This Week in Media (August 23 to 27, 2021)

THE MEDIA sharpened its focus on the worsening conditions of the pandemic, as reports followed up on Congressional hearings which further revealed the scope of the financial deficiencies in addressing the pandemic reported by the COA two weeks ago. CMFR cheered Rappler’s detailed report on the importance of COA and the need to protect its independence, and Lian Buan’s report connecting the dots on the DOH ‘s failure to adequately fund the needs of  medical frontliners and  of both public and private hospitals. 

Clearly, the DOH needs to be held to account for its failure to use already allocated funds for  compensating medical workers and purchasing sufficient hospital resources. But the media have failed to include the issue of accountability in their coverage. 

Also on the pandemic front, government explained its sudden decision to shift from ECQ to MECQ — it was because the IATF did not think that the ECQ was working to control the surge in cases. But the data for the two-week period had not yet even been submitted, exposing the deep fault lines that mar the policy-making of this administration, as demonstrated even more obviously in its pandemic response. 

Having imposed the longest lockdown in the world, the Duterte administration did not undertake the critical actions needed to contain the spread of the disease: to ensure sufficient vaccine supplies, to apply testing and contact tracing more aggressively, and most importantly, to submit the data to critical analysis. 

With a high of 17 thousand cases recorded on a single day the previous week, new cases hit 18,332 on Monday, August 23, three days after the capital reverted to the less strict MECQ.  Not surprisingly, the unchecked spread of COVID-19 remains the primary cause of the public’s deep anxiety. But media have yet to demonstrate the capacity to discuss these failures.

Palace spokesperson Harry Roque and  Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said the ECQ was not working, in either NCR or in other areas where it was imposed. But the media did not ask them to explain government’s basis for saying this, given that it takes  some time to review the two-week data to assess the impact of the ECQ. And if lockdowns are now proving useless, why has it taken the government this long to make this decision, which so far has not included  consideration of other measures?

With only very few exceptions, journalists have not themselves checked the data to discern patterns in the disease spread, or to identify geographical hotspots in the country based on timelines. Media have simply picked up the tally of counts, as these are not broken down into geographical areas. The information they pick up from DOH’s daily bulletins has become numbers devoid of interpretation and meaning. 

The decision-making process in the imposition of quarantine regimes is a blur, confirmed by Roque the previous week when he said the Cabinet did a secret ballot in voting on the decision. Obviously it is the media that should  take on the task of interpreting the numbers. 

On August 24, ANC’s Dateline Philippines interviewed Edson Guido, head of ABS-CBN’s data analytics team. He looked at the latest data on the distribution of cases, vaccination rates, ICU utilization and recorded deaths. His reading provided grim numbers, and an even grimmer forecast of 2 million total cases by early September. The exchange suggested that with timely analysis, preventive measures could have mitigated the repeated surges. Guido did point out the failure of the government in the use of tests and contact tracing, which remain key to understanding the phenomenon. The media should also examine the slow and haphazard vaccine program, which could have done much more to boost immunity in the communities. 

But the pandemic has also taken its toll on media efforts to keep up with the challenge of making sense of this worsening national predicament. In their efforts at fairness, they wait for government officials to respond to calls and to questions filed online, only to be ignored. So the obvious failure to learn from the experience of 2020 partly explains how we got to this place. 

Media, however, picked up on other critical developments which indicate more actors taking a stand. LGUs have begun to ask that they be allowed to procure their own vaccines immediately. Healthcare workers are staging protests or have  resigned en masse in some hospitals. Hospitals, both public and private, have threatened to disengage from Philhealth due to non-payment of their claims and the risk allowances and benefits for  healthcare workers were only belatedly released. 

These clarify how the administration has failed the agencies  it has mandated to implement its programs. Even with the clarity of failed responsibilities, President Duterte readily absolved Duque, insisting there was no reason to fire him.


Preparing for the elections

Meanwhile, there has been little discussion about F2 Logistics, the winning logistics provider for the 2022 elections. Owned by Dennis Uy, a campaign donor and ally of Duterte, F2 Logistics won the bidding last July 27. Coverage at the time did not flag the danger of cronyism’s  effects on the integrity of elections. It took Sen. Leila de Lima’s call from her detention cell for a probe on possible conflict of interest to prod media to follow up on this issue. Media reported the Comelec commissioners’ statements that campaign donors are not disqualified from bidding, and that F2 Logistics would still undergo a post-qualification assessment before getting the contract. Journalists should keep their eyes on target. 

The House has begun deliberating on the PHP5.024 trillion budget proposed by the DBM for 2022. Some senators already flagged the PHP28 billion budget allocated to the NTF-ELCAC, which is much larger than that of the Research Institute of Tropical Medicine (RITM) and UP, which covers the budget of the Philippine General Hospital (PGH), the country’s largest COVID-referral facility. Rep. Eric Yap, chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, assured that this would be scrutinized. Media would do well to follow the deliberation process in both legislative chambers. 


Justice served, another injustice committed

Screengrab from ABS-CBN News YouTube video.

A positive development this week, media reported on August 26 that Jonel Nuezca, the policeman who shot point blank his neighbors Frank and Sonya Gregorio, has been sentenced by a Tarlac court to reclusion perpetua for two counts of murder.

However, a human rights lawyer was shot dead on the same day. Rex Fernandez was killed in broad daylight in Cebu City by a still unidentified gunman who shot him in his car. Media reports said he is the third lawyer to be killed in the city in less than a year. Police said the motive for the killing is still unclear, but the National Union of People’s Lawyers said he was critical of the administration.

Violence as government policy? Remember the drug war and the thousands of unexplained deaths in the first year of Duterte’s administration?