HEALTH Secretary Francisco Duque III yesterday took responsibility for the government’s late declaration of a state of public health emergency amid the spread of the new Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) in the country, saying he should have declared an emergency himself instead of waiting for President Duterte to do so.
“Yes, I will concede to that,” Duque told Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Zarate, who asked the health secretary during a hearing of the House committee on health if he should be tasked for not warning the public earlier than the President.
The committee, chaired by Quezon Rep. Angelina Tan, called for a hearing to allow the Department of Health (DOH) to brief lawmakers on the measures being undertaken by the government to stop the virus from spreading.
The President last March 9 formally declared a state of public health emergency in a bid to prevent the spread of the virus following the first case of local transmission in the country.
It took the President more than a month after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 as a matter of international public health emergency on January 30, 2020, the same day the first Philippine COVID-19 case was confirmed.
Being a member country of the WHO, Duque said he decided to leave it to the United Nations specialized agency to handle the declaration of a health emergency of international concern which he said is already the “de facto declaration on my part.”
Zarate, however, pointed out that the health secretary has the power to declare the emergency ahead of the President to “forewarn the public.”
“Nagkampante tayo (We became complacent), just because there were just initially one to three cases, and they were foreigners,” he told Duque.
“Now, we have to delay peak transmission with social distancing and enhanced hygiene, among others. Would you say na dapat ba nag-deklara kayo agad (ng state of public health emergency)?”
Zarate said section 7 of Republic Act. 11332 (Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Law) empowers the health secretary to “declare epidemics of national and/or international concerns except when the same threatens national security.”
“The Secretary of Health shall have the authority to declare epidemics of national and/or international concerns except when the same threatens national security. In which case, the President of the Republic of the Philippines shall declare a State of Public Health Emergency and mobilize governmental and nongovernmental agencies to respond to the threat,” the law said.
Proclamation Order 922 said the declaration is necessary to “facilitate the implementation of the relevant provisions of Republic Act No. 11332 to address the COVID-19 threat, including but not limited to mandatory reporting, intensify government response and measures, and enforce quarantine and disease control prevention measures.”
It allows Duque to tap and seek the help of the PNP and other law enforcement agencies to provide assistance in addressing the COVID-19 threat, when needed.
Duque denied that the DOH was lax in reporting new cases, saying there was a problem in the department’s reporting system.
He told ACT -CIS Rep. Niña Taduran that there was no deliberate intention on the part of the DOH “to not disclose important pieces of information as can be legally allowed under the law.”
As of last Tuesday, nine new COVID-19 cases were reported by the DOH, bringing the total number of positive cases in the country to 33.
‘NO SENSE OF URGENCY’
Vice President Leni Robredo said there should be a sense of urgency on the part of the administration now that COVID-19 cases are rising.
“Enero pa lang po, alam na nating aabot sa puntong ito. Sana po, ngayong dumadami lalo ang kaso, magkaroon ng sapat na sense of urgency ang gobyerno (As early as January, we already knew that it would reach this point. We’re hoping that there will be a sense of urgency on the part of the government now that cases are rising),” she said in a statement.
Robredo took a swipe at the DOH, saying the reason why countries with the highest number of cases have the lowest death rates is because “they are honest with the data they disclose.”
She said the governments of the same countries, especially those in Asia, also ensure that COVID-19 testing is accessible to all which she said should also be done in the country.
The Vice President said the government should be proactive and aim for a “zero casualty” no matter how difficult it is.
“Umaasa po tayo na mamumulat ang ating mga pinuno, at magagawa nila ang inaasahan sa kanila sa ganitong klaseng panahon. Ang target natin dapat dito, zero casualties mula sa puntong ito. (We’re hoping that our leaders will be awakened and do what is expected of them. Our target here should be zero casualties at this point),” she said.