From the Newsrooms: El Niño looms large as government worries about getting tourists

A rundown of key events and issues covered by newsrooms from July 3 to 9, 2023.

NEWSROOMS JOINED the furor on social media over the lackluster slogan to promote Philippine tourism. Extended coverage included criticism of the high price of the PR campaign and reflected the deepening public dismay when a promotional video was found to have included stock footage of tourism destinations in other countries. Manila broadsheets found the fiasco banner-worthy, and primetime newscasts similarly led with the story. News followed the Department of Tourism’s (DOT) termination of the contract with the ad agency, DDB Philippines, but has decided to keep “Love the Philippines” for now. 

Loving the country has become a challenge. Complaints on social media about unexplained flight cancellations and actual news about snafus in the country’s international airports dissuade Filipinos from taking trips to discover the country and its attractions. There is just so much more to worry about than the lack of foreign guests. 

El Niño and Water Shortage

Print, broadcast and online media all carried the state weather bureau’s announcement on July 4 of the onset of El Niño phenomenonon. 

The Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) said that the “weak El Niño” is expected to intensify in the last quarter of the year. In the same briefing, PAGASA said Metro Manila and 35 other provinces may experience a “dry spell,” adding that there would fewer typhoons than average this year and recommending that the public start conserving water now. 

News noted other signs of the projected limited water supply. On July 9, the water level of Angat Dam dropped to 179.5 meters, lower than the minimum operating level of 180. Media reported the order to enforce measures for proper water conservation issued by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources for  public offices and residential buildings in Metro Manila and nearby provinces. Areas served by Maynilad, a water distribution company, were advised to expect  nine-hour rotational interruptions starting July 12. An estimated 600 thousand families could be affected. 

Some reports were quick to pick up the impact of water shortage on food supplies. TV Patrol and 24 Oras on July 9 featured farmers already struggling with the effects of hot weather and lack of water supply. In a chance interview, Rosemarie Edillon, Undersecretary at the National Economic and Development Authority, told reporters she agreed with the early campaign for water conservation; but for now, the dry spell would have only minimal impact on food prices. 

In a comprehensive piece, Inquirer.net recalled the country’s experience with previous droughts, including some measures to mitigate its effects—which the administration should include in its response to the 2023 El Niño.

Chinese vessels and dangerous maneuvers

News of water troubles included the West Philippine Sea. The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) on July 5 announced to the media that vessels of the China Coast Guard again attempted to block the rotation and resupply mission of the PCG to the naval troops on BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal. On July 7, Philippine aerial military patrols reported a swarming of Chinese fishing vessels and naval ships in Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal. 

Philippine Daily Inquirer’s banner story on July 8 featured the military reaction to the swarming on July 8, while The Manila Times put the report on the upper half of its July 8 front page. Other media companies carried the news online, including Philstar.com, news.ABS-CBN.com, CNNPhilippines.com and GMA News Online. Commander Ariel Coloma, spokesperson of the Western Command of the Forces of the Philippines, told reporters that a detailed report would be submitted to the Department of Foreign Affairs and  the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea as basis for filing a diplomatic protest.

Commodore Jay Tarriela, PCG’s spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea told TeleRadyo Serbisyo and DZBB in separate interviews last July 9 that the Coast Guard will continue this “transparency initiative”– exposing the Chinese vessels’ actions prevents total control and takeover of reefs and shoals while calling international attention to and criticism of China’s harassment. 

Lifting COVID emergency status 

The Philippine Star on July 5 gave banner treatment to the “de facto” lifting of  COVID-19 emergency by the Department of Health (DOH). In a Palace briefing, Health Secretary Teodoro Herbosa said President Marcos is inclined to lift the state of public health emergency that then President Duterte declared in March 2020. The health chief said the DOH is only waiting for the IATF resolution to formally lift the COVID state of emergency, which will be approved by Marcos.

A Malaya report carried Herbosa’s claim that it was Marcos who said the health emergency has been “de facto” lifted since health restrictions have been eased. The article quoted Herbosa’s agreement with the president’s observation: “We’re still waiting for a formal order. De facto naman tayo di ba? Nagpunta ako sa mall, wala nang nagma-mask. (I went to the mall, nobody is wearing masks anymore.)”

The reports did not include current case counts or assessment of severity of affliction. The public should cheer the news that indeed we are out of the crisis. But the statements made by the Health Secretary and cited by reports without question put the cart before the horse. The conditions about cases should serve as the basis for easing the practice of masking and avoidance of crowds. 

There were no questions about the specific considerations discussed by the IATF as a basis of its endorsement for lifting of the state of public health emergency.

However, Herbosa said that the concern with lifting the emergency status was losing emergency use authorization for bivalent vaccines. But Pfizer doses are now authorized for commercial sale, after the Food and Drug Administration issued its certificate of product registration. He said the government would continue negotiating with the COVAX Facility for two million doses of bivalent doses for Filipinos who cannot afford it. 

Herbosa did note that the Pfizer doses would only be available in hospital pharmacies that can meet the required storage temperatures. 

But Filipinos are not likely to go for bivalent vaccines once the state of emergency is lifted officially. Vaccine resistance was high even at the height of the pandemic. 

Newsrooms also gave time and space to the following: 

  • The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) came under fire after media reported entertainment by scantily dressed females in a social event hosted by the agency in an unnamed hotel. While the NBI leadership has apologized, they also denied that government money was spent on the entertainers. Not the first time in a government event, Gabriela Representative Arlene Brosas said she would file a resolution in the House to probe the case.
  • The Manila Times and 24 Oras picked up on the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency’s description of the use of fentanyl, a strong anti-pain medication, as an “emerging problem” in the country.
  • The Philippine media industry lost two veterans this week: author and former Inquirer columnist Amando Doronila, 95; and ABS-CBN entertainment reporter Mario Dumaual, 64.