Centrist Democracy Political Institute - Items filtered by date: April 2021

LAST week marked the anniversary of the arrival of the yearlong contagion that has so far killed 16,000 and infected almost a million Filipinos. Government has relied on the Philippine Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) to vanquish Covid-19. This is composed of military and systems experts posing as medical practitioners and doctors posturing as systems experts. And the head of all these, neither systems expert nor a doctor, is a lawyer — the President. Experts and competent all in their chosen professions, they become incompetent and confused in their pretend roles.

Short of assigning blame to one person, this column simply draws attention to empirical results — an a posteriori proposition. But as in any tragedy of this magnitude, many share in its occurrence in varying degrees of culpability, guilt and shame. At the outset, this includes many actors, including the Filipino people themselves. This column is an attempt to help see our way clear through the coming years. Experts predict this pandemic to rage on in its deadly form for the next three to five years, at worst; or at best, the next 18 months. However, conjecture is heavy that Covid-19 will remain with us for the next generations, mutating to a less virulent flu-like coronavirus with effects roughly equivalent to the ordinary cold that similar vaccines have managed to tame over the generations.

Philippine response
Upon the World Health Organization’s declaration that Covid- 19 was a pandemic, countries responded in varying degrees of alarm. To Duterte’s credit, he understood the magnitude of the unfolding catastrophe, convening the IATF in January 2020. This was meant to be the leading edge — a manifestation of the Deegong’s political will, so to speak, to stop Covid-19 on its tracks. By April 17, 2020, the IATF had unveiled policies designed to meet the pandemic head-on. A composite of all important agencies in government, this was placed under the chairmanship of Secretary Francisco Duque 3rd of the Department of Health (DoH). In retrospect, this was a fatal mistake.

On March 16, 2020, Duterte imposed a harsh but necessary social and economic remedy to prevent a sharp rise in cases with an enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) for two weeks, subsequently extended to another two weeks, and then a series of knee-jerk intermittent cocktails of MECQ, GCQ, MGCQ — a plethora of acronyms — making the Philippine lockdown the longest and the most confusing in Asia. Yet, Covid cases kept rising. To mitigate economic dislocations, mostly of the jobless and the poverty-stricken, Congress enacted laws, principally the Bayanihan to Heal As One Act.

Health protocols
Health protocols were mandatory. Recommended by the WHO, “testing, tracing and isolation (TTI)”; massive field tests to cull out the positives; trace those infected; then quarantine. TTI was the core antidote against the contagion, along with “mask-wearing, handwashing and social distancing.”

All these prophylactics and therapeutics were also meant to free much needed hospital beds for the severe and ICU cases. These were measures imposed pending the rollout of vaccines, which Big Pharma has been salivating over, frantically pursuing, cutting corners to penetrate the market. April 2020, total worldwide cases were 1.91 million, total deaths, 122,010.

To date, April 2021, 142 million cases resulted in 3 million deaths. Closer to home, our neighbors have much better results. Vietnam with a population of 98 million has 35 deaths. This is equivalent to 0.40 deaths per 1 million Vietnamese. Japan, population 126 million, has a comparative figure of 76 deaths per 1 million. Thailand, 70 million has 1 death per 1 million. In contrast, with a population of 110 million, we ratcheted up 144 deaths per 1 million Filipinos, the highest in Asia. Our dismal figures are attributable to our people breaking health protocols. The IATF failed to operationalize TTI to the letter and allowed a cavalier attitude toward wearing of face masks, continuous washing of hands and social distancing. Lately, Filipinos put down their guard in anticipation of the roll-out of vaccines, resulting in a massive surge of infections, particularly in Metro Manila, where vaccinations for front-liners have commenced.

Blame the pasaway
Many of the middle class and elite, mostly in the capital region, have inordinately blamed the pasaway (unruly), the mass of unemployed and economically dislocated, living in hovels and risking their lives to feed their families. Even the government has initiated a half-assed plan to get these people back to their provinces through a failed “balik probinsya” initiative. Overall, the government’s inability to impose clear policies — from TTI, strict adherence to health protocols and introduction of asinine programs — reduced the country to the worst performing in Asia.

The Covid czar
If there is one individual who has been derailing the anti-Covid initiatives of the government, it could perhaps be the designated czar. Central to the fight against a pandemic is the use of correct, real and timely data to appreciate better how the contagion moves through the community. The czar declared in early May before the end of the first lockdown extension that “actually, nasa second wave na tayo,” while contradicting himself by declaring the country had flattened the curve “bumaba ‘yung kaso at nagstabilize ‘yung new cases.” His own department had to apologize for Secretary Duque’s statements verging on ignorance.

After one of the numerous congressional investigations and hearings on the government’s response to the pandemic, 14 senators filed a resolution calling for Secretary Duque’s resignation for his alleged “failure of leadership, negligence [and] lack of foresight” in addressing the pandemic.

His response was that he would stay put as long as the President trusted him. Indeed, Duque continues to head the government’s anti-Covid initiatives. Here, Duterte must share the blame for the failures.

Our current status
The OCTA Research group, composed of academically based experts, reported that in the first two weeks of April, the case fatality rate in the NCR had surged to 5.36 percent from 1.82 percent compared to the previous two weeks. The case fatality rate is the proportion of people dying from Covid-19 among all individuals diagnosed with the disease. This measure of the Covid severity is used to predict the outcomes. In this case, the possibility of cases overwhelming our hospitals and our meager health care system. More Filipinos will die.

What seems like a deux ex machina in 2020 is now a reality. The manufacturing countries are currently hoarding vaccines primarily for their own citizens — America mostly and its Western allies. But for criminal incompetence the Philippines had the chance of getting its hands on a few million doses. Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. and our ambassador to the US, Jose Manuel Romualdez, said they had arranged for the country to secure millions of vaccines from Pfizer, which were supposed to arrive by January 2021. This did not materialize because, according to them, “someone dropped the ball.” Thus, no commitment was given to Pfizer, so that the allocation was given to other countries. A similar vaccine will instead arrive sometime in the third or fourth quarter of this year. Senator Lacson was more succinct. “…it was Health Secretary Francisco Duque 3rd who bungled the deal to buy 10 million doses of vaccine from American drugmaker Pfizer.”

Meantime, more of our people will die, because the Deegong allowed this man to be czar.

Published in LML Polettiques

First of a series
HE is back! Speculations were rife on Duterte’s whereabouts. Social media was bombarded with rumors of his flight to Singapore aboard the presidential G280 Gulfstream for an alleged minor surgical repair on his colostomy bag or for stem cell treatment. Yes, indeed, Duterte flew out to Singapore for a medical checkup on April 6, 2021. Turned out, it was a different Duterte — Mayor Sara, who was on a legitimate medical leave and took Singapore Airlines SQ-917. All unfounded, Duterte nonetheless has had an irresponsibly grand time needling his detractors. “When I disappeared for several days, I did it on purpose.”

These concerns for his health were fueled by the abrupt cancellation of his public appearances on the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases conferences at a time when Covid-19 infection was approaching a humanitarian catastrophe.

His health is always a national concern, as this impact on his capability to govern. But the day-to-day operations of government fall on the Cabinet members and other subalterns designated as the President’s alter egos. It is therefore the quality of these people too that need scrutiny and transparency.

The President’s men
At this time of the country’s greatest peril, vanquishing Covid-19 is government’s priority. All other concerns are relegated to the back-burner — and most Cabinet secretaries fade out from public view. Thus, a few close confidants have been taking the slack, assuming pre-eminent roles. A triumvirate of sycophants has emerged: spokesman Harry Roque Jr., Health Secretary Francisco Duque 3rd, and Sen. Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go. The first two are Cabinet members; the third is not even part of the executive department. Which brings us to review the role of the Cabinet, which, of late may have been drastically altered due to the President’s perceived incapacities and doubts about his lucidity, quoting columnist Antonio Contreras: “…there is something wrong in the thinking process of the President…. It is therefore frightening that the only kind defense we can grant the President from accusations that he is ignorant of the law, or that he is deliberately dismissing it, is that he has lost his mind.” (Antonio Contreras, “Is he still lucid or he just doesn’t understand of respect the law,” The Manila Times, March 25, 2021). This pandemic precipitating an economic collapse may just be too much for a frail and aging Duterte to handle.

The spokesman
The person that regularly interprets for the public Duterte’s erratic behavior, thinking and competence is his spokesman. One of the high-profile jobs in any organization is that of the spokesman’s. In business, he is the public corporate face conveying appropriate messages extolling a particular brand to the consumer. Part of his job description is being conversant with the company he represents and the product being sold, translating this knowledge to the target audience in as clear a language as possible.

The same goes for the government spokesman, except that the policies and persona of the top honcho are the products. But government is more complicated in that political and economic issues affecting the lives of its citizenry are fluid. Central to good governance is government’s ability to fashion and communicate these properly to the people; and getting their collective consensus through a feedback mechanism. The president is the primary source of information and issues, which must be communicated to the clientele. It is impossible for the president to do this all by himself, thus, the need for a spokesman who must speak for and in his behalf. And integrity and credibility are premium qualities the spokesman must possess.

The communicator
Roque has held the position the longest. A human rights lawyer, erstwhile ally of former vice president Jejomar Binay, he later became a Kabayan party-list, representing the marginalized sector. His own party-list tried to oust him for “dishonorable behavior.” Rep. Edcel Lagman accused Roque of hypocrisy, transforming from being a critic of Duterte to an apologist on the war on drugs — after he was hired as Palace spokesman.

The ambitious Roque could not convert his earlier stint as PRRD’s spokesman in 2017-2018 into a Senate seat. Duterte himself said that there was no way he could win even with his endorsement. But he was rehired as spokesman a year ago this month. His duplicitous Janus-face posture serves Duterte and the government well making him one of the more contemptible Cabinet members. He is not likeable but exudes a certain kind of confidence that shouts out, “I don’t really care what you think!” And indeed, he could be right. As long as he delivers what the Deegong wants him to convey — and he conveys this well in vernacular or in English.

Past spokesmen
This used to be a fairly decent job, held by decent people. We once had the urbane and deeply religious Christian Ernie Abella, who could not quite equate a certain sense of decorum with presidential utterances. He burned out, lasting just 16 months. We also have the flamboyant and foppish but confrontational lawyer, Sal Panelo, whose sense of sartorial elegance he thought could pass off as acceptable sheen for lies sputtered casually.

The principal
Roque’s problems are complicated when the Deegong is unable to discipline his thoughts and disgorges what comes into his mind, either for shock effect or to reinforce a misconception that strong and dirty language verging on the vulgar and misogynistic repartee reflects strong alpha male traits and are manifestations or even substitutions for political will. This skewers Roque’s job, but he has become an expert at decoding this behavior to the public, morphing into Duterte’s own “mini-me.” He either validates presidential rants, seldom admits that he is clueless or just lies and covers up — coating the same with slivers of truth. Or does a Goebbels — repeat a lie often enough until a fake patina of truth covers the lie. The last is his preferred option. All the same, these are deadly to the spokesman’s integrity and credibility.

An enigma
When Roque was hired, Duterte’s approval ratings were already in the high 80 percents. Paradoxically, Roque’s approval rating is among the highest in the Cabinet, not impacting negatively on the President’s. Inexplicably, social scientists deplore this reality as a measure of how low the Filipino audience have descended.

What I wrote was valid then and now. “All Cabinet members by inference are the President’s alter-egos and must understand their roles perfectly well. Cabinet members are heat shields and political lightning rods of the presidency. As such, part of their job is to deflect serious criticism from their respective publics and clientele on the presidency as a result of their official functions. As an efficient conductor of political heat, these honorable secretaries must prevent damage or serious erosion to the political capital of the presidency.”

Lies and prevarications emanating from the President are absorbed, embellished and vomited out, coated in the spokesman’s glib but articulate language, becoming the currency of public discourse.

To prevent damage to the President and the presidency, Roque has embraced the political heat and in the process is consumed by it, appropriately blamed and condemned. The most despicable man in the Cabinet is one that does his job effectively well. But maybe not for long.

Next week, April 28, 2021: Part 2 on the President’s men

Published in LML Polettiques
Wednesday, 14 April 2021 03:38

Continuation of a regime by other means

UNDER normal circumstances, election fever sets in around this time of the year as a prelude to the campaign circus coming to town. But these are extraordinary times. Covid-19 cases are surging, people are dying and the economy is collapsing. Coming out from a year’s lockdown, perhaps the world’s longest, the National Capital Region (NCR or Metro Manila) reverted to a stricter one. Since early March, Covid-19 cases now average 10,000 to 15,000 daily from February’s 1,800 to 2,000. While waiting for the vaccine rollout, a pall of helplessness, fear and death hover.

On the other hand, there is no vaccine against the election virus ravaging the body politic, diverting us from what is important. For the opposition, this could be the perfect time to grab the political narrative focusing on the pandemic, providing the government some modicum of solution — if only it can get its act together.

Not this time around. The opposition has been so damaged and demonized that they are bereft of personalities within their ranks with the credibility to lead. The once formidable Liberal Party, now a caricature of itself, never was able to fashion any coherent alternative to the current regime except to take ineffective potshots.

Yet, oblivious to the contagion, only names of potential successors mostly from the majority alliance appear, all waiting for signals from the patron who people suspect may himself be in a political stupor of late. Watching Duterte’s IATF press briefing, he seemed to be unhinged, rambling and incoherent, jumping from one topic to the next, unable to complete a train of thought or a sentence (“PRRD addresses the nation,” March 24). I thought the President, who understandably is under tremendous stress, might, like the coronavirus, have mutated from a dominant alpha male to a lame duck.

Perceived leading actors
Two sets of names float around the outer perimeter of Duterte’s circle. Akin to centrifugal forces, Lacson and Gordon, relatively more independent-minded are playing too careful a game, unable to cut their apron strings from the President by thrashing him where he is so vulnerable – his handling of the pandemic. The other names could be those of Grace Poe and Bongbong Marcos, still popular but moribund after their respective 2016 presidential and vice-presidential runs. The centripetal forces drawn to the center are those closest to the President who could be the tools to extend his regime. The DDS or diehard Duterte supporters and their cohorts have woven the storyline that Covid’s interference somehow disrupted the country’s trajectory towards fulfilling the Deegong’s legacy. Thus, the need for time extension.

The blueprint for any regime to extend itself is to do either one of the three formulas. The first is obvious — run for reelection. This just happened recently in the United States election of 2020. President Trump lost his bid to do his “unfinished business,” but his rejection of his defeat with delusional arguments that his election was stolen from under him, despite evidence to the contrary, has marked the man as raving mad. In the Philippine scenario, the Deegong is neither delusional nor irrational. Presidential term limits prevent his reelection, and this alternative path is closed. He knows this.

The second track is one preferred by totalitarian regimes and the primary path of choice of the Duterte fanatics and those out to protect their sinecures and prerogatives. Declare a revolutionary government, which in effect is a coup against itself. But this involves the acquiescence of the military component, which is doubtful despite the two dozen or so former senior military personnel seconded by Duterte to this government. More importantly, the Filipino, at times seemingly accommodating, may not see this as an alternative worth espousing. Also, Duterte has lost the taste for such adventurism.

Election of surrogates
A third avenue is for the regime to skirt the constitutional term limits and go for election with some twist. Field the surrogates to the highest posts. In this case, Duterte allows his daughter Sara to run for the presidency with him as the vice president. This foolish idea seems to be the preferred solution of the presidential sycophants. This scenario rests on a presumption that the Filipino electorate is gullible and as ridiculous as those who advanced this idea. Despite the popularity of PRRD, the idea of a daughter or his gofer with him in the same ballot is idiotic. Even many of the people from Davao, loyal to the Duterte père et la fille will find this combination nauseous. Davao people are not that stupid. But this is gaining traction among the carpetbaggers of the PRRD’s nominal party — the PDP Laban.

Which suggests that this scenario is simply a red herring, a diversion concocted by the genius strategist himself preventing a lame-duck status. In the end Sara must be his choice as successor, feeding the fiction of supposedly preserving a legacy, a family’s unfinished business, but more importantly as protection against political retribution or even against possible repercussions of human right violations earning PRRD an indictment in the international courts.

Possible permutations
The President will not depart from traditional political practices. What better security than imposing a political dynasty with the unquestioned loyalty of the successors with a gofer for a spare tire. Sara may have to be paired perhaps with the moneyed progeny of the Villars or Marcoses as VP — not Bongbong but the smarter Imee, in keeping with the traditional Luzon or Visayas combination with Mindanao. And this woman-woman combination will be a first and a formidable one.

That leaves the PDP Laban president and popular billionaire boxing hero an odd man out as the potential spoiler. The tragedy of politics in this country is that these entertainers run on their popularity counting on name recall for votes, not so much on what they stand for and a clear articulation of their vision. Pacquiao intuitively understood this coyly releasing a tastelessly done “poor- man- from-the-masa-who-did-good-and-can-go-further” video.

The rest of the gang will just have to mill around reacting simply to the vicissitudes of the regime. Lacson, Gordon, Poe, Marcos and even the reluctant and qualified businessman, Ramon Ang.

Minimums the Deegong can do
I wrote two columns on “Duterte’s time running out — monumental failures” and “A case for repairing his legacy”(The Manila Times, Feb 10 and 17, 2021). It is too late for people to still hold him accountable for his promises prior to his ascendancy when he pompously declared “Change is coming — ‘Ang Pagbabago’ — war on illegal drugs, elimination of corruption in government, and federalism and Charter change.” On this, he has already shown himself a monumental failure. While not detracting from his triumphs and some peripheral successes, he can still do two things — seriously repair a tattered legacy and be judged kindly by history.

“He needs to decouple from the ugly maelstrom of politics now engulfing his presidency; for one, the singular ego-driven thought that he alone can finish what he started.” If he is compelled to name a successor, he needs to choose beyond his kin and coterie.

But more importantly and immediately, he must solve this biggest anomaly — the pandemic!

Published in LML Polettiques
Wednesday, 07 April 2021 08:26

Covid-19 revisited — a year after

THE year 2020 could have been a year like any other. But it went fast and slowand slow: fleeting for the Covid-19 victims, especially for the families left behind; too fast for proper grieving; no closure; our departed’s presence lingering, still felt as goodbyes were not said intimately. Dying alone is not a civilized choice and is culturally abhorrent. These days death bedspace turnover is quick, ICU slot a premium and cremation a must. Time goes painfully slow for the living. Waiting for vaccination is simply excruciating.

I have written 19 columns on this pandemic. And I wrote a blog on the Ebola virus, which proved to be eerily prescient. This was the African outbreak that killed thousands. I am reprinting an abridged version of this 2014 blog on the Ebola virus that has similarities to the current coronavirus in its deadly spread, titled “Ebola virus: Is this the end of our world?”

“Quite recently, we woke up to the screaming headlines of newspapers that alert us to the outbreak of Ebola virus from Central and West Africa infecting people from several countries. The spread of this disease is now made easier due to plane travel that whisk people from continent to continent in a few hours. And this disease has an incubation period of from two days to three weeks. This means that a person will not display any symptom after being infected within those days. By that time, too, the carrier would have flown to another destination, perhaps home —infecting a family member, a loved one without each knowing the danger they are in. And we have thousands of our OFWs in these affected areas coming home!”

April 1, 2020 — ‘Covid-19 conspiracy theories’
“…The lockdown, enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) or similar appropriate euphemisms is a correct attempt to contain a deadly pandemic.” These drastic measures were meant to contain the virus and were not expected to last very long. But it did and the race was on to come up with a vaccine. There were subplots in this global narrative that involved America. It was expected to provide world leadership. It did not. The irresponsible President Trump, in denial mode predicted in early March that the virus was going away with April’s summer heat. He was criminally oblivious to the death toll of Americans that on April 24, 2020 broke 50,000. Today, April 5, 2021, America has 568,777 dead Americans.

April 22, 2020 — ‘Alternative aftermaths’
The world’s economy was collapsing, and I quoted reportage from Fareed Zakaria, a journalist of global renown, on the state of the world’s economy that we are just at the “early stages of what is going to become a series of cascading crises.” And we are not going back to anything resembling normal, a position that Adam Tooze, a British historian and an eminent academic, agreed with. “The old economic and political playbooks don’t apply…”

April 29, 2020 — ‘Economic recovery’
“Central to a global economic recovery are two predicates: the taming of Covid-19 as a “sine qua non” and a seamless measured lifting of the quarantine to restart local economic activities. But the world cannot wait 18 months. Much is unknown about Covid-19’s virulence when quarantine is lifted. It could trigger another wave of contagion. Yet, the world must understand we may have to live with the contagion or its mutant form among us for the foreseeable future.

Philippine cases are surging but the death toll was still unlike those of our neighbors, particularly Indonesia. While the Duterte government was serious in imposing the lockdowns and quarantine… “The undisciplined hordes, the pasaway roaming the streets during lockdowns need to be tamed with creative alternative livelihood, keeping them productive. The Deegong who has just extended quarantine for major cities to May 15 (2020) has initiated a Balik Probinsya program to decongest the slums of the cities. But, again, as in any palliative, instant solutions to generations-long festering problems are bound to fail. The pasaway will just earn a much-needed vacation back to their provinces. When the crisis abates, they will be back in their hovels.”

This week, April 2021 in the NCR, ECQ is being extended!

April 15, 2020
At 4 p.m., a Wednesday, total number of cases was 5,453 with 349 deaths and recovery of 353. We entered our sixth week of lockdown with the government extending the same to April 30, 2020. Our health experts predicted cases to rise somewhere between 26,000 to 75,000.

That was a year ago today. April 5, 2021, the Philippines has 803,398 cases, 646,237 recoveries and 13,435 deaths. Our one-year projections are off by 10 to 30 times.

An intimate death
But these are no longer cold statistics. By April 3, 2021, in the Philippines, 103 people had died of Covid-19. One was a friend who was like a brother to me. He was my son’s wedding “ninong” — and his confirmation sponsor. Although much younger, he mentored me on the financial markets and started me on a business path as a full partner in a cement trading and distribution business. He was a ‘84 Harvard Business School, I was class ’89 Harvard KSG. He was the chairman, and I was president. On intuition, we liquidated our company before the Asian financial crisis of July 1997 hit — a serendipitous decision which paradoxically he did not follow to its logical conclusion with his other firms. They could only be liquidated to the detriment of his clientele and other partners. It is a measure of the man’s decency that he chose to weather and absorb the full impact of the financial crises and helped his partners recover. He did recoup his losses and became even stronger in the aftermath. As they say, “what does not kill you makes you even stronger.”

But at a low point of his professional life, he rediscovered his Christian moorings and a deep affirmation of his faith in God. Years later, he gave me a book, The Purpose Driven Life by the American Baptist pastor Rick Warren, whose principles were his guidelines, long before this was widely published.

This man was forged out of crises both in his personal and professional lives. But two of these tragedies need recounting as perhaps these defined his character. He became a single father to a beautiful infant daughter after his young wife was murdered years back. This was a kind of a common bond as we share a tragedy. My father was murdered too when I was younger than he was. The second tragedy nearly cost him his life. Returning from a business trip abroad, he was robbed, shot and left for dead in his car. He sort of hinted to me later that his guardian angel must have been working overtime as it was early dawn when it happened. He survived with several bullets in his body.

This was an astute businessman with streets smarts, a head of a business clan and a good family man — leaving behind a wonderful wife, Rhodora (he remarried), two sons Bambam and John, and daughter Diane, who gave him four grandchildren.

The greatest tragedy perhaps is that this billionaire businessman, Jerry Angping, could not survive Covid-19.

Goodbye, my friend.
Published in LML Polettiques