Rodrigo Duterte
President Rodrigo Duterte answers queries from members of the media on the sidelines of the 69th founding anniversary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) at the DSWD Central Office in Quezon City on January 29, 2020. (Ace Morandante/Presidential Photo)

It should be more than evident by now that much like its predecessors, doing nothing until things get worse, and then blaming everyone else except itself is what passes for the Duterte regime’s principle of governance. As the last three years of its benighted rule have amply demonstrated, it has neither a sense of urgency nor purpose except power and self-aggrandizement. Only indifference if not contempt is what it has for the people it should be serving. But have Filipinos, particularly President Rodrigo Duterte’s die-hard, fact-resistant, untutored hordes, even noticed?

If they knew any better they would have realized by now that the only time the regime displays any sign of awareness is when the interests of its resident bureaucrat capitalists are threatened, the independent press criticizes it or reports so truthfully about what it is doing and not doing Mr. Duterte goes into paroxysms of rage, or he is so disturbed by some imagined slight he threatens to kill everyone in sight, whether human rights defender, bishop or businessman. The rest of the time its overpaid and inept big bureaucrats are half asleep and uncaring, while Mr. Duterte himself rests his disinterested self in his Davao City lair.

But in those times when he’s conscious, in-between making the cancellation of the visa of his chief accomplice in his war on the poor the basis of the country’s relations with the United States and delivering his incoherent, profanity-laced tirades, Mr. Duterte never forgets to mention the drug problem — which he admitted last year he has failed to solve despite his 2016 campaign boast that he would do so in six months. That sham campaign is nevertheless still ongoing, and still claiming the lives of accused drug addicts and pushers while coddling drug lords and their partners in government.

Mr. Duterte declared in his 2018 State of the Nation Address (SONA) that “[his] concern is human lives.” But neither human lives nor the country’s future was in his mind when he cut billions from the disaster mitigation funds and the Department of Health (DOH) and Department of Education (DepEd) budgets while bloating that of his own office to PhP8.6 billion in the 2020 General Appropriations Act that he submitted to Congress and which his equally uncaring majority in both houses dutifully approved. There is still no sign of that “concern” even as the first case of 2019 novel coronavirus (nCoV) infection in the Philippines was declared by the Department of Health (DOH) last January 30. 

News of a “mysterious” disease in Wuhan, Hubei province in China had been reported in both local and international media as early as December 31, 2019, or five long weeks ago. By the first week of January, Chinese health officials had already revealed that the disease is a new type of coronavirus that could have been transmitted to humans by wildlife meat from the wet markets of Wuhan. The media were not remiss in reporting such details as the symptoms of the disease, the numbers infected, the countries at risk including the Philippines, and what measures were being or should be taken to combat it.

By the third week of January, the Philippine media, in interviews with DOH and World Health Organization (WHO) sources, were already reporting that some individuals from China, or who had visited Wuhan and were showing symptoms of the disease, were under observation in some of the country’s hospitals and other health facilities.     

Despite the media reports and the alarm among health professionals and groups that would have alerted any government worthy of the people’s taxes that support it, the Duterte regime was wontedly apathetic. And yet it is one of its policies — its “pivot to China” — that has made the Philippines a major, wide-open destination of choice for overstaying tourists from China and its presumptive workers in Philippine online gambling firms. These were being allowed into the country by the thousands through, among other means, the visa-upon-arrival system, and the loose implementation of immigration laws.

The media reported the spread of the disease in several countries across the globe, and the increase in the numbers of those infected as well as the mortality rate. But the DOH, apparently echoing the sentiments of Mr. Duterte and his spokesperson, opposed suggestions that the country restrict the entry of Chinese visitors. The Secretary of Health argued that doing so would “single out” China, although the whole world already knows that Wuhan is where the disease originated. Mr. Duterte and his spokesperson said the same thing, with the latter even citing the alleged “political and diplomatic repercussions” of a ban.

When the DOH confirmed the first case of the disease in the Philippines, Mr. Duterte agreed to ban foreign visitors from Wuhan, travel from which, however, had already been stopped by Chinese authorities. Only on February 2 did the Philippine government ban the entry of visitors from other cities and provinces of China where the disease has spread, as well as from its administrative regions Hongkong and Macau. But too late:  the first death from the disease outside China occurred in the Philippines on the same date.

Interviewed earlier, all the sitting president of the Philippines could say was that his regime is “preparing for the worst,” but that it is “at a loss as to what to do next.”  The reasons for these statements are perfectly clear. By failing to act weeks ago for fear of antagonizing its Chinese overlords, the Duterte regime has made  coping with the problem more difficult and has once again put Filipino health, welfare and lives in  jeopardy.  Mr. Duterte’s not knowing what to do next is due to the difficulties created by his and his cohorts’ cuts in the health budget. Those include that of providing adequate quarantine facilities as well as the hiring of additional doctors and other health professionals in case of an outbreak touched off by the unrestricted entry of visitors from China into the country one whole month after the entire planet was alerted about the disease. 

Mr. Duterte could of course use the billions of pesos in intelligence funds he has allotted for his office as emergency funding. But he is apparently not inclined to do that, just as he has been unwilling to draw from those same funds to augment the budget for disaster mitigation he and his Congressional majority had cut from the 2020 budget. If he had done so, the government could have helped the taxpayers who’ve lost homes, livestock and livelihoods from the Taal disaster to better rebuild their lives and communities. But he did not do so then, which makes it unlikely that he will do so now.

The misplaced priorities of the Duterte regime — China over the Philippines, its self-interest over the interests of the people — are not surprisingly earning it the wrath of more and more Filipinos. Some are finally realizing how the indifference to human lives and welfare of the bureaucrat capitalists who have ruled this country for decades, together with incompetence, corruption, self-aggrandizement, treachery and plain stupidity, kills. It’s a lesson in civic and government engagement that should find expression if not now, next week, or next month, at least in the next elections.  But let’s not keep our hopes up. As a number of surveys and studies have found, Filipinos are not only among the most uninformed people on the planet. They are also among the most unteachable, whose own unredeemed indifference to the lessons of the past has made its repetition inevitable.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

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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