Distress call from the health sector: Media only scratch the surface
FINALLY, the medical community has spoken, pleading for relief for its front liners. In a video conference organized by the Philippine College of Physicians (PCP) last August 1, a group of doctors and nurses called on the government to place “Mega Manila”once again under
enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) for two weeks. Their purpose: to prevent the collapse of the hospital system and hopefully, to gain some time to review and adjust the government’s anti-COVID strategies.
The call was issued five days after President Duterte’s SONA which was widely criticized for lacking any COVID-19 recovery roadmap. The PCP also addressed an open letter to the president in which they detailed seven points of policy to implement, referring to necessary changes in government’s approach and actions.
It was the top story for the weekend in both print and primetime TV, triggering a vigorous exchange on social media that revealed popular agreement with the sentiments and suggestions of the speakers. Cabinet officials themselves were also quick to react, telling the media they would be discussing the issue in weekend meetings. Even before the end of the teleconference, Dr. Jose Santiago, Jr., head of the Philippine Medical Association, said that DOH was ready to meet with them later that day.
The PCP forum offered much insight and information, identifying from a public health standpoint some gaps that had not been noted in the news. Among these were crucial recommendations, such as the importance of a centralized system of comprehensive public transportation, the importance of social amelioration for those in need, and contract tracing which has already been possible to implement effectively in some localities.
But the media reports scratched only the surface, failing to discuss the substantive significance of this development.
News accounts focused only on the doctors’ pleas, sidelining the very specific description of the situation for the medical community and leaving out the changes in strategy that the doctors had proposed. Media missed the important subtext of the PCP’s observations: that the earlier lockdown wasted the opportunity to set up a comprehensive plan or coordinated actions to help prevent the rapid spread of the disease, while ensuring safe public transportation for medical frontliners and others who need to continue working outside their homes.
The media aired live the president’s late night response but failed to include the necessary reality check to counter Duterte’s reaction, repeating without correction his misinformed tirade against the PCP and the medical community in general.
CMFR monitored the coverage of six Manila-based broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin, Manila Standard, The Daily Tribune, The Manila Times), four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol Weekend and TV Patrol, TV5’s One Balita Pilipinas, GMA-7’s 24 Oras Weekend and 24 Oras, CNN Philippines’ Newsroom Weekend and News Night) and selected online news sites from August 1 to 4.
Surface level reports
The PCP video conference was held at 10 am on Saturday, August 1. Without regular noontime newscasts scheduled on that day, the earliest to report the event was GMA-7’s hourly news segment, 24 Oras News Alert at 11:20 am. The report identified some of the seven areas that needed improvement, such as contact tracing and patient isolation, but did not include much of the information shared by the doctors.
TV5 does not have a weekend evening newscast and did not feature a special program to report or discuss the conference on that day. ABS-CBN, CNN Philippines and GMA-7opened their news programs with the PCP conference, airing clips of the doctors’ presentations, their call for an ECQ, the rising cases overwhelming their capacity, with medical staff falling sick and the entire system in danger of collapse. All three newscasts included the clip of Dr. Maricar Limpin saying they are not going against the government in deciding to hold their public forum.
24 Oras and Newsroom Weekend picked up only some of the PCP’s recommendations, such as halting the use of anti-body rapid testing by private sector companies because of its unreliability.
Only TV Patrol reported that aside from calling for an ECQ, the PCP also wrote a letter that identified seven policy and implementation gaps. The report enumerated these points without details.
The three programs aired the reaction of Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque. 24 Oras and Newsroom Weekend reported that Roque’s first statement said the ECQ had already served its purpose, but he later updated the Palace’s position to clarify that Duterte heard the frontliners’ call.
Print coverage did not differ much in their accounts of the conference. Reports the following day across six broadsheets were limited to quoting the doctors’ request for an ECQ. There was neither enumeration nor synthesis of the problems that the doctors identified to support their observation that current anti-COVID measures are not working.
On Sunday afternoon, online news reported Roque’s announcement that Duterte would meet with his Cabinet later in the evening, during which he was expected to decide on the ECQ request.
Primetime newscasts aired the reactions of ordinary citizens, the church and some local chief executives to a possible return to ECQ. Responses were mixed among the citizens and local officials interviewed. Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte disapproved of the ECQ, while officials from Navotas, Muntinlupa, and Cavite backed the proposal. The Church said it would immediately suspend religious activities as a way of supporting the frontliners’ call for a timeout.
As Duterte’s address was aired at almost midnight, the public woke up on Monday morning to news of the decision to implement a less strict modified ECQ starting Tuesday, August 4.
Reports noted that while Duterte heard the request of the medical frontliners, he also berated them for airing their grievances in public instead of first writing to him directly. Media aired live and quoted his other incoherent and offensive tirades against health workers whom he claimed were “demeaning the government.” These included the most outrageous, which was his accusing medical frontliners of fomenting a revolution.
While nowhere in the entirety of the PCP conference did anyone hint at any kind of revolt or even dissent, the media repeated Duterte’s accusation and let it pass, waiting for the PCP to clarify instead of pointing the fact out themselves.
Among print and TV, only the Tribune reported accurately and briefly: “Over the weekend, over 60 medical societies led by the Philippine College of Physicians held a press conference to call for the reimposition of ECQ to allow them to recuperate from physical exhaustion. None of them called for a revolution. Instead, they sought to address issues such as hospital workforce efficiency, case finding and isolation, transportation, workplace safety, public compliance with minimum health standards and social amelioration.”
The media reported PCP’s appreciation of the quick response, but failed to emphasize a more telling point in PCP’s second letter, written after Duterte’s complaint. Responding to the president, PCP clarified that IATF and DOH had ignored their earlier requests, compelling them to air their grievances in a public forum. Only OneNews.ph led with this headline.
Philstar.com stands out for taking time to process the information from both sides, publishing a point-by-point explanation of each of the seven areas for improvement raised by the PCP, and the subsequent responses of the concerned departments to each item.
The failed government strategy has worsened the COVID-19 crisis in the country. The lack of medical expertise in the IATF had been noted by commentators and other experts earlier. Media must be ready to check whether the IATF will now give the PCP a seat at the table and role in the anti-pandemic effort. Otherwise, this two week time-out will prove just as futile as the first and longest lockdown in the world.
Professionals in health and medicine have a reputation as silent workers, carrying on with their jobs without so much as a complaint. PCP president Dr. Mario Panaligan said it himself in the clarificatory letter sent to Duterte: “By training and our reserved nature, the likes of us are not used to giving out demands or ultimatums.” For them to now speak on a united front is a significant development the press failed to give due attention. While giving prominence to the medical frontliners’ distress call, the media fell short, failing to amplify their much-needed, well informed perspective. Sadly, most of the news organizations treated this as breaking news, limiting reports to clips of what the usually silent doctors told the public.