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Thursday, April 25, 2024

‘Maliit na bagay’

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"Everybody needs to recognize how big and threatening this virus continues to be, so that we can employ equally big, bold, planned and sustained measures to beat it."

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During his address to the nation last Monday, President Rodrigo Duterte said:

“Kaya natin ito COVID na ito. Maliit na bagay ito sa buhay natin. Marami tayong dinaanan…mas grabe, mas mahirap, mas magluluha kayo (We can bear this COVID. This is a small thing in our life. We have been through worse situations – more difficult they would make you cry).”

The statement immediately drew flak from many sectors, angered at how Mr. Duterte minimized and dismissed the sufferings of Filipinos. His spokesperson, as is customary, has tried to spin the words into something positive. He is not belittling our struggles, Secretary Harry Roque – who later on announced he himself had contracted the virus – said in Filipino. What the President is saying is that we will eventually rise from this setback, and we will heal as one.

Mr. Roque also emphasized how the number of deaths here was lower than that in other countries, and how vaccines were on the way.

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This news item was from a week ago, when the number of new cases per day hovered between 4,000 and 5,000. Today the numbers are dramatically up – one short of 7,757 as of press time Sunday, down only slightly from an all-time high of 7,999 the day before. And today, more than ever, the President’s words – “maliit na bagay” – rankle, no matter how much we try to imagine what he may have truly meant, or what his state of mind was when he made the pronouncement.

A leader’s words should stand on their own. The public should be spared the extra trouble of guessing what he truly means. Perhaps President Duterte wanted to boost the morale of Filipinos, who are reeling from the health, mental and economic effects of COVID-19 one year after the lockdowns were first imposed. Or perhaps he meant exactly that – he did not think it was that important, and that there were other pressing matters he must devote his attention to.

Whatever the meaning, the phrase has stuck. And however we turn it in our heads, however he may have intended for it to sound, “maliit na bagay” is wrong and unacceptable on all levels.

COVID-19 is no small matter, Mr. President, because:

1. The virus is dangerously close to home. People we know have been sick and have even died. We know it could easily be us, even though we try to follow basic protocol and keep our ventures outside of home to a minimum. Meanwhile, our hospitals are almost saturated again, and our healthcare workers see no relief.

2. A fog surrounds the issue of vaccines. One year ago when this was all new to us, we believed that once vaccines have been developed, the problem would end, and we can imagine a life with a semblance of normalcy. But now there are several vaccines that have been authorized for use by many countries, including the Philippines. Still we only seem to be catching glimpses of the whole picture. The public needs to be informed on a constant basis: How much debt has been incurred for the purpose of buying the vaccines? How much has actually gone for that purpose? What percentage of the vaccines already here were donations, and were purchased?

The public also wants to know on a daily basis, from the same official source, how many have received their initial doses, and when they can expect to receive their second doses. What is the plan on covering, first, the priority sectors and then the rest of the population? How is the rollout being implemented and what is the participation of the private sector in all this?

3. People are losing jobs, if they have not lost them already. Because of the protracted lockdowns, businesses have closed or significantly scaled down. Workers have been laid off – they don’t know when they can have their livelihood back, much less how to feed their families in the uncertain days ahead. Those who can still receive an income by working from home are the really fortunate ones.

4. Students are grappling with learning. Both students and teachers are struggling with using a mix of learning tools. Online instruction is the next best thing, but not everybody has a stable internet connection, or even the gadgets with which to do it. Meanwhile, learning through physical modules, where teachers bring kits to their students’ homes for submission at a later time, is also fraught with problems. How, then, to ensure that students are able to learn their lessons while also dealing with the very real constraints in the delivery of these lessons?

5. We face a great amount of disinformation. Sadly, when people are looking for answers, and when they don’t get them from credible, official sources, they will turn to anything. Fake news abounds online, and it is very easy to spread it either inadvertently or on purpose. How, then, can people make enlightened decisions – including those made on election day – when the basis of those decisions are unverified information from dubious sources?

6. We are starved for strategic, inspiring and principled leadership. Our leaders are, at best, speaking in disjointed fashion, sometimes even making statements that conflict with one another. They appear to address problems as they arise and not in the larger context of tackling the COVID-19 issue. Some of them continue to display their entitlement and privilege as the rest of us suffer. Worse, they seem to have other priorities –for instance, pushing a law that lumps critics with terrorists, or positioning for next year’s elections.

At some point in the future, we will emerge out of this crisis and look back at the lessons we both learned and missed. Before we can do that, however, everybody needs to recognize how big and threatening this virus continues to be, so that we can employ equally big and bold measures to beat it, once and for all.

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