COVID-19 (Fernando Zhiminaicela/Pixabay)

If the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated anything, it is how imperfect such institutions as governments and even entire societies are — and that some are more flawed, damaged, and damaging than others.

The coronavirus contagion is testing not only the capacity of the health systems of less developed countries to cope with the disease, but also those of so-called developed countries like the United States, Italy, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

In an April 20 statement, the health ministers of the Group of 20 countries (G-20) with the most advanced economies in the world described the weaknesses in the global health systems, which presumably include their own, as “systemic.” In addition, they said, the rapid spread of the disease “has also shown vulnerabilities in the global community’s ability to prevent and respond to pandemic threats.”  What is needed is “to improve the effectiveness of global health systems by sharing knowledge and closing the gap in response capabilities and readiness.” 

In attendance in the virtual conference during which the G-20 health ministers released the statement, Singapore’s own health minister said closer international cooperation is needed, as well as continuing support for the World Health Organization (WHO), the problem being global. But what is happening seems to be the opposite. Instead of cooperation, various countries have limited support for others by prioritizing their own needs and withholding such medical supplies as face masks from those that don’t have them, while United States President Donald Trump has decided to suspend support for WHO for supposedly “mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus” and relying on unverified reports from China, a claim the organization has denied.

The weakness of the world’s health systems is evident in the number of dead and afflicted. As of last week, the global death toll from COVID-19 was at 193,000, most of them in the United States, Italy, Spain, and China. There are more than 2.7 million confirmed cases in over 200 countries in North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa.

But it is not the health systems alone that are failing. The global economic system is also foundering. With lockdowns in force in a number of countries, businesses have shut down, millions of workers across the globe have lost their sources of livelihood, and the threat of another economic recession and even depression has become imminent.

Health systems can be fixed and economies can recover. What can arguably last longer is the pandemic’s emphasis on competition rather than cooperation between countries and individuals within each country, as it underscores how much more vulnerable to the contagion is the underclass in many societies compared to the privileged classes. Social interaction and international cooperation have become fearsome means of COVID-19 transmission that have to be avoided as countries impose social distancing protocols and shut down their borders.

Of equal concern is the global surge in authoritarianism and the renewed assaults on human rights, as demagogues and despots take advantage of the crisis to tighten their grip on power not only by limiting movement and banning mass gatherings, but also by suppressing free expression and press freedom. Those acts are contrary to the United Nations’ advocacy of “transparent, responsive and accountable” governance and its upholding the “essential roles” of civil society and press freedom in combating the pandemic.

The global health crisis has even more critically exposed weaknesses in governance and leadership. In many countries, the contradictory and conflicting messages of government leaders are part of the problem. Trump, for example, had earlier dismissed the threat to the US as minimal, and later designated his Vice President, who has been widely criticized for being “anti-science,” to head the campaign against COVID-19. He has also questioned the views of his country’s epidemiologists that millions of Americans may catch the virus, apparently due to his fears that the rising number of cases in the US could impact on his chances of re-election in November this year.

In the Philippines the indicators of the weaknesses in governance and leadership during the crisis have included the Secretary of Health’s state of denial during the first months of the year. Seemingly lulled into complacency by the fact that there were only three cases of infection in the Philippines in late January, only when the number of cases had multiplied did he recommend the declaration of a public health emergency despite the Philippines’ vulnerability to the virus because of the influx of tourists and workers from China where the virus originated.    

During the current period, the mixed, incoherent, and vague messages from its officials have also led to mass confusion over government policies in the face of the continuing crisis.  Despite questions from some journalists, no one in government has said anything about whether the pandemic is showing signs of abating or worsening, or, for that matter, if the testing program for those who may have been infected is enough and working. Neither have its officials provided the credible numbers to support regime claims that the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) in Luzon has been successful in reducing the rate and number of infections.

Even at this late date, no information has been forthcoming on the government’s recovery plans, if any, once the lockdown is lifted and the pandemic has passed. The most that officials say when asked by journalists is that plans are in the works but that they have no details, that the government is still studying the situation, and that it is all up to President Rodrigo Duterte, whose focus when he speaks publicly has been on practically everything else except what the regime will do to revive the economy, address the huge unemployment problem resulting from the lockdown, and prevent a second wave of infections when it is  partially or even totally lifted.

One of the latest examples of government officials’ being confusing is recently reappointed Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque’s declaration that a “total lockdown” was being considered by the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), which IATF spokesperson Karlo Nograles immediately denied. The number of briefings from various officials daily (four to five) has not made things any more intelligible and has instead contributed further not only to the public’s bewilderment but also to that of some government officials themselves.

And then there’s President Rodrigo Duterte, who, in the number of times he has appeared on government TV to supposedly talk about the crisis, clarify government policies, and assure the public that everything is under control and the crisis is being decisively addressed, has done little to do so. Instead, he has made such puzzling, self-evident, and outrageous statements as that the doctors who have died fighting the virus were lucky because they died for the country, that the COVID threat is real, that he has ordered the police and military to “shoot  dead” protesters like those who had taken to the streets to ask government for help — and, last April 24, that he may declare martial law to stop NPA (New People’s Army) guerrillas, arrest members of legal “communist front organizations,” and  end lawlessness within his term. 

In this time of  the COVID 19 contagion,  an economic standstill,  hunger, and desperation among those who’ve lost their sources of livelihood, and policemen arresting and even shooting alleged violators of quarantine protocols,  the country — its present and its future — is apparently in oh, so capable hands.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Image by Fernando Zhiminaicela from Pixabay

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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