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Battle for Cebu: Local media question militarized COVID-19 response | CMFR

Battle for Cebu: Local media question militarized COVID-19 response

Screengrab from Sunstar.com.ph.

THE ALARMING spike in cases, the high mortality rate, and the rise of severe and critical cases in the province of Cebu last June pushed the National Task Force on COVID-19 to focus their efforts on the new “epicenter” of the pandemic in the country.

Reports citing data from the Cebu City Health Department (CHD) showed that the city has logged more than 1,000 additional cases in the span of a week, from June 28 to July 4. The provincial health care system is already at full capacity and could be overwhelmed as the number of cases continues to surge.

On June 23, President Rodrigo Duterte, blaming Cebuanos for their alleged complacency in dealing with the pandemic, ordered Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu, a retired general, to oversee the government’s response to the crisis in the province.

The media reported that upon arrival in Cebu, Cimatu imposed extreme measures — the suspension of all quarantine passes, tighter border controls, the establishment of more checkpoints in barangays, the deployment of hundreds of police and military officers, including the PNP’s elite Special Action Force, the deployment of military drones for “aerial inspections,” as well as the enforcement of the strictest lockdown in the country, and the longest worldwide.

National media closely tracked these developments, noting the plight of Cebuanos under lockdown and the calls for medical solutions. Countering Duterte’s claim, media reports pointed to misinformation and a lack of coordination among local political leaders and health experts as the real reasons for Cebu’s rise as a hotspot.

National news organizations reported Cimatu’s appointment with prominence but there was very little coverage on his mandate and the reason for his appointment.

The Cebu press has taken a more critical stance in covering the militarized COVID response in the province. Reports and op-ed pieces from community papers questioned why the former military chief was dispatched to their province despite lacking any relevant experience in public health and epidemics.

CMFR monitored reports from the three major Manila broadsheets (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star); four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, CNN Philippines’ News Night, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and TV5’s One Balita); as well as selected news websites and regional newspapers, including SunStar Cebu, Cebu Daily News and The Freeman from June 23 to July 5, 2020.

Cebu media coverage

Local media are looking at the issue more closely, pointing to Cimatu’s reliance on police and military enforcement. 

SunStar Cebu published an explainer that looked into Cimatu’s role in the Cebu COVID-19 response. The report noted his title and job description as mandated by IATF resolution # 47. SunStar noted that while Cimatu’s job is merely “evaluation” and “assessment,” he can also “exercise the powers of the task force” and he “has the liberty to ask the military  to enforce the lockdown.” The paper pointed out that the military’s role in enforcing the lockdown no longer falls within the scope of Cimatu’s job.

Cebu Daily News cited local groups’ criticism of the government’s decision to send more troops and retired Army officials to the province. They are urging the national government to augment the overburdened and exhausted health care system instead.

The Freeman’s editorial on June 24 pushed back against the president for calling Cebuanos complacent. The Freeman pointed out that in the face of calamities, Cebuanos have been among the first to respond and extend aid, citing the 1991 Ormoc flash flood and 2013 Tacloban storm surge. The Freeman added that before the president accuses Cebu of dragging its feet, maybe he should look at his administration first, recalling the government’s hesitation to impose a travel ban early on and Duterte’s belittling the COVID-19 risk.

Blaming the residents

Ang mga Bisaya talaga…ang titigas talaga ng ulo. Hindi mo mapasunod. ’Yan ang totoo. Prangkahan ko kayo. Magalit kayo,” the president said on June 30 as he announced the extension of the ECQ in Cebu City. It was the second time that the president publicly blamed Cebuanos for the rise of cases in their area.

News reports in national media presented a different picture from Duterte’s.

A business report from PhilStar.com featured mobility data from tech giant Google LLC showing that in Central Visayas, where Cebu City is located, people have virtually not gone out. During the entire May, movements in retail outlets plummeted by 70-80%, while those in groceries dropped as much as 65% in one day.

Cause of rising cases

CMFR notes some reports that looked into the possible causes of widespread community transmission.

The Star reported NTF adviser Ted Herbosa’s statement that misinformation has hampered efforts to contain the pandemic in Cebu. In an interview with One News’ The Chiefs, Herbosa noted several misconceptions that may have resulted in faster transmission of the virus, including the provincial government’s promotion of supposed cures to the illness. In a statement, the Philippine Medical Association (PMA) disputed the claim of Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia, who is not a doctor, that smoke inhalation – or tuob – treats the viral disease. Herbosa added that the administration’s efforts to bring home locally stranded individuals from Metro Manila might have also contributed to the spread of the virus in some provinces.

Several news organizations also reported the observation by Cimatu and NTF Chief Implementor Sec. Carlito Galvez, Jr. that the political divide among local government and health leaders has affected Cebu’s pandemic response.

Militarized response

The COVID-19 crisis is first and foremost a public health issue, but the president’s pandemic response has been exceedingly militarized. The UN has also named the Philippines as one of the nations that have  used the health crisis “as a pretext for repressive measures.”

In appointing Cimatu, Duterte exposed his reliance on former generals to curb the pandemic. Another former military chief, Carlito Galvez, who likewise has no relevant public health background, is currently the National Task Force on COVID-19’s “Chief Implementor.” Eduardo Ano, another retired general serving as Interior Secretary, also plays an integral role in the IATF. Media should have noted how none of the initial measures undertaken in Cebu have included increased testing and contact tracing. But they did not.