Government candor needed in fight vs COVID-19

What disappointed a wide range of people in President Duterte’s state of the nation address last Monday, among others, was the apparent lack of candor in presenting clearly the state and direction of the government’s plan to effectively curb the upward trend of COVID-19 infections, and end what has been the longest quarantine imposed among all the nations hit by the pandemic.

The President gave the following assurances to the Filipino people:

• “Let us not despair… Sooner and not later, the virus that gobbled up thousands of lives will itself be laid to rest,” saying a vaccine for COVID-19 is just “around the corner.” He added that he had urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to prioritize the Philippines if China develops a vaccine for the virus, and to grant credit “if we have to buy [it].”

• “We are in a better position to weather the crisis caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic [because] our fiscal position is strong, our economic and fiscal management prudent and our banking system robust.”

• “Our actions are not perfect and I admit it. But all of us in government assure you we will not stop until we get things right and better for you.”

What’s the situation? While several giant pharmaceutical firms are racing to produce a vaccine for COVID-19 (with some firms saying one could be ready by November), most medical experts expect definitive results at the earliest in 2021. Certain rich nations, particularly the United States, have advanced funding to leading producers to ensure that bulk of the initial production of the vaccine would go to them once made available.

As regards the fiscal position of the government, the economic team has advised the House of Representatives that state funds are inadequate to meet the P1.3-trillion requirement of the economic recovery and investment stimulus bill it has already approved; the measure supposedly will help small and medium enterprises, pummelled by the pandemic, to survive and retain their workers. Also, in June the government already had incurred a P9-trillion debt due to loans acquired to fund the fight against COVID-19.

Responding to criticisms on the dearth of specific details of the anti-COVID program, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque has replied that Cabinet members, in pre-SONA briefings, had already tackled the details among themselves. The President, he said, merely touched on them in broad strokes. He called this “a new format for the SONA,” saying “We did not have a litany of figures that were heard during previous SONAs.”

He’s saying that the Cabinet is keeping to itself what they plan to do regarding the people’s health, lives and livelihood. And that talking about it is an innovation. Isn’t that denying the people the right to know about these concrete plans so they can properly respond? Isn’t levelling with the people – and the SONA is an apt venue for that – a requisite of good governance?

Yesterday, Philippine STAR’s frontpage headline read, “Gov’t pandemic plan now in ‘critical’ phase.” The news report’s lead paragraph said the action plan requires “‘aggressive’ testing and isolation of infected persons as well as greater involvement of local officials, especially in the enforcement of localized lockdowns.”

The announcement was made, at a press briefing Thursday, by retired Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr., former AFP chief now chief implementer of the COVID-19 policy. Galvez explained (apparently for the first time) three phases of the government’s action plan with their respective timelines: The first phase was implemented from March to June; the second covers the period from July to September; and the third, from October to December 2020. Nothing said further beyond that period.

The overarching consideration in designing the action plans, Galvez stressed, is the need for the government to strike a balance between ensuring public health and reopening the economy, gradually from the shutdown imposed since the middle of March.

In the current second phase, he pointed out, the aim is to achieve two things: 1) contain and manage the emerging new COVID-19 infection cases (totalling around 90,000 as of Thursday); and 2) at the same time, continue the capacity building – expansion of intensive care (ICU) beds and the resiliency of vulnerable communities.

How will these aims be achieved? Galvez said the national government will “shift the role to the LGUs (local government units),” citing as example what Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte has been doing: localized lockdown; actually there have been others. “The implementation of different strategies on prevention, detection, isolation, treatment and reintegration will be given to the LGUs,” he said.

Galvez acknowledged that the reopening of the economy has spiked new COVID-19 cases “because we have loosened our restrictions.” And so, he added, “in order to effectively manage COVID cases, the responsibility now shifts to the LGUs and to the private companies and to the individual citizen.” He enjoined the latter “to share the responsibility by having what we call the localized lockdown in barangay and street [levels], [by] building a massive education info campaign for the strict enforcement and discipline on the minimum health standard.”

Had the LGUs been consulted before this decision was taken? Galvez didn’t say. Maybe many of the mayors of Metro Manila can assume the responsibilities passed on to them, but what of other LGUs in other parts of the country?

“We will focus on prevention, detection, tracing and testing and efficient isolation,” he emphasized. Can all the LGUs cope with these tasks? Let’s hear from Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong, the designated “czar” for contact tracing.

Magalong said that when the national government sent online diagnostic questionnaires to the 1,900 LGUs, only 600 responded. Worse, he pointed out, only 0.68 percent of them were found to have “relatively good” contact-tracing systems. Most LGUs, he added, need about three weeks more before they can set up ideal contact-tracing teams that will locate the close contacts of identified COVID-19 patients. On average, only about eight close contacts of each patient are currently being traced, whereas the benchmark for urban centers should be 30-37 identified close contacts, he added.

Moreover, Magalong said, LGUs should prepare their own quarantine facilities as the number of patients may increase in the next three weeks, once the contact tracing system in the country becomes effective. Can most of the LGUs comply with this requirement, and how soon?

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Published in Philippine Star
August 1, 2020

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