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COVID superspreader decisions: Media should hold government accountable | CMFR

COVID superspreader decisions: Media should hold government accountable

Thousands of locally stranded individuals in in Rizal Memorial Sports Complex, Manila on July 25, 2020| Photo from Vice President Leni Robredo’s Facebook page.

THE MEDIA did not miss the sorry spectacle of thousands crammed in the Rizal Memorial Sports Complex. The category of locally stranded individuals (LSIs) now includes people who want to return to their home provinces in the Visayas and Mindanao. They flocked to the stadium to avail of free transportation under the government’s Hatid Tulong program. It is perhaps the worst breach in social distancing protocols since the community quarantine protocols were enforced in Metro Manila in March.

The news broke with photos going viral on social media on July 25. DOH Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire described the situation “as a mass gathering,” which COVID-19 quarantine protocols strictly prohibit. “Hindi masyadong na-enforce ‘yung standards for health para maiwasan ang infection,” Vergeire said in an interview on Teleradyo. So far, 48 LSIs from the stadium have already tested positive for COVID-19.

Appealing for public understanding, even the Palace admitted to lapses in the management of LSIs, “There should have been a system, that even though there were many people at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum, social distancing should have been ensured,” Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said.

Joseph Encabo, Presidential Management Staff assistant secretary and Hatid Tulong lead convenor, said they had chosen the “lesser evil” when they decided to cram the LSIs inside the stadium amid heavy downpours. Reports, however, noted there were people who had to sleep on the streets as the stadium was already full. But journalists did not ask these two officials why they called LSIs en masse when so many of them would have to gather and wait for the availability of transportation. Neither did media involve the IATF in the discussion of the fiasco.  

Broadcast reports depicted the sorry state of the LSIs in the stadium where they stayed for days, with Hatid Tulong organizers having no regard for their convenience or safety. Other reports pointed out the obvious danger posed by overcrowding, but coverage treated this as breaking news and failed at exposing the failure of policy management and to point out how this massive breach sets off a chain of transmissions that will follow the LSIs to their home provinces.

CMFR monitored reports from the three major Manila broadsheets (Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and The Philippine Star); four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN 2’s TV Patrol, CNN Philippines’ News Night, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and TV5’s One Balita); as well as selected news websites from July 25 to July 28, 2020.

Interaksyon’s report stood out for zeroing in on the massive management failure that has hounded this enterprise, providing suggestions on how best to proceed with the government’s LSI program.

CMFR cheers Interaksyon, for tracing the superspreader at the Rizal Stadium to “Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pag-Asa” and “Hatid Tulong” which are providing free trips for LSIs. Interaksyon noted that provincial governments largely blamed these schemes for the rising number of COVID-19 cases among their constituents.

The same report cited Vice President Leni Robredo who prescribed mechanisms that could have done a better job, including the use of a pre-registration system, scheduled and non-simultaneous bus trips, separate shelters for walk-in applicants and coordination with LGUs.

CNN Philippines also published a similar report, highlighting the vice president’s Facebook post expressing horror over the situation in the stadium.

CMFR recalls that Balik Probinsya was launched with much fanfare by President Duterte’s former close-in aide, now Senator Bong Go, a connection that was not mentioned in any report.

Going into the sixth month of community quarantine, the government has failed to instruct that its own agencies to observe its own protocols to prevent the spread of the disease. A string of superspreaders has been reported: the detention of non-compliant citizens in detention centers, seminars in the Amoranto stadium for people misusing or without masks.

Media should step up too, with a readiness to identify which programs, which LGUs and police officials should be held accountable for adding to the continuing surge in COVID-19 cases in the country.