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Vantage Point

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PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte has placed the National Capital Region and outlying provinces under modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) supposedly in response to the plea of healthcare workers to do just that. But that was only part of their suggestion — they also asked that the government reassess its anti-pandemic strategy. Such a reassessment was glaringly absent in Mr. Duterte’s fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA) delivered on July 27, despite the surge in the number of Filipinos afflicted with the disease.

Required by the Constitution, the President’s delivering a SONA every year is not the meaningless, merely customary ritual some think it to be. If done right, it would be a report to the Filipino people on the country’s current situation. It provides a ruling administration the opportunity to present to the nation its plans to address the challenges before it, and to enable it to move forward.

As head of state and the country’s chief executive with access to the information and the expertise needed in navigating the complex waters of governance, the President is presumably in the best position to identify what problems as well as threats and opportunities face the nation. Even more crucial is identifying the steps needed to solve the country’s problems, addressing the threats to it, and using to its advantage whatever opportunities are available. The SONA thus includes the President’s legislative agenda: his recommendations on what bills the legislature has to draft, file and pass into law.

Like many other well-intentioned practices in government, the SONA has become a mostly political exercise. But it should ideally be a sober and sobering appraisal of what is happening to the country and its people even during those times that one can loosely and uncritically describe as “normal.”

One can argue that such times, if there have been any at all, have been rare and far between in this country of unending crises — in which widespread violence, political instability, poverty and hunger, inequality, human rights violations, injustice, ignorance, corruption, criminality, abuse of power and institutionalized oppression are afflictions so widespread they practically define the daily lives of millions of Filipinos.

If even in such times a SONA should be a non-partisan and objective analysis of the country’s situation and problems and how to address and prevail over them, the more urgent is the need for it during these unquestionably abnormal times.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest threat to the well-being and lives of the people, and addressing it should be the first priority of every government official from the President to the lowest-ranking civil servant. As the number of those infected breached 100,000 and will very likely surpass it; as the millions who have lost their livelihoods are unable to feed clothe, shelter and educate their children; and as hunger stalks the poorest communities, the 2020 SONA was an opportunity to unite a divided population and allay its fears by demonstrating that government has the will, the means and the vision to control the pandemic enough for the economy and the disemployed, impoverished and hungry millions to recover from the devastating consequences of the contagion.

Despite that need, President Rodrigo Duterte devoted in his fifth SONA only a few minutes to the continuing threat of COVID-19. One can therefore understand the alarm, frustration and disappointment of those who have been saying that by devoting more time to ranting against ABS-CBN and the Lopezes and Senator Franklin Drilon; threatening to expropriate Globe and Smart Telecommunications; and urging the restoration of the death penalty rather than providing the country a clear understanding of the Philippine situation, Mr. Duterte only exposed how ineffectual his administration has been in curbing the pandemic and presiding over the country’s economic recovery. In addition, what he did not say as much as what he did in his address also spoke volumes about the distressing state of governance and its impact on what is going on in these isles of uncertainty.

In the brief five minutes when he began his address, it seemed that Mr. Duterte would depart from the sound and the fury that usually characterize his public utterances, and that after four long years he was at last going to be Presidential. That hope was soon dashed to pieces as he once more launched into his accustomed tirades, described himself as a 2016 “casualty” of ABS-CBN despite his winning the presidency that year, and ended his address by again attacking Drilon and accusing him of wrongdoing and hypocrisy.

He claimed to have the preservation of human life as his priority, but in almost the same breath urged Congress to restore the death penalty. He did present a legislative agenda that seems intended to revive the economy, but by threatening Smart and Globe Communications with expropriation so soon after his regime’s harassment and persecution of the Lopezes, sent the business community a message the Management Association of the Philippines (MAP) correctly warned is likely to have a chilling effect on both local and foreign investors.

The closest he came to acknowledging his administration’s failure to reduce the number of COVID-19 infections and to produce any semblance of an economic recovery blueprint was a reluctant admission that it has had “difficulties.” But he presented no coherent plan of action to address them on the basis of a fact-based analysis of the last six months’ experience and the lessons learned from it. Neither did he say anything about addressing such major concerns of healthcare workers as the inadequacies of healthcare system equipment and facilities, the critical shortfall in the number of nurses, doctors, and other medical frontliners, and most hospitals’ being full to the rafters with COVID-19 patients.

Mr. Duterte instead beguiled his constituency with the promise that the Philippines would have first priority in getting a vaccine from China, a concession that he said he had managed to wangle from that country. That he had earlier declared that the West Philippine Sea is Chinese “property” naturally leads to suspicions that the promise of a vaccine is his reward for surrendering to it the Philippines’ rights to its own territorial waters and resources.  

He also claimed to be for the human rights he has a number of times declared he does not care for. But he said not a single word about how his and his Congressional cohorts’ so-called Anti-Terrorism Law will savage such Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms as free expression and the right to due process. And he certainly gave no accounting of how his administration spent the billions allotted for the pandemic and the much hyped but much criticized and corruption-ridden Social Amelioration Program.

From what he said as well as what he did not, one can only conclude that the entire country and its 108 million population should be in precisely the state of panic that Mr. Duterte keeps saying they shouldn’t be.

Some Filipinos dispose of their garbage by burning or throwing them into the nearest estero. Many get help and even the justice they cannot get from the government from the media’s public service programs. As Mr. Duterte’s spokesperson at one point suggested, following those examples of do-it-yourself initiatives, that it is now up to every citizen rather than the government to  protect himself, his family, and his neighbors from the many ills Filipino flesh is heir to. Everything else is sound and fury, signifying little — or nothing.

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