A lethal mix of government ineptitude, economic need and insufficient information has made the Philippines the country with the most number of COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia.

As of Wednesday, April 14, nearly 900,000 men, women and children and even entire families had been afflicted with the disease. That number — most of it from the National Capital Region (NCR) and surrounding provinces — could reach the one million mark, or one percent of the country’s over 100 million population by the end of the month.

Should the trend continue, the country’s less than adequate health system, already severely challenged by shortfalls in hospital beds and other facilities as well as supplies and personnel, could totally collapse as doctors, nurses and other medical front liners are exhausted beyond human endurance, or even catch the contagion themselves.

And yet the NCR, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal had been under Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) lockdown from March 29 to April 11 after the number of daily infections surged as a result of the reopening of cinemas and other public places and the easing of domestic and international travel. Some businesses and companies were operating despite the ECQ, and their workers commuting daily to and from their places of employment mostly via jeepneys, buses and municipal train services such as the MRT and LRT. In the process these conveyances were helping spread the coronavirus in workplaces and in employee homes. Oddly enough, however, it was individual motorists and motorcyclists rather than jeepneys and buses the police were monitoring and stopping at their checkpoints. The NCR-plus “bubble’s” being placed under “modified” ECQ despite the continuing surge in cases has been opposed by health experts, but was nevertheless implemented last Monday, April 12.

Only those engaged in such enterprises as providing food and medicine were supposed to be at work during the ECQ, although one barangay dolt thought that delivering rice porridge (lugaw) is not in that category. Millions of other workers in “non-essential” industries and those that have permanently shut down have lost their jobs and sources of income. Government financial aid — “ayuda” — is supposed to temporarily meet their families’ needs. But only a few hundred thousands have so far received the Php1,000 to Php 4,000 promised, while the usual bureaucratic red tape — depending upon the local government unit it could mean requiring ID cards and other papers — has made the process of getting that paltry amount as difficult as pulling teeth.

Long lines stretching for blocks are among its consequences, and together with it the increased chances of catching and transmitting the infection of those waiting for hours or being made to make two or more trips to the local barangay hall. Although some local government units are distributing financial aid from house to house, the more enterprising are also distributing “ayuda” in kind — a kilo or two of rice, sardines and instant noodles are the usual components — despite their constituencies’ preference for cash.

The same bureaucratic maze characterizes the vaccination program President Rodrigo Duterte has been saying since a year ago is the only thing that could end the pandemic. In some jurisdictions only those with voter IDs and/or proof that one is a resident of the locality can register in their vaccination programs. Those requirements negate the strategic goal of immunizing as many as possible, to achieve which anyone, whether voter or local resident, should be given the vaccine, subject only to such medical safety protocols as looking into pre-existing ailments, allergies, etc., which already delay the process.

However, because the Duterte regime did not act quickly enough in ordering vaccines, and earlier even limited its sources to China’s pharmaceutical companies, the country has run out of AstraZeneca doses while still awaiting others. Only China’s Sinovac vaccine is still available. The Department of Health had earlier proscribed it for use on senior citizens, but last week announced that it can now be administered to those 60 years old and above on the specious argument that any vaccine, whatever the risks, is better than none.

Meanwhile, although it has not been tested and registered for humans, the Philippine Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use in one hospital of the anti-virus veterinary drug Ivermectin despite a standing order from Mr. Duterte for the police to arrest those who supply the drug for human use, and the DOH threat to cancel the professional licenses of doctors who prescribe it for their patients.

The confusion arising from this policy chaos fans the anti-vaccination reservations and skepticism already rampant among large segments of the population, and makes convincing those who fear suffering from the side effects of certain vaccines even more problematic. It helps make more difficult achieving the goal of vaccinating 70 million out of the country’s 100 million-plus population so as to achieve the herd immunity that is bringing people’s lives back to normal and reviving the economy in other countries.

Testing 20 percent of the population as those other countries have done could ease the contagion, but the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) charged with combating the pandemic has not made it a priority and instead insists on lockdowns regardless of their limitations in cutting the spread of the infection.

Despite its reliance on lockdowns, the Duterte administration has time and again declared that the surviving business companies’ resuming operations is essential in reviving the economy, halting its contraction, and curbing the recession. Breadwinners also want to keep working or to get back to work even if they have not been vaccinated, and despite the government “ayuda” that in the context of the continuing increase in the prices of food and other needs amounts to only a few drops in the vast ocean of cash the average Filipino family of six needs to survive.

Among other consequences, the current state of affairs is further encouraging the fatalism and the “God will take care of it” perspective that social psychologists have long noted as characteristic of Philippine feudal society. It is all too evident in the “things will take care of themselves” (bahala na) attitude of the poorest and most oppressed classes and even among the less desperate, and their assumption that everything — whether the pandemic, poverty, corruption or bad government — is God’s will and beyond human capacity to understand.

But the fear and desperation are also morphing into anger and such demands for change even from some Duterte allies as the disbandment of the IATF-EID and its replacement by a body of doctors, epidemiologists and other health experts as members. There are also the beginnings of a call for Mr. Duterte to give way to the leadership of Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo.

Change is the one thing the dynastic rulers of this country have always opposed while claiming to be for it. It was nevertheless what then candidate for President Rodrigo Duterte offered in 2016 to a people disillusioned by an endless succession of false leaders. Good government was what 16 million voters thought was forthcoming when he assumed the country’s highest elective office, but what the country has since been getting is the exact opposite. The vacuum in leadership, competence and moral and intellectual gravity in government in the last five years and during the present crisis is once more demonstrating that just like the promises of his predecessors, his own are nothing more than words without meaning, and gestures without substance.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Image by Ali Raza from Pixabay

Luis V. Teodoro

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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