A Commentary on the PH National Government’s Response to COVID-19
Yolanda R. Esguerra
National Coordinator, Philippine Misereor Partnership Inc.
Many of us are distraught at the government’s state of response to the continuing challenges of managing the virus spread in our country. We are worried about how slow the measures are being put in place to contain the spread of the virus.
It has been more than two weeks now since the entire Luzon was put in a lockdown or “enhanced community quarantine”. By this time, we had hoped that the entire national structure of government down to the local level have been efficiently mobilized to act together and that a comprehensive, well-thought-out plan is laid down to 1) manage the rising number of infection, 2) protect better its frontliners, and 3) support its citizens who have no means of sustaining their family’s needs as they are forced to stay home for the quarantine period.
But until now, these most important and urgent concerns have not been addressed sufficiently.
Free Mass Testing
Day by day the number of people under investigation (PUI), people under monitoring (PUM), and COVID-19 positive are increasing while the testing of PUI and PUM is slow and can’t keep-up to these growing numbers. Until April 1, we can only manage to test 3,000 plus people compared to our Asian neighbors who have conducted more than 10,000- 30,000 plus covid tests. General Carlito Galvez, Jr. also announced recently that the mass testing will happen on April 14, but this will be too late if and when the lockdown on April 15 will be lifted. Mass testing should be done now.
Protection of Frontliners
The death of health practitioners continues to rise; 17 doctors have died. And even as we honor them for their service, it is depressing to hear the government romanticize their untimely deaths by saying that they’ve died as heroes while performing their sworn duty. Lest we forget that they died because of the government’s failure to protect them. We dare say that an inefficient system killed them.
What adds more to this injury is when you see health frontliners beg and call out to private groups for more personal protective equipment (PPEs) because the government fails to provide. But their ordeal doesn’t end here. Many who have no private transportation must endure long walks to their workplaces despite the free point to point rides provided by the government. Their experience of harassment and ostracism from misinformed citizens.
But the frontliners are not only in the health or medical field. The workers, stevedores, drivers who ensure steady supply of food in Luzon coming from our farmers. The cashiers, baggers and staff in grocery, drug stores and banks, the people manning the checkpoints. They are all frontliners and needing the same attention and protection being equally exposed to the dangers of contracting the virus.
Support for the Most Vulnerable Population
The clamor for food support is escalating. The informal sector like the ambulant vendors, drivers, construction workers who are mostly living in urban poor areas, as well as the middle-income wage earners like the workers in a non-essential industry like shopping malls and restaurant, either, have yet to receive any form of help or have received only once in the span of two weeks from the government, not to mention the numbers of street dwellers and families who thrive on alms and doing menial work for the private and public commuters on the road.
Few Government Leaders as Beacon of Light
True, there are few national and local government leaders serving like a beacon of light and hope to us citizens as they perform far beyond what this government is doing. However, their initiatives have become suspects. They are from time to time haunted by the blind followers of the government who can’t seem to tolerate those who are efficient, innovative, independent-minded, and would not blindly follow orders from the higher-ups. They tend to perceive these efforts as stealing the limelight from them and regarding them as competitors and enemies.
The social amelioration fund that promises P5,000 to P8,000 cash to 18 million low-income families, among the Bayanihan Law’s centerpiece project is in disarray as the authority to disburse was recently removed from the local government. Graft and corruption that abounds in the local governments prompted the transfer of mandate to the Department of Social Work and Development (DSWD). Yet, critics believe that the DSWD has no capability to implement it because it has no workforce at the local government level. Thus, up until now, we are still in the stage of drawing up the list of beneficiaries aside from the Pantawid Pamilya list.
To Bear and Tolerate the President
We ask, why the President’s penchant to thank China, forgetting that the spread of the virus was China’s attempt to control the information from going out in the public realm, plus our own government’s dilly-dallying to close our borders from the Chinese which started this menace to spread. Lest we forget that the first case of COVID-19 infection and the first death in the Philippines is a Chinese national.
Suspicious that the special powers asked by the President can make a difference, we are now very disappointed, that in his public report, a week after the so-called Bayanihan Law was passed, the President can only report to the nation that all his powers were given to respective agencies and only two, most specifically on directing business, were left to him, and which he will use only when needed. All accomplishments are in general terms and have no real numbers.
The President’s fondness to use military-police solutions and continuing threats and sermons to the LGUs and the people will not do the trick to manage the situation. The authoritarian style of Tatay Digong will not be enough to manage this crisis. We need leaders with the mettle and skill to unite frightened people into action, not out of fear but coming from an inspired prodding of a firm but a compassionate leader. In this depressing and chaotic situation, we do not need threats but a clear guidance and direction on how every member of this nation can help fight the pandemic.
To address the situation, we request that the following measures be given consideration:
There should be a free mass testing now. As we try to procure testing kits outside the country, we ask that the government invest in funding our own testing kits made by our very own scientists and doctors from the University of the Philippines. The mass testing should prioritize the PUMs, PUIs, Senior Citizens (vulnerable sectors), the medical personnel and all other frontliners – the medical personnel. Workers in the key service sector, military and police manning the checkpoints, and media people. All of them risking their lives every day performing their sworn duty to the people.
The health frontliners including the new 600 health volunteers should be properly protected and cared for. Complete PPE and a halfway house where they can stay near their workplace should be provided, along with a living allowance and hazard pay according to law.
Release of the P200 billion to the most vulnerable groups – the informal sectors and the daily wage earners should be prioritized now. A cooperation of the LGUs and DSWD should provide checks and balances as well as efficiency so that it can reach the beneficiaries the soonest time possible.
Capacitation and mobilization of communities, of health personnel down to the barangay levels should be effected. All barangay health workers should be mobilized, activated and capacitated in monitoring, tracing and care of people with mild symptoms in their barangays. If possible, find a healing place, a center, a house where local or barangay PUI and PUM can be housed. Let barangay leaders conduct house to house education and information campaign to their constituents not only to manage the spread of the infection but also to lessen the social ostracism of those infected, PUIs, and PUMs.
People as the Primary Source of Hope
What stands out and holds us together as a people in the midst of this chaotic situation are the resilient spirit of our people who have endured catastrophes and disasters the past years, the generosity of people and groups who directly help and provide for the poorest communities without asking for recognition, the creativity and small initiatives of individuals to share something to their neighbors in need and the valiant stance of many health frontliners, food production workers and utility service workers to be out of their homes and make lives livable for all of us in this time of crisis. We salute all of you, including those who stayed at home and suspended many of their life’s comfort just so that others may live too.
Thus, we say, that the people in general should not be treated as helpless and weaklings in the face of this pandemic. If people are properly informed and the barangays are properly oriented and capacitated the fight against COVID-19 will not anymore reach our last line of defense, which are the hospitals. Disclose and explain fully to people the dangers we are addressing. Provide them the necessary tools and information to protect themselves. Ensure that they will not go hungry during the quarantine period. Give local community spaces to support each other. We are seeing how people in the spirit of bayanihan have been helping to meet the many gaps and holes that our government cannot provide.
Requisites for an Extension of ECQ
The extension of the ECQ should be carefully reviewed and assessed. Another week to ensure that we have accurately traced and monitored possible areas of infection is crucial and important. Ensuring that another wave of infection will not happen again should be a topmost agenda now. However, better planning and execution of support to the most vulnerable groups should likewise be in place when the extension happens or is decided. Likewise, managing and ensuring localization or containment of risks including therefore opening of international flights should be thoroughly reviewed.
Drawing out initial lessons from this experience, we are indeed ill-prepared to fight a pandemic. In 2015 the late Senator Merriam Santiago filed a bill to deal with a Health Pandemic, but this never came to light. Maybe after this episode, we will be able to consider looking into our laws, administrative orders, local ordinances that can address a health pandemic/epidemic like this. We need to strengthen the health care system from the national to local. Currently, the ratio of doctors in the Philippines is 1:33,000 while the world average is 1:1000.
Likewise, we need to re-asses our development paradigm as well. We need to see the connection between the diseases in the way we use the environment for the sake of human development. Scientists noted that most of the diseases are coming from animals and wildlife that we toy with – study or consume as products for the benefit of mankind. When the balance is tilted heavily in our favor, there will be a point of reckoning. And scientists say that it would be fatal to human species in the end. Nature needs to be respected like human beings. The Rights of Nature perspective needs to be examined and integrated in our economic, political and everyday life.
Which brings me to another important point.
The worldwide pandemic also showed us how to live in a new way that can manage the climate crisis we still face today. Scientists noted that with the halt of massive production and air and land transportation, the earth’s temperature significantly lowered. This, however, will not be sustained when we go back to business as usual mode after this pandemic. In the Philippines, the closing of huge malls has definitely reduced the consumption of energy and water and lessen the environmental pollution. It’s as if our environment is also in a quarantine mode, doing some self-organization and self-renewal. One thing that this pandemic made us realize is that we don’t need shopping malls carrying signature clothes, shoes, etc. to open daily, only stores that carry basic needs like food and medicine. A life where basic and barest minimum as the norm is indeed possible.
PMPI is a social development and advocacy network of 250 plus Philippine church/faith-based groups, non-governmental organizations and people’s organizations spread all over the country, in partnership with Misereor, a social development arm of the German Bishops based in Aachen, Germany.
Yolanda R. Esguerra, PMPI National Coordinator
Fr. Juderick Paul Calumpiano, PMPI Chairperson
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