"COVID-19 has ground our pretensions into the dust."
Filipinos are among the best in the world when it comes to plans, project studies, and press releases. Our plans are so good that their shelf life can last for decades. We depend so much on project studies that they need to be updated again and again even before the project breaks ground. And because public perception is considered more important than actual performance, an endless stream of press releases have spawned a whole cottage industry of PR professionals.
It’s difficult to break this cycle of self-reinforcing mediocrity in execution. But a real crisis will expose the emperor’s actual nakedness. At the moment, such a crisis is the COVID-19 pandemic, an implacable force of nature that has ground all our pretensions into the dust and laid bare the consequences of decades of neglect, especially in two important areas of governance: our healthcare system and our local governments.
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This was the underlying message delivered by 80 local medical associations—basically, the country’s entire healthcare profession—when they recently pleaded for a return to two weeks of enhanced lockdown in Metro Manila in order to take a breather and reassess directions. Among the key issues raised by the frontliners:
Not enough healthcare personnel, which has already closed down facilities. This is blamed on too many cases being loaded on a demoralized and exposed workforce.
Over-reliance on rapid testing – As I’ve said here before, this method is on average 40-percent accurate, which isn’t even as good as a 50/50 coin toss. As a result, a lot of actually infectious people are escaping the net.
Failure of contact tracing and quarantine – This “miserable failure” is blamed squarely on the LGUs, whom the national government through DILG can only oversee but not replace when it comes to actual implementation.
Lack of transportation safety – The DOH and DoTr are singled out here for more policy clarity and better implementation.
Lack of workplace safety – DoLe and DTI are additionally implicated. As I’ve also said here before, this is my biggest concern. It’s no accident that cases have risen as more people have started going back to work—in confined spaces with aircon recirculation, interacting the whole day at close quarters with large numbers of fellow workers. It’s a sure-fire recipe for infection, no matter how necessary it may be to restore our economy.
The roots of these problems go back through many years of institutional neglect, well before Duterte’s administration. And to his credit, Duterte immediately responded by directing the IATF to meet with the healthcare professionals over their issues. But one can’t help wondering: If the doctors hadn’t made such a fuss, would the IATF have gone ahead to reconsider its directions now that our lockdown has become the world’s longest?
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Adding to the woes of our public health officials, a can of worms was recently opened by a young lawyer at PhilHealth who resigned—with two other well-placed officers—over accusations of corruption in that huge outpost of healthcare bureaucracy.
The charges raised by Atty Thorsson Keith are now being investigated by the country’s anti-corruption czar, PACC commissioner Greco Belgica. He says some 30 people—still unnamed—are “persons of interest” in his investigation. The IT Department of PhilHealth has been mentioned, but I’ve been told that the Legal Department is also part of the indictable goings-on.
I was also told that the stink reaches even higher—all the way up, in fact, to the executive committee. One member of that committee, SVP Renato Limsiaco, has already been questioned by government auditors over improper financial reporting.
None of this implicates the current PhilHealth CEO, Gen. Ricardo Morales, a man of impeccable military achievement if you look up his record. Unfortunately, it isn’t uncommon that a good soldier’s mission focus can become a blinder in less black-and-white situations. The word for this is “naivete,” which in fact was how Morales was described in an online piece.
The immediate focus of Belgica’s investigation—an IT project proposal that smelled fishy from the start—was the subject of a “shouting match” between Morales and his immediate subordinates. But why did such a confrontation even happen? In my book, those members of his executive committee who proposed this project, or voted for it, or shouted at Morales because of it, should be suspended and investigated ipso facto.
As we throw billions of pesos at the pandemic, it’s no time to hear about yet another scandal from this agency that handles the finances of our healthcare system. It’s high time for Duterte to revive his unsparing policy from the start to fire anyone with “just a whiff of corruption” about them. Those scalawags in PhilHealth fit the label to a T.
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