A call for leadership

A QUICK scan of mainstream news earlier highlighted the quick actions and commitments made by the private sector: extending deadlines on scheduled payments; re-allocating budgets so they can help provide for the public’s most urgent needs.  Accounts have also tracked government responses, which are demonstrably done in in bits and pieces. Following their  assigned news beats, reporters filed descriptions of actions of  Local Government Units (LGU) to address the COVID-19 crisis and the plans of departments to mitigate the impact of the lockdown on vulnerable sectors of the population, the poor and homeless, issues of food supply and even economic recovery post-crisis. NEDA has also been active, coordinating the different financial agencies to address the problems raised by the suspension of manufacturing and other business sectors.

Following the traditional passive media approach, news has supplied the pieces without providing the big picture. Some may be quick to catch the big blank drawn from numerous narratives: there is so far no comprehensive and systematic plan of action based even on the general directives announced by the president in three separate briefings.

Add the most recent policy document, the legislative grant of special powers to the president so he can more effectively direct government in what needs to be done. Setting aside its loquacious title, it is difficult to see plan and strategy. 

By now, countries have shared the strategies they found effective, including: the identification of drugs with curative promise; widespread access to easy methods of testing; quarantine of persons exposed in hot zones and those exhibiting suspicious symptoms; the isolation for treatment of those infected; and finally, the prescription of social distancing, home quarantine or lockdown for the general population.  The latter has been ordered for the island of Luzon, with LGUs in other provinces following suit. 

But so far, government authorities have not explained how the lockdown will be guaranteed, without harm or deterrence to the exempted service communities. In some areas, the unilateral declaration of no-access zones without warning has derailed the delivery of critical services and supplies. The lockdown is only as good as the quality of barangay leadership. Thankfully, there have been some pro-active leadership in these grassroots units. But it is too much to expect quality in all.

Unfortunately, in the case of the Philippines, these measures have been applied belatedly. Adding to the difficulties is the weak health system, where private hospitals provide quality medical treatment but only at great cost. The slow action has cast doubt on the chances for success of current measures. It has not helped that there are social groups, some of them include political figures, whose negligence and irresponsibility have significant consequences, inspiring copycat conduct that ignore imperatives of the lockdown, home quarantine and “social distancing.”

The coverage of COVID measures may be blamed on the media whose journalistic recourse to story-telling explains the episodic treatment of news accounts on Covid-19 initiatives. Tighter editorial handling could have presented the different accounts in a more comprehensive and coherent manner, perhaps, even the more direct communication through graphs and matrixes. But this may be asking too much in a period of crisis.

With exceptions, media generally failed to note that government has not provided a centralized and coordinated plan to guide the different departments and agencies. The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s editorial raised the point on Thursday, March 26, stating the lack of a “clear, coherent, far-reaching game plan from hereon”

Anyone who patiently listened to the three different presidential press briefing would have detected the administration’s haphazard approach, first, authorizing local government units to act on their initiatives in implementing the lockdown of Metro Manila and the National Capital Region; only to take away this authority when mayors did exactly as directed. The piece meal approach has to this day caused all kinds of problems on the road, with police and security teams variously interpreting the exemptions; holding back doctors and physicians who were responding to their patient calls as caught by a news report on CNN PH.

The latest legislation which gives new emergency powers to President Duterte so he can assist and aid the poor does not spell out how such a massive operation will be accomplished. Again, the lack of a strategic plan and the absence of a system raise concerns about how these re-aligned funds would be put to good use in a timely manner.

The crisis goes beyond the realm of medicine. The lockdown and home quarantine involve profound disruption, with so many businesses losing the means to re-establish themselves. The tourism industry has to review the premises of the business.  Surely, a new perspective must examine the sustainability of universal travel and the perils underlying global tourism.

More relevant to the nature of this crisis, a nation as populous as the Philippines cannot ignore the paramount place and priority that public health must hold in national development. Medical education, the management of hospitals and the mapping of their locations, the holding and access to supplies and equipment cannot be left to politicians and bureaucrats.  An expert community needs to provide us with a plan to build a system that can address ordinary as well as extraordinary demands to provide for and protect the health of the nation. At this critical juncture, the media can help articulate the need for a blueprint for after COVID-19, guided by leadership beyond what government has provided.


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