"In a crisis, slowness guarantees defeat."
Right after President Duterte’s fifth State of the Nation Address, people in social media started asking about his COVID-19 road map. In fairness to the government, there was an action program developed and approved by the President that was implemented by the Inter Agency Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases when the pandemic started. The only thing is that the IATF did not write it down and it was not made public.
The objective was to put the lives of Filipinos first and foremost. The enhanced community quarantine which lasted for about 80 days was imposed for the purpose of saving lives. This was supposed to be followed by vigorous testing, contact tracing, and the isolation of infected people. Somewhere along the line, however, the President's team or part of it did not do their jobs well, that is why we now have more 115,980 infected people as of yesterday. In other words, there was failure in the execution of the program.
Over time, the dynamics of the pandemic changed, necessitating revisions in the government response to adjust to the changing situation. This was when the government decided to reopen the economy. When this happened, the first objective of saving Filipino lives was modified to saving lives to include opening the economy because the country cannot afford not to. Then, when the President addressed the nation last Friday, he asked the public to hold on a little longer because a vaccine is coming very soon from China. He even read a letter from the Chinese embassy saying that the Philippines is a priority recipient of the vaccine as soon as it becomes available.
He said that the military will undertake the distribution of the vaccines free of charge first to the poor, then his soldiers and policemen and perhaps the middle class. The rich, if I understood his gestures correctly, will have to fend for themselves. This signaled an abrupt shift in government direction. In his introductory words, there was a tone of resignation that the government might not be able to control the spread of the disease any longer that is why he was banking on the arrival of the vaccine to bring the country back to normalcy. This shift took many people by surprise because the government appeared to be willing to allow the people to learn to live with the virus as the economy continues to accelerate. But then the medical community appealed for a two-week lockdown to give the medical frontliners a breather. Metro Manila and four nearby provinces are now on a two-week modified enhanced community quarantine.
These many changes in government direction is a reason why some people are asking what exactly the government wants to do. Save Filipino lives most of all? Open the economy but try to save as many lives as possible? Or simply hold the fort and wait for the vaccines from China to come hoping that it will solve all our COVID-19 problems. But during the two week breather, what should the government be doing? Reorganize the President's team by streamlining some functions? Replace some of the team members perhaps? More of the same? The seven recommendations by a group of doctors seem to allude to these points.
It is really hard to manage a crisis in the manner that it has been done during the past several months. Due to the nature of the crisis, what is now needed is for the President to consider appointing a field commander or crisis manager who reports to him directly supported by very competent people and an efficient operation center that can get up to date information efficiently as a basis for making on the spot decisions. This way, he talks to only one person instead of so many. The situation is changing rapidly that decisions must be made promptly and not have to wait for the next committee meeting.
When the medics made their recommendations, the Department of Health promised to come up with an aggressive program in a week. By that time, half the lockdown would have been gone and infections may have increased anywhere between 14,000 to 37,000. It would be too late. Besides, should it be DOH drafting a plan after all the flak that it has been getting? Perhaps the Chief Implementer who was a former Chief of Staff of the AFP should do it. He knows all the facets of the problem and can easily draft a comprehensive Operation Plan.
At this point, we cannot afford to be one step behind or else we will surely lose the battle. Slowness is the best friend of defeat in crisis management. We all have a stake in this pandemic. Let us do it right this time.