Government on the Pandemic: Still in the Dark

This Week in Media (October 24 to 28, 2022)

IT’S BEEN almost three years now since COVID-19 cast the world in a deep crisis, countless lives lost, lengthy lockdowns, economies in stagnation. While the threat has been mitigated by vaccines, boosters and anti-viral treatments, Filipinos remain in the dark about what the government is doing so we can move forward and deal more effectively with the continuing threat of the virus. It is clear that medical experts have not dismissed the rise of COVID variants and their severe impact on vulnerable communities. 

The medical community nationwide has learned more about effective medical measures, but there has been no time to actually upgrade and improve the national health system to deal with a surge of cases. This last point remains the fundamental issue calling for a prompt and coordinated government strategy. 

Which government agency is supposed to take the lead in coordinating a highly complex response? Who are the public officials assigned to address the hazard points as these arise? What is the plan? And who will lead its implementation? 

These questions remain unanswered for as long as the vacancy remains at the head office of the Department of Health (DOH). The Officer-in-Charge (OIC) is limited in her authority to set policy. 

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. started his term in July confronted with massive challenges as COVID-19 remains a critical concern. Unfortunately, there has been little evidence, if at all, that the President realizes the gravity of the national situation. He has not said anything to suggest any real understanding of the role of the Health Secretary. 

Unfortunately, the coverage of media has followed his lead. Reports have merely recorded official statements. There has been little inquiry into the effects of a lack of leadership on health. Reports have not checked what has happened to the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) which was set up by President Duterte to coordinate the different agencies in implementing the pandemic response. Is it still functioning? Who are in charge? Journalists did not report transition plans of the IATF, if there were any.

The first time the IATF made news under Marcos was in September, when media reported that it recommended to Marcos that, except for high-risk individuals, to replace the mandatory wearing of masks in outdoor settings and make this voluntary. While criticized by medical experts, the policy was hardly examined by the media. While reports recorded the announcement made by Interior Secretary Benhur Abalos, reporters did not give information about who was leading the coordination in IATF. 

Since then, media reports have simply given from day to day what different public officials had to say, failing to highlight the lack of an overall plan to address the continuing threat posed by the still active and still evolving COVID-19. The result shows up the unresolved policy conflict between health and economic recovery. 

Even before the decision on masking, Cebu City had already initiated the same policy for its jurisdiction in late August, which the Department of Health (DOH) then questioned as it was not consulted with them.

Maria Rosario Vergeire, DOH OIC, told the media that her agency went along with the IATF decision regarding the voluntary wearing of masks outdoors nationwide. To their credit, reports from, Manila Bulletin and Malaya did cite medical experts who criticized the confusion and lack of coordination between the IATF and DOH. 

Media did not identify the different public officials who made up the current IATF and more important, who was taking over as lead. Reports did not point to the fact that without a Health Secretary, the IATF may be divested of the medical orientation as it responds to the threat of new Omicron subvariants. 

Picking up on the public official who speaks out, media coverage gave primacy to the position of Tourism Secretary Christina Frasco, who on October 25 broke the news to Palace press that the Marcos Cabinet had expanded voluntary mask policy to indoor settings. Frasco said the purpose was to further reopen the country’s economy and tourism prospects. She added that ASEAN neighbors had already made mask wearing voluntary both indoors and outdoors, so the Philippines must be “at par” with them. 

A 24 Oras report on October 26 pointed to three ASEAN countries — Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand — that have lifted mask mandates, but gave no information about the remaining countries in the region which continue to require masks. The report provided a relevant and helpful checklist of considerations about mask-wearing. Dr. Anna Ong Lim, a UP-affiliated pediatric infectious disease specialist cited by TV Patrol, provided the same information.

Reporters sought the DOH for comment, and Vergeire said that the DOH remains in its belief that mask-wearing remains an important form of protection — a position echoed by DOH Usec. Dr. Beverly Ho and Dr. Lim, both interviewed by the media. Vergeire also pointed out that individuals themselves must be able to assess the risks of not wearing masks.

In CNN Philippines’ The Source on October 27, Vergeire admitted that the DOH had recommended a pilot run of the new mask policy only in selected areas with high booster rates and strong hospital capacity. But the DOH was overruled by the IATF’s position for its immediate national implementation. Vergeire added that the DOH did present all possible health “scenarios” concerning masking mandates during IATF meetings, but the IATF’s position, as a collegial body, was to consider the concerns of all sectors. 

Some media had cited criticism against the DOH for “yielding” to the IATF on the mask policy. No reporter questioned why Frasco was suddenly making announcements on behalf of the Cabinet. Media did not follow up with other members to clarify the concerns expressed in their discussion. As of press time, Marcos has already signed the executive order making official IATF’s recommendation.

Media cannot simply record the statements, as this takes on the same blinders of government. With the potential levels of infection raised by “Undas” in November and the Christmas season, the medical perspective must remain paramount in government policy. The public must be fully informed about risks raised by the new variants and their confirmed local transmission in the country. 

CNN Philippines’ News Night correctly reported the considerations in voluntary indoor masking when it comes to schools, which are scheduled to fully resume face-to-face classes next week. Reporter Carolyn Bonquin provided data indicating low vaccination rates among children aged 5 to 11, which Vergeire also acknowledged. Some parents that Bonquin talked to said they would still make their children wear masks.

Journalists must ask more pointed questions to help the public understand the serious problems raised by Marcos Jr.’s inability to choose his Health Secretary.  The failure relegates the protection of public health and welfare to the sidelines of policymaking in a period when it is most needed. So far, Marcos Jr.’s statements show that he is oblivious to the urgency of bringing down the number of cases and lowering the rate of transmission – for the economy to improve. This is the delicate balancing act that government must learn to do if it is to address the two separate but equally important needs. 

Clearly, the press must fulfill its responsibilities to the people on its own.