Flattening the Curve
AS CASES continued to rise, the dire situation prompted the medical community to finally speak out against the failures of the administration’s pandemic response. Representing the first line of defense against the disease, they spoke with clear authority and knowledge to publicly discuss their most urgent concerns.
The modification of quarantine guidelines in June had obvious consequences, as it was followed by a sharp spike in cases. Warning that hospital systems were nearing collapse, a broad alliance of health professionals called for a “timeout” — returning to a stricter MECQ — so that they could work together with government to review and rethink all anti-COVID strategies.
In their online forum on August 1, they made recommendations in seven areas where government response needed improvement, among others, contact tracing, public transportation and social amelioration.
The frontliners’ call on August 1, Saturday was picked up by most media, and became the top story for the weekend. The coverage centered mostly on the plea itself. None of the media accounts pointed to the significance of the move on the part of health professionals — that the strict and militarized lockdowns had done little to stem the transmission of the disease; that for all the restrictions, government had relied only on the lockdown and did not undertake the other necessary measures to map the spread of the disease, such as expanded testing and contact tracing.
Worse, media quoted without question Duterte’s accusation that the frontliners were “fomenting a revolution.” The president granted the request to revert to MECQ for the next two weeks, but berated the physicians and healthcare professionals first for not discussing their concerns directly with him before they went public. Again, media quoted him directly and let the presidential opprobrium pass.
Media also failed to follow up on how government responded to the medical group’s recommendations. Taking off from the first forum, the Health Professionals’ Alliance Against COVID-19 (HPAAC) held another public briefing on August 18 to discuss accomplishments and the progress in policy making during the two-week timeout. Journalists were content to simply report one or two improvements, without presenting how much more work still needed to be done moving forward.
The medical frontliners had done the public a great service, as their authority validated their recommendations. They also shared their expertise, discussing their observations about how things could be done better. More reports should have focused on these expert resources; as sustaining public attention on these gaps could have forced the adoption of a more expansive testing, and contact tracing which had been successfully done in some provinces.
But media fixed its attention on what government officials had to say, including the president. It seemed obligatory to quote everything government said, no matter how unscientific, inaccurate or downright ridiculous.
Keeping close to government’s defensive stance, media recorded claims that officials had done what they could and that only the vaccines could solve the pandemic.
Significantly, the September 14 report from The Lancet COVID-19 Commission referred to the Philippines’ failure to control the pandemic because of medical populism, adopted by some leaders who downplay the threat of the pandemic itself, simplify the crisis and prescribe unscientific solutions. According to the report, Duterte shared this style with US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whose countries were, like the Philippines, among the worst-hit by COVID-19.
The study did not get attention in Philippine media until Vice President Robredo referred to it in a social media post on September 22. Print, broadcast and online reports picked up findings of the report that involved the Philippines, particularly the medical populism tag and the country’s COVID-19 response ranking of 66th out of 91 countries. Online reports from Rappler, Philstar.com, news.ABS-CBN.com, and GMA News Online referred to some of Duterte’s statements that demonstrate medical populism.
Media, however, did not discuss further other significant points in the 23-page article. Following local media custom, journalists sought the reaction of the Palace, which predictably dismissed the report. It would take nine months for the administration, particularly Duterte, to realize belatedly the importance of mass testing.
READ CMFR MONITORS ON THE ISSUE:
- “While nowhere in the entirety of the PCP conference did anyone hint at any kind of revolt or even dissent, the media repeated Duterte’s accusation and let it pass, waiting for the PCP to clarify instead of pointing the fact out themselves.” |Distress call from the health sector: Media only scratch the surface
- “The medical community had pointed to the long restrictive lockdown from March to May when little was done to set up systems of testing and contact tracing – which had played an important part in successfully controlling the spread of the disease in some countries as well as in some local government units in the country.” | Call for timeout: What was accomplished?