This Week in Media (September 6 to 10)

Some media score government failures in COVID response; Senate probes misuse of pandemic funds

THE NUMBERS have not dipped, and the country broke records with 22,820 new cases on September 9. With the positivity rate at almost 30 percent, one out of three people tested were infected with COVID-19. The pandemic is still the most severe affliction and source of worry for Filipinos. But as the Senate probed the misuse of funds that was detected by the Commission on Audit, legislators also collected damning evidence that holds the administration accountable for its failed pandemic response. 

Meanwhile, as the two typhoons that threatened Luzon and the Visayas receded, media also publicized the announcements of candidates for 2022. 

Pandemic Front

The government’s pandemic response has been described by the London-based The Economist as “shambolic,” which Filipinos experienced in terms of loss of jobs, lost incomes, hunger, delayed actions, random policies, and the failed implementation of such key means of containing the pandemic as early testing and contact tracing that have helped curb the spread of the disease in other countries. 

The administration once again exposed the sham in its efforts when it suddenly lifted the travel ban on countries with high Delta variant cases on September 4. It gave as an explanation the shifting categories of risk applied by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Media reports that quoted the technical terms did not counter the basis for revising the risk level for the country. 

Government also announced a shift from the more restrictive MECQ to GCQ in Metro Manila with a plan to implement a granular approach to lockdowns, only to backtrack on the eve of its supposed implementation on September 8. Obviously, it had not yet figured out how to implement more closely targeted quarantines while opening up more areas for business operations. 

The Inquirer highlighted the disconnect between DOH data and the situation on the ground. Citing the UP Pandemic Response Team, the report said validation delays and backlogs in test results do not show the severity of the crisis and greatly affect the public’s perception of the continuing threat of COVID-19. 

Sadly, there is little in the coverage that has accurately evaluated the government’s failure. It has not confronted official sources with direct questions, called out the failed explanations, or the attempts to blur the lack of explanations for the actions and decisions of the IATF and its officials. 

The flip flops on the levels of quarantine have contributed to other problems. TV news interviewed restaurant and business owners who decried the decision to keep NCR in  MECQ, because they had been looking forward to reopening and had stocked up on perishable supplies. 

Government has made a habit of announcing decisions without explaining the basis for them and what outcomes they expect. In announcing the ECQ in August, the government clearly did not anticipate the rate of transmission and the high number of cases that could result from it. Worse, when the first Delta variant case hit the country in July, IATF officials did little to prepare for the potential surge, although the experience in other countries had established its greater transmissibility and virulence. In the second year of the pandemic, DOH has not yet incorporated critical data analysis in the government’s policy process. 

Inquirer’s September 9 editorial correctly observed that “The regular exhalations emanating from Malacañang appear to be guided more by bluster and political expediency than by hard science, thus straining the health system to the breaking point and scarring the economy to an extent not seen by the country since the war.”

This observation has been true since the earliest stages, when government refused to bar flights from Wuhan because it did not want to “single out” China. That COVID-19 has ravaged the country to the extent that it has is due to this failure to base decisions on science and the lessons from other countries. 

The government’s refusal to undertake rapid testing to map the spread delayed the adoption of “mass testing.” It took Duterte a year to admit that he finally understood the importance of this measure. To date, the national government has not succeeded in activating a single working contact tracing app. Despite the obvious inadequacy of Sec. Francisco Duque III, Duterte has chosen to retain him, and is unwilling to find someone more prepared and equipped to do the job.  

Media should consistently refer to this context, because it explains how we got here. Failure to tell this story makes them part of the sham. With some exceptions, journalists have held back from stating the same, despite the wealth of evidence that proves who is to blame. 

More evidence on misused COVID funds 

The Senate has continued its probe on the mishandling of pandemic funds by the DOH. Hearings this week have focused on getting answers from the Procurement Service of DBM and Pharmally Pharmaceuticals, both involved in the overpricing of face masks, shields and PPEs. 

CMFR cheered Rappler for showing how the local makers of protective equipment were shortchanged when government favored Chinese manufacturers. Rappler’s source, EMS Components Assembly, went on to testify before the Senate on September 7. Media should follow up on other forms of COVID-related corruption. 

In the House of Representatives, the budget process yielded another sinister development. As Congress scrutinized the budget proposal of the Office of the Ombudsman, media picked up the proposal by Ombudsman Samuel Martires to amend the law and include jail time for anyone speaking up on the SALNs of officials, including the media. This, after he was asked about the non-release of President Duterte’s SALN. 

Some reports in print and online did recall that Martires issued a circular last year restricting public access to SALNs. Coverage missed pointing out that Martires was among the associate justices who voted to oust then Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno in 2018 because of her alleged non-filing of SALNs.  

Duterte’s record on disaster response 

While the expected typhoons spared Metro Manila, only Typhoon Jolina has exited the Philippine area of responsibility as of this writing. Typhoon Kiko remains over the northern end of Luzon. As more bad weather is expected at this time of year, media should review the disaster response record of the Duterte administration. It will find that it has been just as lacking in vigilance and performance in this area, much like its approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.