Pandemic Politics in the Philippines, Part 1



There is an old adage from Saul Alinsky’s rules for radicals to “never let a good crisis go to waste.” Alinsky’s admonition was more in line with using communication as an opportunity to convey action during a crisis or a threat likened to terrorism or the like. Alinsky was an American community activist and a political theorist whose daily grind with the inequities of life in Chicago honed his community organizing skills to an art form.


With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic raging in just about every country on earth, Alinksy’s phrase has been taken to heart by many leaders with a microphone for self-fulfilling, if not, a grander purpose. In the United States, Europe, China and most certainly in the Philippines; the political undertones of such caution have many uses. President Donald Trump use the daily coronavirus task force briefing as an opportunity to sell himself, albeit haphazardly in many ways.


Well, in the Philippines, the land of crisis opportunities, the Duterte administration and the opposition with Vice President Leni Robredo as the de facto leader, were just as adept. For President Rodrigo Duterte and VP Robredo, the 2023 presidential campaign has already begun and the pandemic has become a good cover. Actually, Duterte and Robredo were already at this mode since 2019 when she was appointed Duterte’s drug czar, then strong earthquakes struck Mindanao in October and was shortly followed by the Taal eruption in January 2020.


The magnitude of the war on drugs and both calamities were such that they presented many opportunities for both leaders to be at the forefront. VP Robredo was more alert and ahead with her crisis responses to these miseries. This was understandable given the total wipe out of Team Leni’s senatorial candidates during the May 2019 election. The tendency after such great loss would be to lay low but these crises presented opportunities for her and the opposition to push the restart button.


For President Duterte, he was still basking from electoral triumph that he was actually in hibernation mode. This was evident by his slow start in Mindanao and Batangas. He actually did not even visit the earthquake damaged areas and allowed his daughter, Davao mayor Sarah Duterte to sub for her father. VP Robredo on the other hand, used the opportunity to postpone the scheduled release of her drug report in December to focus attention to the victims of the earthquake. But her good intentions were derailed by a comment made by her supporter regarding giving (Robredo’s/OVP’s aid) to “good people of Mindanao” only. That suck too much oxygen negating her efforts.


When Robredo released her much anticipated drug report on January 9, Taal volcano intervened three days later and stole the show with its spectacular fiery red magma and volcanic ash spew as high as nine miles. The desolation covered several municipalities and cities thus leaving no room for discussion of the drug report.


In Batangas and neighboring areas, we saw dueling acts of aid distribution/disaster response to those affected by the Taal eruption, by both camps. The president was with Sen. Bong Go as they distributed government resources and aid. Bong Go became the presidential face as threw a slew of policy proposals relative to the catastrophe. VP Robredo tried competing with limited resources from her office and some donations for her “Lugaw ni Leni.” Her time was also consumed with cat fights with Mucha Uson, one of the president’s trusted Girl Friday and effective public relations find.


Thus when the coronavirus outbreak began in Wuhan, the Philippines, much like the United States, France, Japan, the United Kingdom, and other countries were caught flat-footed and were slow starters. Duterte was still preoccupied with the Taal response and firefighting Robredo’s drug report in January and had little focus on the pandemic threat. He resisted the travel bans despite the first case of the virus, a Chinese national diagnosed on January 30. Her companion, also a Chinese tourist tested positive and died on the 1st of February.


With cases now budding in other countries while still seeing slow uptick of Covid cases in country, alarm bells, however has already started ringing especially with the administration’s decision allowing Chinese tourists to still come and gamble at the POGO sites. The opposition was all over it and started attacking the administration’s response as woefully lacking. But, it should be noted that the Philippines does not have unlimited resources especially after dealing with several calamities last year including the midterm election. Perhaps it is worthwhile reminding that the Philippines’ had about 17 typhoons that visited the country with Typhoon Tisoy the last in early December 2019 with damage amounting to P5.7 billion pesos!


Was the Duterte administration slow to react to the outbreak? Yes, but justifiably so given the small number of cases between January through March. Despite the raging outbreak in Wuhan and their draconian measures in late January, there was no strong indication of the outbreak quickly spreading in the country – especially with the lack of testing. Other than issuing health guidelines and alerting agencies in the country, the country was not poised at that time to respond to a pandemic. It just got lucky.


Of course the Philippines was not alone in this. More bluntly, no country was prepared for this. From testing, to availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the medical frontliners, to availability of ventilators; every country was pretty much on their own. The Philippines was extra lucky for getting free testing kits from China but only to be rebuffed because of faulty test kits. The Philippines did not have organic testing capability given this was a novel coronavirus. The United Stated sent COVID-19 help too in the millions of dollars but got little publicity. The country was already on Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) in mid-March and attention was now on whether Duterte was going to declare Martial Law and how long the ECQs will last.


For accepting China’s assistance, the administration was pilloried particularly in the social media for making excuses for the donor (China) who also shared a medical team who had a lot of lessons learned to share from their experiences in Wuhan. The opposition’s furious commentaries were really spill-overs from China’s militarization of the South China Sea and Duterte chumminess to President Xi Jinping that poison the well. That and the Trump campaign’s aggressively blaming China’s lack of transparency and advancing conspiracy theories of China’s bioengineered virus being let loose on mankind. Such misinformation and disinformation are making their way to Filipino inboxes as we speak and are quickly shared to like-minded recipients.