SONA 2020

[OPINION] A tale of two countries

Tony La Viña
[OPINION] A tale of two countries
'Duterte’s speech reflected a tale of two countries: a Philippines losing in a pandemic, and a Philippines in Duterte’s mind'

In a pandemic-stricken country that has been on lockdown for more than 4 months, Filipinos had hoped for a State of the Nation Address (SONA) that would uplift their spirits at the very least – if not their lives.

Historically, mandated by Section 23, Article VII of the 1987 Constitution, Presidents of the Republic have used the SONA from its most traditional form, a report of accomplishments and plans to Congress as the democratically elected representatives of the people and an intimation of priority legislations that the Executive wants the Legislative to consider, to its unconventional and controversial form: a platform for inspiring the nation, which may entail a reshaping of national rhetoric whether for better or for worse.

Last Monday, July 27, 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte delivered his lackluster SONA. Incoherent, demoralizing, and delusional. (READ: Quick point-by-point summary of Duterte’s SONA 2020)

Drawing from British author Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities, we argue that Duterte’s speech reflected a tale of two countries: a Philippines losing in a pandemic, and a Philippines in Duterte’s mind.

<h1>A Philippines facing the pandemic</h1>

The true and current state of the nation is seen in the faces of more than 8,000 Filipinos dubbed as locally stranded individuals (LSIs) on the grounds of Rizal Memorial Sports Complex. Packed and forced to break social distancing measures while waiting for the next steps of the Hatid Tulong Program, an offshoot of the highly criticized Balik Probinsya Program, LSIs, their receiving families, and LGUs are at great risk of infection.

On the eve of the SONA, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country breached 80,000 – ballooned from only 34,000 cases exactly a month before. By the time this article is posted, we are likely to have overtaken China, the origin of the pandemic, in number of infections. Major hospitals in the capital had again announced full capacity for COVID-19 dedicated wards. More deaths will likely follow, as experienced by other countries.

There was little mention of any of these facts, nor an effective approach to fight COVID-19 and address its impacts. The Bayanihan to Heal as One Act and the ARISE Bill were mentioned but in a perfunctory manner only. These could have been discussed at length by the President in his SONA – the only nationwide televised address during this crisis that was not aired in the wee hours of the night. It was a wasted chance to redeem the people’s confidence.

At the very least, Duterte’s admission of his administration’s faults were commendable. Referring to government response to COVID-19, “I must admit that our actions have been far from perfect…and there could be improvements here or there – but all of us in government, including myself, assure you that we will not stop until we get things right and better for you.”

But this admission is meaningless if it is not coupled with actual solutions and alternatives, as we have seen in the SONA.

The country is clearly kept in the dark and is arguably back to step one in containing this deadly virus and in proceeding to a “new normal.”

<h1>False hopes</h1>

Filipinos looked forward to what Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque promised to be a “roadmap” that will lead us out of the greatest crisis the country has faced since World War II. Instead, the speech unfolded false hopes.

On the COVID-19 vaccine, Duterte boldly promises that “[t]he vaccine is around the corner.” While recognizing that the government still has no plan of procuring such, when it becomes available, the President revealed that he “made a plea to President Xi Jinping [of China] that if they have the vaccine, can they allow [Philippines] to be one of the first…so that we can normalize as fast as possible.” 

Depending on a single nation for access to a vaccine is not a good sign – especially on the country who is claiming our territory as theirs. Besides, a vaccine, even when it becomes available, is not a magic bullet that will bring us back to pre-COVID days just like that. It will take years to roll out a successful vaccination program in an archipelago.

<h1>Duterte governs on a different Philippines</h1>

Duterte’s SONA described a country that is different from what we see around us, a world where there is no coronavirus, where it can just be wished away by sheer political will, or where politicking seems to be the only matter of concern. 

At the start of this pandemic, many have already said that the virus dictates what we do; we merely adjust for we do not know so much about it yet. But, Duterte is different; he sets aside a deadly virus for his own agenda.

Duterte pushes for “the swift passage of a law reviving the death penalty by lethal injection for crimes” under the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act, citing that the law will deter criminality. Moreover, his SONA is incomplete without any talk of death, addressing drug personalities, “Do not do it in my country because I will really kill you.”

Duterte admits, in front of the nation who thirsts for hope, that he cannot and will not do anything on the West Philippine Sea dispute – even to the extent of calling such the “South China Sea.” He frames the dispute in extremes: war or concede. This approach has since been criticized by the leading jurist Justice Carpio, saying that “[a] country does not need to go to war to assert its sovereign rights. There are lawful and peaceful means of asserting sovereign rights.”

Lastly, what sealed Duterte’s “imaginary” Philippines was the incomparable time he dedicated talking about imagined “oligarchs,” fueling the public’s justified discontent with telecommunication, water, and power services, as if we are in normal times. He floats the idea of government takeover and expropriation, if these businesses do not toe the line. (WATCH: Despite pandemic, Duterte targets oligarchs in SONA 2020)

We reject this demonization of Philippine business leaders and families, whether they are the Lopezes, Ayalas, or Manny Pangilinan. We do not endorse everything that their companies have done, but we do not think that they are at all oligarchs. We do not see any of their relatives in politics; we do not see them controlling politicians or political parties. 

As we will argue in a series of articles we hope to publish here, we have actually seen a remarkable transition of many so-called oligarchic families, where the later generations have successfully modernized and corporatized their enterprises. The truth is today’s oligarchies are our political dynasties, the families that dominate our elective and appointive positions and use their positions to go after legitimate businesses and make them bend to their dynastic ambitions.

Clearly, the President does not care if the Philippine economy tanks and sinks in this time of great peril for the country.

We ask, are these what the country battling COVID-19 needs? The answer is no.

We are still in a pandemic, just in case anyone, including the President, forgets. –

Tony La Viña teaches law and is former dean of the Ateneo School of Government.

Jayvy R. Gamboa is a student at the University of the Philippines College of Law and an advocate of youth formation.

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