Many things about COVID-19’s course and consequences will remain contentious for many years. But some points already beyond debate should suggest the presidential leadership needed; for instance, the damage it did, considered by observers as comparable to that inflicted by World War II. Pandemics have been as devastating as wars. Informed estimates show the 1917-18 Spanish flu causing more casualties than World War I, 50 million vs 16 million.
Comparing biological events like pandemics and political decisions like wars challenges the distinction drawn between natural and man-made disasters. In both cases, human agency determines the spread and costs of the catastrophe. The toll from earthquakes or typhoons depends on prior decisions permitting people to settle along fault lines and in watershed areas and preparing contingency plans to address them. Pathogens may come from outside the community, but the socio-economic and political order establishes the ease of their entry and the effectiveness of remedial measures. Sources on the 1892 cholera epidemic in Hamburg documented the resistance of property owners to invest in the city’s water and sewage systems, resulting in mortality rates among the poor 13 times higher than for the rich.
A second point is also beyond dispute. Conditions of poverty — irregular income, congested living quarters, poor health — make the poor more vulnerable to a highly contagious virus and less able to cope with safeguards enforced to defend against it. Wealth and power protect health. Senator “Bato”de la Rosa will always be remembered for his delight that the pandemic allowed him to stay home in Davao (while collecting his compensation from Manila) and his fervent wish that pandemic lockdown would continue.
American conservatives anxious about compromising state rights and autonomy had to accept a third, unwanted conclusion: stopping the pandemic required federal resources and coordination. Even the richest states could not cope with a virus that easily crossed their political boundaries and caused a cascade of social and economic problems beyond public health. In our highly centralized, unitary presidential system, Filipinos expect the president to take primary responsibility for national concerns, especially one as serious as the pandemic.
These three points weaken the narrative of pandemics as cyclical, natural disasters striking every century or so and beyond human capacity to predict or prevent.
In 2017, Martin Reese, Britain’s royal astronomer, made a “long bet” of $400 against Harvard professor Steven Pinker that by June 31, 2021, a biological event, starting no later than December 31, 2020 would cause one million casualties in six months. Reese’s forecast was conservative. COVID-19 beat his start date by one year; by September 2020, it had reached the predicted one million deaths.
The Energy Development Corporation in the Philippines made an earlier, bigger bet. In 2015, it started stocking up on face masks. By February 2020, it had an inventory of two million pieces to help protect people engaged in the enterprise and their families from the coronavirus.
For leaders falling short of the COVID-19 challenge, projecting the pandemic as an act of god was a convenient excuse: just bad luck that the roulette wheel stopped spinning and dropped the virus ball on their watch. As fellow victims, they must suffer their misfortune as best they can, as should the people. But while COVID-19 invaded the whole world, some leaders clearly did better than others in moderating its spread, mitigating its immediate consequences, and managing for quicker recovery.
Equally important, they avoided drastic measures more painful for the poor than the rich and, in the Philippines, for the private than the public sector. Government service afforded better employment and income protection. At the highest levels, public officials enjoy greater latitude in dealing with lockdown restrictions. Ordinary mortals cannot indulge in visits to resort centers, public karaoke sessions, and mañanitas.
Why do some governments cope with catastrophes better than others? Niall Ferguson’s Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe provides no definitive answer, but reviewing recent American history, proposes the provocative thesis: “to each administration comes the disaster it is least prepared for, and most deserves.” Thus, Bill Clinton, who protested the Vietnam War and dodged the draft, had to send American soldiers to Bosnia and address genocidal violence in Rwanda. Dismissive of scientific research, Trump paid for the careless, deceitful approach to the coronavirus in the 2020 elections.
Duterte has publicly admitted to his unpreparedness against COVID-19; an honest and appreciated admission, not only because he lacked any medical training, but because his governance experience did not equip him to deal with a virus he could not cajole, coerce, or kill with a bullet.
Does Duterte deserve this disaster? Views will vary. Perhaps the question is irrelevant. Addressing the pandemic as a law enforcement problem was clearly his call, but the problem is not his to solve by himself. He promised to select the best and the brightest officials to help him and he has stressed in recent IATF briefings that he has delegated full powers to them. But media also often reports the president still “studying,“ or “mulling over,” or “making up his mind.” Correctly enough, even designated officials must wait on his word. As these officials were his choices, he cannot easily disclaim their advice that led to his decisions or the command responsibility for their failures. Whether deserved or not, Duterte owns the responsibility for the pandemic disaster; the buck stops with him.
The bad luck he has bemoaned is also our misfortune. At a moment of mortal difficulty and danger, we discovered the leader we had chosen bringing expertise and experience, temperament and style so badly suited to the crisis. Points to ponder when we choose the next president. He or she will have to face more crises than the pandemic. – Rappler.com
Edilberto de Jesus is a senior research fellow at the Ateneo School of Government.
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