Who's in charge?

"This can only mean one thing: The survival of the fittest."



Six months after various stages of lockdowns that drove the national economy into recession in the second quarter, the COVID-19 pandemic shows no sign of easing up in this country. We have yet to achieve what scientists refer to as the "flattening of the curve," or the phase where the existing health care system can very well cope with new cases and not turn them away, as what's still happening now.

Early on, in the first two months of this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) was already saying that our three-fold approach to curb the spread of the deadly virus should be: test, trace, and treat.

On those three components of the WHO formula, our performance leaves much to be desired, if we're to go by the grim statistics reported by the Department of Health (DOH) on a daily basis.

The government's main response to COVID-19 had been to convene an Inter-Agency Task Force Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) that was supposed to craft a detailed plan to address the health crisis. It is headed by Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, with Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, a former AFP Chief of Staff as vice chair. Its implementing arm is headed by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, another ex-general. The IATF as the policy-making body is backstopped by Technical Working Groups, one of them composed of health experts, whose task is to give the IATF timely inputs.

The IATF gets orders directly from the President himself. But if Duterte has had no clear idea on what to do to arrest the spread of the virus, what can we expect from the ad hoc body to achieve when both the President and the Health Secretary have obviously failed to provide proper leadership in the battle against an unseen enemy?

From where we sit, the work of the IATF should be to strike a delicate balance between saving human lives and keeping the economy on an even keel.

Definitely, it is not an either/or situation, but one where one complements the other.

Unfortunately, the government's performance in both aspects has been far from ideal.

Right from the get-go, things seemed to go wrong for Duque. For starters, early on, he was exposed to someone who had tested positive for the virus and had to go into isolation for two weeks, leaving his subalterns to explain to the public what the DOH was doing to fight the coronavirus.

That left the IATF leaderless, with the ex-generals apparently seizing the leadership vacuum to implement never-ending lockdowns and harsh measures on the ground against those violating quarantine protocols, such as wearing of face masks and maintaining social distancing.

Duque's abject failure to provide decisive leadership in the war against the coronavirus as chair of IATF has been compounded by his glaring inability to prevent the top management of PhilHealth from helping themselves to its funds. This was done through gross overpricing of IT equipment and overpayments to various hospitals throughout the country.

Senators and even administration allies have already sought Duque's dismissal as Health Secretary, but Duterte, for some unexplained reason, said he has complete trust in his appointee and does not want to change horses in the middle of the pandemic.

Vice President Leni Robredo is correct in pointing out: “Our problem is so much bigger than Secretary Duque.  For me, the problem really is with the national government appearing to have no system in place...In fairness to the agencies, (they) are doing a lot. They have been laboring for more than six months — local governments too. But it seems that no cohesive plan was crafted.  It seems like we have no one to lead us. If you look at the agencies’ body of work, they are like working in silos until now."

And more: “It would be good if in the midst of the pandemic there would be a voice who would say that all the agencies’ actions, whether as a team or what: ‘I will command it.' All hands on deck. What we would focus on are the COVID-19 related programs.”

For the Vice President, the ideal would be for Duterte to lead the war against COVID-19. “ But if he does not want that role or if he is busy with other things, at least he should have appointed one.  If it is not him, at least he should assign somebody in his stead — maybe one of the Cabinet secretaries, but with the same authority...You know, somebody whom the departments would obey and say: ‘Let’s work together’...It is frustrating to look at this system that does not tell you what is the right direction, where what one says would be countered by the other.”

Does that sound, like Duterte said, that she is merely adding fuel to the fire and wants to destroy the government?

I don't think so.

If the government' war on the coronavirus is leaderless, that can only mean one thing: The survival of the fittest. That seems to be the underlying reason for the perverse notion, articulated in private by a former legislator who wants to go back to Congress in 2022, that it's OK if the pandemic will result in fewer Filipinos—by as many as 300,000—when it's over.


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Topics: Ernesto Hilario , World Health Organization , WHO , Department of Health , DOH , COVID-19 pandemic
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