natin ‘yung atin (Let’s go around the Philippines. Let’s prioritize our own),” he said in a taped message.

Days later, on February 18, the Department of Health (DOH) gave the President’s domestic-tourism pitch a boost, saying it was safe to attend gatherings with large crowds as long as precautionary measures were followed.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, countries had already started to take early and decisive steps to stop transmission of the virus. In January, Thai airports screened visitors from Wuhan, health workers monitored their temperatures, and, if necessary, quarantined them. Eventually, all those arriving from overseas were quarantined.  

Vietnam was the first to do mass quarantine outside China. On February 13, more than 10,000 people in villages outside Hanoi were placed under quarantine. 

Singapore was doing aggressive contact tracing and enforcing strict home and hospital quarantines, imposing hefty fines for violators. 

First death outside China

Contrast these with what was happening in Manila.

It was on January 21 when the Chinese man, who later became the first coronavirus death outside China, and his female companion arrived in Cebu. They also traveled to Dumaguete. Both were from Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. The man was admitted to a hospital in Manila where he passed away on February 1.

The DOH failed to trace the people the couple came in contact with on the planes and in their hotels. Health Secretary Francisco Duque III blamed his subordinates for their incompetence and the airlines for not releasing contact information of the passengers.

Eventually, seemingly unaware of the urgency of the situation, Duque gave up on contact tracing. This led to grave consequences. 

First community transmission

On March 6, the virus reared its lethal head: the country had its first locally transmitted coronavirus case, a man who frequented a prayer hall for Muslims in a Greenhills mall. Another Filipino confirmed positive for COVID-19 after he returned from a short visit to Japan.

These should have sent alarm bells ringing in government as the virus, known to spread rapidly, had reached our shores. But the mood in Malacañang continued to be light, even dismissive of the greatest public-health threat the country – and the world – was facing.

President Duterte addressed a huge gathering of mayors in a Metro Manila hotel on March 9. He downplayed the virus, saying, “Maski magpunta ka ng limang milyon na handshake diyan, ‘pag hindi mo pa panahon…” (It doesn’t matter, he said, because if it’s not your time to go, 5 million handshakes won’t give you the coronavirus.) 

Hundreds, if not a thousand, mayors packed the air-conditioned hall, seated in round tables, close to each other. It is not far-fetched that this big event was a trigger for the spread of the virus as some mayors who participated in the assembly later reported from their hometowns that they tested positive for COVID-19. 

Missed targets

Clearly, Duterte did not grasp the urgency and gravity of the crisis. He set the tone from the beginning. 

The virus will “die a natural death,” he said soon after the DOH reported the first death in the country.

In his weekly addresses to the nation, the President never gave us the big and complete picture of the government strategy to contain the virus. He mentioned testing a few times and seldom talked about contact tracing.

Testing and contact tracing are two of the most important measures to slow down transmission of the virus. UP academics have pointed out in a study that contact tracing is the “weakest link” in the government’s program to contain the virus.

His health secretary was equally complacent and bereft of foresight. He did not anticipate a wave of infections, even touting the Philippines as a model country in preventing the spread of the virus. 

What is constant is this: the government keeps missing its targets for testing and contact tracing. We’re not near the promised daily tests of 30,000. And we’re extremely slow and late on contact tracing, as if it were an afterthought. 

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año recently said that the government is severely short of contact tracers and needs at least 80,000 more. Año is a key official of the National Task Force Against COVID-19, the implementing arm of the policy body, the Inter-Agency Task Force.

Lagging in Southeast Asia

Five months since the virus came to our country, half of these spent in one of the strictest and longest lockdowns in the world, we have got little to show for it. 

Compared to our Southeast Asian neighbors, the Philippines, as of June 26, holds the record of having the second highest number of active cases and the lowest recovery rate. We also have the highest number of deaths per 100,000 population at 1.14 followed by Indonesia at 0.98.

Singapore’s active cases (6,106) have been declining in stark contrast to those of Indonesia (27,118) and the Philippines (22,947), which continue to rise.

Single-issue president

It is our country’s misfortune to have an incompetent leader at this time of an unprecedented crisis. Instead of pushing Duque to act with a sense of urgency, Duterte has been soft on him. The President has shunned calls from the Senate and others for him to fire the health secretary, showing that his heralded decisiveness is highly selective.  

Since Duterte has devoted his 4 years as president singularly to the drug war, he is very comfortable with the language of force and threats, his main tools of governance. He thus used his drug-war lens to fight a pandemic, strong on control but weak on public-health responses.

Duterte’s repressive rule did not change — instead crushing free expression and punishing people further by ordering the killing of quarantine violators. At least two were killed in the name of enforcing the quarantine while thousands were arrested.  

The pandemic certainly revealed what kind of leader we have. This crisis is a test of leadership — and Duterte has failed. – Rappler.com


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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.