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Call for timeout: What was accomplished? | CMFR

Call for timeout: What was accomplished?

Screengrab from the COVID-19 Action Network Philippines’ Facebook Live video.

THE MEDICAL community’s distress call to the government last August 1 was clear in its purpose: representatives of medical associations asked for a two-week timeout to allow them to review, refresh and renew their capacity to attend to the increasing demands of the COVID-19 crisis. 

The members of the public who heard the doctors speak during the online press conference understood that they were asking specifically for government to recalibrate the country’s COVID-19 response, pointing to the severe lapses and serious gaps in the government’s response to the pandemic. They described the lack of strategic action and the poor implementation of even the government’s well-intentioned policies, such as the distribution of the social amelioration fund.

The view of those on the frontlines of the pandemic was a top story in print and television, and was reported with the prominence it deserved. Social media threads provided extended discussion of the experts’ views.

Responding to the call, President Duterte on August 2 announced that he would place Mega Manila (Metro Manila, Cavite, Laguna, Rizal and Bulacan) under modified enhanced community quarantine (MECQ) from August 4 to 18.

In those two weeks, media reports noted such developments as the establishment of a One Hospital Command Center and the NTF’s shift to the second phase of the National Action Plan.

News accounts also picked up and carried the president’s statements that the COVID-19 crisis can be solved only by immunization with a vaccine. He had earlier referred to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s assurance to him that China would make sure that the Philippines would have priority for the vaccine once it is available at the end of the year. He continued this refrain, but no longer in reference to China but to Russia which has announced that it already created its own vaccine.

During the same period, the case count in the Philippines placed the country among the hotspots in Asia along with India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the worst in Southeast Asia. But listening to the president, it would seem as though there was nothing more that government could do to address the challenge of the pandemic.

The medical community had pointed to the long restrictive lockdown from March to May when little was done to set up systems of testing and contact tracing – which had played an important part in successfully controlling the spread of the disease in some countries as well as in some local government units in the country. The doctors also noted that government did not set up centralized systems of public transportation so that workers could return to their jobs when quarantine conditions lifted restrictions for some sectors.

The task then was clear for the news media. Get the answers to the following key question: What policy changes as well as actions resulted from the review during the timeout?

Sadly, there was no independent effort from the press to provide a synthesis of the progress in policy-making or an assessment of the gaps that remain to be addressed.   

The healthcare professionals who called for a timeout were generous enough to provide updates in a video conference last August 18. But media coverage did not present the findings in a systematic way to show what problems had been acted on by the IATF.

CMFR monitored the coverage of six Manila-based broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin, The Manila Times, Daily Tribune, Manila Standard), four primetime news programs (ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol, TV5’s One Balita Pilipinas, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, CNN Philippines’ News Night), their online counterparts and standalone news sites from August 17 to 19.

The August 18 forum organized by the Health Professionals’ Alliance Against COVID-19 (HPAAC) took off from the first video conference, which came up with a seven-point policy recommendation to address issues such as weak contact tracing, hospital congestion and inefficient public transportation. HPAAC was formed following the call for the timeout, with 167 medical associations signing on to the consultations. The group said they spent the two weeks in discussions with government agencies, civil society and other stakeholders. From these meetings, HPAAC identified the causes of the problems they previously identified and their proposed “evolving treatment plan” for each issue.

The presentation of Dr. Antonio Dans, spokesperson of the alliance, provided a clear, understandable mapping of the gaps and solutions. Unfortunately, this did not see print. Only the Tribune had a report on the forum, but it was limited to quotes from Dans and other speakers.

Broadcast reports did better than their print counterparts. TV Patrol, One Balita Pilipinas and 24 Oras picked up the HPAAC’s recognition of the One Hospital Command Center, and the recommendation that this be expanded to include more clinics, laboratories and pharmacies. The three reports, however, did not elaborate on the other recommendations. Of those monitored, News Night was the only program which did not report on the conference.

Reports from Philstar.com, news.ABS-CBN.com and GMA News Online noted the One Hospital Command Center as positive improvement. These accounts mentioned other recommendations such as the creation of workplace safety and transportation guidelines and for the long term, the strengthening of the Health Technology Assessment Council (HTAC), which is mandated by the Universal Healthcare Act to develop science-based programs and policies involving pharmaceutical products or medical services. Except for the discussion of the HTAC’s function by news.ABS-CBN.com, other recommendations were unexplained.

The two-week MECQ was an opportunity to engage different sectors to review strategies to curb the pandemic. Moving forward, the weary public deserves to learn about any progress on the frontlines of the pandemic. Media’s focus should have been relentless, highlighting positive steps to halt the rapid increase of cases, and noting  lapses and challenges because this kind of public attention can help lead to solutions. Compared to the prominent coverage of the call for the timeout, media interest in the follow-up significantly waned.

From the very beginning, the medical community was always there for media to include in the reporting of COVID-19. But because they were not given their rightful place in the government task force, media also left them out as sources of information. The perspective in the news has been largely shaped by official sources.

Media reports fixed their attention on reporting on DOH and its assessment of medical and hospital issues even when Secretary Duque proved inadequate for the challenge. The call for the timeout may have corrected this fixation given the enlarged group of medical experts who have gone public with a comprehensive analysis of what still has to be accomplished. But media should sustain this revised view and seek out the news from this front, not simply relying on briefings of the HPAAC alone. These doctors have their work to do.  Media should be ready to monitor the follow-up and keep the public informed.

The media’s failure to sustain focus on knowledgeable sources is a problem.  This leads the public to continue to believe the official claim that little else can be done except wait for a vaccine. The Duterte administration has counted on the media to help government win the propaganda game. Media have allowed the president to convince the public that his administration has done everything possible and cannot be blamed for the tragedy that the pandemic has wrought on the country.