Media fail to challenge government spin as PH tops Southeast Asia in COVID cases
SINGAPORE-BASED Straits Times reported on August 5 that the Philippines was likely to be Asia’s COVID-19 hotspot as it recorded 6,532 new infections, the highest in a single day. Government officials quickly reacted in an attempt to control the narrative.
On August 6, NTF’s Vince Dizon, president of Bases Conversion and Development Authority and dubbed by the Duterte administration as its “testing czar,” dismissed the report as “speculative.” He alleged that the increased number of cases was due to the country’s increased testing efforts. The DOH also issued a press release saying the Philippines leads Southeast Asia in testing.
Indonesia had been the epicenter of COVID-19 in the region until the Philippines overtook its record on August 6, only a day after the Straits Times report was published. DOH reported a total of 119,460 cases, while Indonesia’s Ministry of Health reported 118,753.
International organizations monitoring COVID-19 figures across countries reported the same numbers. However, Malacañang refused to accept how badly it was doing compared to the governments of the rest of the region. In his press briefing on August 7, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque insisted on attributing the Philippines’ high record to ramped-up testing, but claimed that Indonesia has more cases. Roque cited Indonesia’s lower testing capacity, adding that Indonesians just don’t know the extent of infection in their country yet.
Unfortunately, the media did not challenge these claims. Except for a few reports, their coverage repeated the government spin.
CMFR monitored the coverage of three Manila-based broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin), four primetime news programs (ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, TV5’s One Balita Pilipinas, CNN Philippines’ News Night), and selected online news sites from August 6 to 9.
TV and print quoted statements from Dizon, Roque and DOH officials. On separate occasions, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said there are factors such as population count that should be considered when making comparisons between countries. But Vergeire, speaking in a DOH briefing, again cited intensified testing as the reason for the country’s high numbers.
Two reports from print and TV presented the views of health experts to counter the government narrative. The Inquirer cited Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO emergencies program executive director, who said that “if hospitalizations and deaths increase at the same time as cases do, that situation is no longer driven by improved testing capacity.”
24 Oras aired a clip of former DOH Secretary Manuel Dayrit presenting graphs in a video conference. Dayrit said the Philippines is doing well in testing, but the increase in numbers means current efforts to curb COVID-19 are not enough.
Most online reports didn’t even bother to present other perspectives and simply repeated government statements, in effect validating the spin that the high numbers are due to the high numbers of testing, stressing that it was not being done in other countries.
CMFR cheers exceptions that provided analytical notes or questioned outright the lapse in government logic. These include the following:
News.ABS-CBN.com provided the interpretation that other media missed. Citing figures compiled by ABS-CBN Data Analytics, the online report said the steady increase in positive cases over the last three months only means that there is more on the ground transmission, and that it is outpacing the country’s testing capacity.
Rappler directly called out Roque’s downplaying of the country’s high number of cases. Its report pointed out that the basis for the rankings were the numbers that each country’s health agency provided. Regarding the increase in cases, Rappler said the IATF had admitted to reasons other than testing, such as lapses in isolation and repatriation efforts.
Philstar.com said that while the government boasts continuously about its testing capacity, it falls short in contract tracing. The report cited contact tracing czar and Baguio City mayor Benjamin Magalong, who referred to July data showing “less than 1% of 600 local government units have good systems in place for it.”
The government spin obviously could not deny the country’s high number of recorded cases, which far exceeds other countries in Southeast Asia.
Expanded testing should focus on ascertaining a lower count of infections. Unfortunately, this is not how the government looks at this measure, as it is content with hyping the number of tests conducted, without trying to understand what the results of the tests indicate. Showing little interest in the meaning of the number of tests and their results, the media readily passed on government’s faulty logic to the public. Reporters who did not bother to check the truth of what government was saying failed to check its claims. Shamelessly, most reporters are still far too willing to echo what government has to say, parroting its clumsy efforts to cover up officials’ failure to do their job.