THE ranks of the anti-Duterte camp were bolstered somewhat by President Duterte’s mishandling of his press conference at Malacanang purportedly to inform the nation about what the government is doing to fight COVID-19. In that appearance, which netizens described as “divisive,” the new critics of the President who had been non-committal in the past pointed out that Duterte was rude and not “presidential” in his choice of words, especially when calling out his usual pet peeves.
The objective of a presidential press conference, especially in these times of national public health emergency, is to reassure the Filipino people that all is well, that our leaders are “on top of the situation,” so that mass panic would not ensue. This cannot be done by simply sitting Cabinet officials in a presidential table with the Chief Executive, along with a ubiquitous senator who behaves as if he is still a Palace functionary, while Metro Manila mayors stood at attention in the back row.
We cannot help but agree in the observation of several political analysts that Duterte’s “rambling and divisive statements” when he appeared before reporters on Monday night was pathetic and lamentable. It did not push forward the goals of clear and precise communication about the fight against the virus. Fear and public concern about COVID-19 were exacerbated, not abated. Aside from the declaration of “no classes” in Metro Manila for a week, nothing meaty was heard from that press encounter that would address the crisis directly.
Duterte’s reference to a “fucking country” that is the Philippines is, of course, not presidential. We never heard it from Fidel V. Ramos or Gloria Arroyo, or from Joseph Estrada who also has an acerbic tongue occasionally. The President seemed to have a bad day that Monday, and chose to vent his ire on the unfortunate health situation the country is in. He did not only address the uncertainty in order to dissipate it; he had made it worse.
If would have been better if Cabinet members directly handling various COVID-19 problems such as Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello, Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo Puyat, and Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez were the ones who did the talking. At least, we can expect some technical and on-ground information from what they had to say. They can all talk about specifics, which all Filipinos would want to hear at this point.
We note Duterte’s statement that he will prioritize assistance to the poor in case the COVID-19 crisis becomes pervasive. He said he would give the poor family who do not have anything to eat some rice, which is just fine. But talking about the poor, the President made an unexpected swing and began hitting at the rich, whom he described as a group of people who can fend for themselves in the wake of this public health crisis. This is not necessarily true.
We realize today the truth that COVID-19, just like the Black Plague and the Spanish flu, does not distinguish from the rich and the poor. All of humanity is at risk. This is true in all the pandemics that had hit the earth, and will be true in other pandemics that are yet to come.
The President made a false, incomplete analysis when he said that the rich can fend for themselves. Not so in the face of a virus as virulent and as contagious as COVID-19. The government should not distinguish among economic, religious and cultural attributes in fighting the virus in the country. It is the whole Filipino nation that is in danger.
Instead of further dividing the nation by pitting the poor against the rich, President Duterte should instead call for unity and solidarity among Filipinos, in the wake of the onslaught of COVID-19. He should also appeal for sacrifice and discipline especially among government and private health workers and volunteers, just like what China did in Wuhan and the whole of Hubei province, where the virus first reared its ugly head.