April 09, 2021 at 12:00 am
Ernesto M. Hilario
"The problem lies in having a top-heavy bureaucracy."
We've asked this question before and we feel it's critical to ask this once again as COVID-19 cases surge and Metro Manila and four other outlying provinces are on lockdown, or virtual house arrest, and the Philippines has turned out to be the second worst-performing country in Southeast Asia in fighting the coronavirus.
Yes, the IATF is officially the agency in charge, but 14 months later, it's still carrying out the same solutions that have failed in the past, such as various stages of lockdowns once cases surge.
That's essentially punishing the public for government's failure to carry out what the World Health Organization's has prescribed: test, trace and treat.
Now, 14 months later, the number of Filipinos tested for the coronavirus appears to be only a minuscule part of the vulnerable population because of the prohibitive cost of the RT-PCR test kits that's the gold standard in coronavirus testing per the WHO.
There's practically no contact tracing. What's going on is that the public must fill out forms indicating their names, addresses and contact numbers and body temperature. What happens to the forms at the end of the business hours is anybody's guess. Our educated guess is that the heap goes straight to the trash can because sorting it requires additional work for already overworked manpower and additional costs for businesses already reeling from decreased sales.
And the hospitals as well as quarantine and isolation facilities are simply unable to cope with the big surge in cases. It's only now that government is urging both public and private hospitals to put up more quarantine/isolation facilities as hospital beds and ICUs are swamped with COVID patients.
The Philippines has borrowed billions of dollars from multilateral funding institutions for vaccine procurement, but so far only a few hundred thousand Filipinos have been vaccinated as of this month. We can understand that vaccine supply has been monopolized by the countries with well-developed medical research institutions and big pharmaceutical companies that were able to immediately start work on vaccine development since mid-2020. But this should not deter health authorities from stepping up efforts to secure an adequate amount of vaccines for us to achieve herd immunity by the end of this year.
As we've pointed out earlier, the problem lies in having a top-heavy bureaucracy composed of Cabinet-level and other officials who are supposed to draft policies governing over-all COVID-19 response at certain periods. The latest resolution reported in the newspapers tells us that the policies crafted in March 2020 are still in force but with some modifications in what's constant: Lockdowns at the barangay, city, provincial, regional and national levels.
The IATF chairman is Health Secretary Francisco Duque, whose underperformance since March 2020 has been so striking that lawmakers and even doctors' groups want him sacked. But Duterte has retained him amid the clamor for his removal for purely personal, rather than professional, reasons.
I don't think the IATF should be abolished as some have suggested. Instead, it should be reorganized from top to bottom to reflect the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is first and foremost a health problem, secondarily an economic concern, and lastly a peace-and-order challenge.
Thus, the reorganized IATF should consist mostly of medical experts and economists who can strike a delicate balance between keeping the people safe from the disease yet flexible enough not to hamper mobility that keeps essential businesses and government agencies from shutting down for long periods.
The retired military and police generals now part of the IATF policy-making body whose mindset seems to be trapped in lockdown mode should be yanked out and replaced with epidemiologists and other health experts with minds of their own and know whereof they speak.
The composition of the main IATF policy-making body should also be reduced from 26 or 27 to a more manageable five, seven or nine members. They should be the best and the brightest.
The implementing agencies of the IATF should also be led by civilians, not active-duty police or military generals, to ensure that the COVID-19 response is medical in character, not a peace-and-order problem requiring draconian solutions with heavily armed, camouflaged cops and soldiers manning checkpoints and compelling total obedience by the citizenry to veiled threats of brute force.
We're told that on March 25, 2020, the IATF-EID came up with a National Action Plan (NAP) to slow down the spread of COVID-19. The NAP was created to effectively and efficiently implement and decentralize the system of managing the COVID-19 situation.
After 14 months, shouldn't the IATF come up with a comprehensive report to the Filipino public on what it has achieved and what still needs to be done?
The nation owes a debt of gratitude to the medical frontliners—doctors, nurses, medical technologists, support staff—who have rendered services even beyond the call of duty, with not a few having made the supreme sacrifice so that others may live.
Let us leave the politicians and the opportunists out of the battle against Covid-19 and let the medical sector take charge.
Even more important, Duterte should start to provide decisive leadership to the nation in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. The buck should stop on his desk.