WHILE we certainly haven’t yet totally defeated the pandemic and there is still the possibility of another surge as occurred in the past weeks in Europe, I’m convinced at this point that beating this plague will be viewed by historians as one of President Duterte’s remarkable achievements during his term.
Scholars on governance and public administration will be studying this historic episode to find out how Duterte did it to draw lessons from it.
However, rather than theorizing how he accomplished that feat, I will contrast what Duterte and his government did and what US President Donald Trump did not do.
After all, the US is the country with the largest number of Covid-19 cases and deaths because of that virus and has the most advanced government apparatus and biggest finances to fight the pandemic.
Yet it miserably failed.
I will use as source on what happened in the US a lengthy December 20 article in the New Yorker magazine titled “The Plague Year,” by Lawrence Wright who’s been a writer in that prestigious magazine for nearly three decades. The article narrated in detail why and how the pandemic went out of control.
Trump and the US health establishment’s biggest mistake was over what has been proven, both by scientific investigation and statistical studies, to be the most effective, simplest and cheapest way of containing the virus: wearing face masks in public. This had become crucial as Covid-19, unlike HIV among many viruses, could be transmitted airborne and by people with no symptoms.
The New Yorker article quoted deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger explaining: “Wherever a large majority of people wore masks, the contagion was stopped ‘dead in its tracks.’ Hong Kong was one of the world’s densest cities, but there was no community spread of the virus there because nearly everyone wore masks. Taiwan, which was manufacturing 10 million masks per day for a population of 23 million, was almost untouched. Both places neighbored China, the epicenter.”
Yet Trump not only didn’t ask or even encourage Americans to wear masks. He even ridiculed the practice. It was only in a few instances that Trump wore a mask in public and even tore it from his face in seeming irritation when he returned to the White House after being confined for Covid-19.
The New Yorker article read: “The image of the mask-less President spoke to people, especially his base. He appeared defiant, masculine, invulnerable. He knew that the virus was dangerous — ‘more deadly than even your strenuous flus,’ as he told Bob Woodward, in a February interview that surfaced months later. Yet he dared the virus to touch him, like Lear raging against the storm.
Tens of millions of Americans emulated the President’s bravado, and the unchecked virus prolonged unemployment, upended efforts to reopen the economy and caused many more fatalities. It’s dispiriting to think that, had such a simple precaution been broadly implemented from the start, America could have avoided so much suffering, death, impoverishment and grief.”
“While the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as early as March issued an advice to wear masks, Trump undermined it: “You don’t have to do it. I’m choosing not to do it. But some people may want to do it.” Thus, to this day, wearing face masks is still not as widespread in the US as in the Philippines, among many other countries.
Many Americans are even claiming that it is an infringement of their liberties if they are required to wear masks. Here, you’ll be thrown out if you don’t wear a mask. In the big open space of Nuvali mall in Sta. Rosa the other day, I was accosted by the security guard for not wearing my face shield properly.
In contrast, even as Duterte has behaved in a macho manner as much as Trump, he followed science. From his very public appearances in the meetings of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) that’s been the command center for the fight against the pandemic, Duterte always wore a mask, as members of that body did, and even had a hand disinfectant by his side. Later he and his officials would even wear face shields.
If the president of the country, and a very popular one, wears a face mask and exhorts his people to do so, wouldn’t the country follow that crucial, necessary means of containing the virus? From the richest to the poorest, Filipinos now wear masks and shields whenever they go out in public. That’s one reason that makes me believe we won’t be overwhelmed by a new strain of the virus.
Unlike Trump who jettisoned his predecessor Barack Obama’s institutions and its “Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents,” Duterte strengthened the IATF-EID, which was established by President Aquino 3rd in 2014.
Trump had a chaotic institution to address the pandemic, with his so-called task force on it a debating club while other agencies such as the National Security Council undermined many of its guidelines. “He subverted his health agencies by installing political operatives who meddled with the science and suppressed the truth,” the New Yorker article reported.
His officials were quarreling among themselves, with his economic officials for instance blocking the travel bans the health establishment had proposed.
The New Yorker article described the chaos in the White House vividly: “Meetings were often full of acrimony. Olivia Troye, a former homeland-security adviser to Vice President Pence, told me, ‘I can’t even begin to describe all these insane factions in the White House.
I often thought, if these people could focus more on doing what’s right for the country rather than trying to take each other down, we’d be in a much different place.’
“Dr. Anthony Fauci, she recalled, was considered too ‘outspoken and blunt’ with the media, which led such Trump administration officials as Jared Kushner and Peter Navarro to complain that he was ‘out of control’.”
Compare that kind of infighting to the IATF-EID, which Duterte himself chaired. A consultant to the body, Dr. Anthony Leachon, was promptly fired in June when he told the press that the Health department wasn’t doing its job properly.
The IATF-EID had a plan to address the pandemic by end-January, which was vigorously implemented nationwide — made largely possible by the Department of the Interior and Local Government’s (DILG) vast powers over local governments, especially the barangay. Trump didn’t, even telling state governors they had the leeway to do what they think was best for their states.
According to the New Yorker article. Trump responded to a governor’s complaint why the states were being left on their own: “We’re just the back-up.” The Maryland governor saw through Trump’s political strategy to put the blame on them and was incensed: ‘You’re actively setting us up!’”
I could go and on with the many stark contrasts between how Trump handled the pandemic and how Duterte did — the quick enactment of a law to provide the funds needed, especially to tide over those thrown out of work because of the lockdowns, the power given to the DILG to enforce its rules on local governments, the IATF-EID’s playbook in imposing lockdowns and their easing — which explains why the US is the worst hit by it, while we’re just in the 29th slot. Read that New Yorker article, you’d think the US is some Third World nation, just recently trying out democracy.
However, one overarching reason for Duterte’s success is his enormous political strength so that the Yellow opposition have been reduced to whiners in social media, with their media writers spewing utter nonsense. In contrast, the US has been divided practically right down the middle. Fauci was quoted in that New Yorker piece: “Political divisiveness doesn’t lend itself to having a coordinated, cooperative, collaborative response against a common enemy.”
The article emphasized: “Nations and states that have done relatively well during this crisis have been led by strong, compassionate, decisive leaders who speak candidly with their constituents.”
Don’t you think that’s a very accurate description of Duterte during this pandemic?