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Reduced physical distancing: Another flawed policy from the IATF | CMFR

Reduced physical distancing: Another flawed policy from the IATF

Screengrab from Rappler.

THE PROPOSAL to gradually reduce physical distancing in public transport served to demonstrate once again the flawed policy-making process that has marred the IATF’s response to the pandemic.

In a statement last September 11, Transport Secretary Arthur Tugade announced that the current prescribed distance for physical distancing of one meter would be reduced to 0.75 meter in public transport effective September 14. Tugade said the proposal was endorsed by the DOTr and the Economic Development Cluster to accommodate more passengers. The distance would be reduced further every two succeeding weeks. The agency provided illustrated instructions, which suggested that it was fixed as policy and ready for implementation. Media’s initial reports on it followed the DOTr’s lead and did not take up related concerns.

The announcement quickly earned criticism on social media, as netizens pointed out that the phased removal of social distancing was planned without any basis in terms of health protection. At that point, there were no signs of the spread of the disease’s slowing down. Curiously, other IATF members also started airing their opposition to the proposal.

Media reports followed this exchange, adding the reactions from non-government sources. Media carried DOTr’s order to suspend the plan on September 17, and its permanent cancellation by no less than President Duterte on September 19. In one week, the ill-conceived plan was quashed as quickly as it had been announced.

Media gave prominence to the issue in the front pages and led their TV newscasts with the story. But most of these were limited to official pronouncements. With exceptions, coverage did not elaborate on the larger context and cause of so many other problems — the ineffective policy process of the IATF. The media also failed to discuss the lack of safe, sufficient transportation in the metropolitan area which remains a pressing concern.

CMFR monitored the coverage of three Manila-based broadsheets (The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer), four primetime news programs (TV5’s One Balita Pilipinas, ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras and CNN Philippines’ News Night), the online counterparts of these websites and selected independent news sites from September 12 to 20.

In an interview in the morning of September 14, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año told the media that the proposal was not even approved by the IATF and medical experts were not consulted. But other DOTr officials told the media otherwise.

The division within the IATF became evident during the IATF meeting with the president aired later on the same day. Año and DOH Secretary Francisco Duque III opposed the proposal, saying they were absent from the meeting during which it was supposedly approved. Tugade found allies in National Action Plan implementers Carlito Galvez, Jr. and Delfin Lorenzana. Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque suggested that President Duterte resolve the dispute. But the president, who was present during this discussion, only said the decision must take “physics” into account and asked for a visual presentation of the reduced distancing.

Following up on September 15, GMA-7’s Joseph Morong stood out with a clip of his question to Roque, “Is this symptomatic of how the government decides on policy? One department decides on its own without coordinating with another agency?” Roque said the reduced distancing proposal was approved because no one had opposed it in the meeting.

The division within the task force is anchored on the false dichotomy and presumed conflict between public health and the economy. The Health Professionals’ Alliance Against COVID-19 had underscored the need for a fully-functioning public transport system even with the pandemic, but the individual agencies hold on to the limited sectoral assessment of citizens’ needs. Marikina Representative Stella Quimbo, the Move as One Coalition and Action for Economic Reforms (AER) all voiced valid interventions, which include among others increasing the number of public utility vehicles (PUVs) in operation, service contracting of PUVs and more funding to improve the safety of public transport infrastructure. Only the Bulletin went as far as listing AER’s suggestions. But the ideas presented for consideration received only brief mentions in media reports instead of the comprehensive discussion this problem requires.

Throughout the pandemic, the public has been subjected to a slew of policies that are confusing, contradictory or devoid of any validity, without scientific basis or any practical evidence in reality. IATF guidelines are released only to be criticized by experts or when implemented are shown up to be harmful to public welfare, such as the quick arrests of people who are unable to comply with the restrictions for good reason. Duterte then gets to play the referee, as his officials tend to leave everything to his last word.

Some media did more than just record the exchange among officials.

The Inquirer noted that despite the brief time that physical distancing was reduced, public transportation did not gain more passengers: “Businesses reported no immediate increase in the numbers of employees coming back for work, while many commuters expressed fear of contracting the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 on suddenly half-full trains and buses and nearly crowded jeepneys.”

Rappler noted the IATF’s problematic policy-making in its article Urong-sulong? 9 confusing rule changes, contradictions by Duterte’s coronavirus task force,” including reduced physical distancing, use of motorcycle barriers and the Balik Probinsya program.

Pia Ranada wrote: “Adjustments in rules can’t be avoided in such an unpredictable crisis as the pandemic. The changes made could also reflect a government open to suggestions or responsive to backlash against a controversial rule. Still, constant changes to decisions could be symptomatic of a flaw in the process – which ideally should have accounted for the very concerns that caused the government to revisit its policies.” The government needs to work harder at balancing the need for economic recovery and protecting public health. Stimulating the economy cannot be done by command. Every action is weighed against the threat of disease. People who can do so will stay at home and avoid going out for any purpose. Reporters should be quick to remind government of this obvious fact, citing the evidence that shows what is wrong with its policies and decisions.