[OPINION | Just Saying] A rudderless government

To many, the government, during this pandemic, revealed its lack of foresight, unpreparedness, and inability to provide a clear plan in combating COVID-19. It is troubling.

At the outset, the signs were portentous. On March 9, 2020, when the virus was already a scare worldwide, President Duterte rebuked even his own Presidential Security Group’s “no touch policy.” On national television, he dismissingly said: “Kalokohan ‘yan,” emphasizing that a handshake was not enough and that he wanted an embrace. That expression may have led thousands to be unmindful of COVID-19’s deadly effects, leading to their contamination.

The people waited, not for an immediate cure, but a step-by-step preventive solution. Instead, the soundbite that stuck in a number of people’s minds was the President, on March 13, saying, “Walang solusyon unless there is a vaccine.” Hoping for a vaccine can never be an initial  strategy to combat COVID-19.  

And then as if to highlight the incoherent implementation of the government directives, non-symptomatic politicians had themselves examined despite the scarcity of testing kits, law enforcers attended mass gatherings (now known as mañanitas), the BIR initially refused postponing the April 15 filing of tax returns and payment of taxes despite the enhanced community quarantine, a government agency insensitively required permits from from aid-donors and aid-donees pursuant to a Martial Law Presidential decree, the PNP hierarchy impetuously justified the shooting of an unarmed Marawi City war veteran in Quezon City, and others. Corrections were made but only after netizens vigorously complained on social media.

We also heard the admission that there are no plans for mass testing, with government pronouncements such as, “Iniiwan natin iyan sa private sector,” the confusing and contradicting declarations as to the “second wave” of affliction, the surprising “flattening of the curve” revelation, and the meteoric one-day rise in recoveries in the thousands, prompting a senator to say, “We are being fooled.”

And there were more. The fundamentally flawed Anti-Terrorism Act – irrelevant to COVID-19 – was  urgently  signed into law. Previously, citizens were only preoccupied with safeguarding their health, but now they are additionally anxious of losing their freedom and constitutional rights. Immediately, many petitions were filed with the Supreme Court   seeking the declaration of the law as  unconstitutional. 

Worse, amid the need to disseminate valuable public information regarding the pandemic and in spite of unemployment problems, 70 members of the House of Representatives voted to reject the ABS-CBN franchise application, to the great prejudice of  about 11,000 employees and severely diminishing  the means of communicating news to Filipinos everywhere. That was the macrocosm of a frontal attack against the free press, the microcosm – bringing equal damage to the press – being the conviction of Rappler’s Maria Ressa for a crime many believed to have already been prescribed, not to mention the many other cases filed against her. 

The President’s State of the Nation address was uninspiring. It did not  explain specific steps in battling the rapid rise of COVID-19. Left at that, the lethargic SONA was tolerable. But then came President Duterte’s pronouncements that may have caused China’s President Xi Jinping to jump for joy and many Filipinos to be shockingly angry.  The leader of the Philippine Republic announced to the world that, against China’s aggression disrespecting our territorial and sovereign rights: “Inutil ako riyan  and I am willing to admit it.” That was an admission that may have exponentially emboldened China’s bullying mindset and  strengthened its claims in the South China Sea and the West Philippine Sea despite the Philippines’ comprehensive victory at the Hague international tribunal. 

And then the joke that was not a joke. After President Duterte publicly advised the use of gasoline as disinfectant for washing protective face masks, spokesperson Harry Roque said that it was just a joke. However,  the  President vouched: "What I've said was true…I am not joking. I am not joking." It was an irresponsible insistence. Gasoline or diesel is venom to human beings. The Integrated Chemist of the Philippines warned in a Facebook post: “Pinapaalalahanan ng ICP ang lahat na HINDI ginagamit ang gasolina upang gawing panlinis o disinfectant ng mga bagay-bagay. Makasasama ito sa tao lalo na kapag nalanghap ang singaw nito.”

Ironically, a clear case of  lack of foresight was the government’s  recent decision  reinstating  the modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) in Metro Manila and some surrounding provinces. This was prompted by the call of 80 medical associations to provide health frontliners a breather and to prevent, at least for the moment, saturation in health facilities. This plea came after government placed Metro Manila under the less stringent general community quarantine (GCQ). The reversal of decision, though commendable, begs the legitimate question why the government, in the first place, did not see or consider the reasons ventilated by the doctors. 

This could have been a good start for congenial dialogue, but, instead, the President ended up ranting again, talking about “revolution.” He added: “Magsabi kayo revolution, then ngayon na. Try it. Patayin natin lahat ng may COVID-19. Is that what you want?” A seething response against a legitimate concern veritably dramatizes the error.

Surely no one can say that the government has not been trying but neither can one say that it has been completely efficient. 

Proper "messaging" capabilities are essential in government. The demeanor, official declarations, and even impromptu statements must convey patience, compassion, utmost understanding of the people’s plight, and an attitude welcoming all animadversions. Relaying the clear facts,   relevant problems, correct solutions and concrete plans must be a constant. After 4 years at the helm, the Duterte administration should already have  learned its lesson from all its mistakes and accordingly adjusted. But there seems to be no improvement. An irascible leadership is still the expectation.   

If government officials consider themselves exceptions, not examples, then there is a double standard. If netizens have to consistently clamor for government officials to change  wrong decisions, then that sense of priority and foresight has been wanting. Knee-jerk advice and uncalled for reactions as an  expectation in every press conference imperil directional policy. Castigation, not dialogue, as a response to criticism highlights insensitivity, causing further alienation.   

All of these may create a perception that those who claim to take care of the country are charlatans, simply in power savoring the limelight without  substance, parroting “grand plans” as a pretext for inefficiency, “recovery-strategy” for inadequacy, "public safety" for terror, "security" for persecution, “concern” for threats, "generosity" for favoritism, "economic development" for cronyism and "peace" for a place "six feet under."

The Duterte admininstration is failing in effective public communication. Many more may view the government not as an anchor of unity and strength in times of peril but a source of bewilderment. The nation suffers from a rudderless administration.

Indeed, there is credence to the notion that this pandemic could not have  happened at a worse time in the history of our country and Philippine governance. 

But let us see how the situation further unfolds. Despite the Duterte administration’s disdain for and  grudging acceptance of criticisms, we have no choice but to help it – in all its legal endeavors – succeed against COVID-19. Let's pray for  this administration’s enlightenment. As Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ has always said: “Hope springs eternal.” – Rappler.com

Mel Sta Maria is dean of the Far Eastern University (FEU) Institute of Law. He teaches law at FEU and the Ateneo School of Law, hosts shows on both radio and Youtube, and has authored several books on law, politics, and current events.