Media attention wanes as pandemic ends

By Jeraldine Pascual

Newsrooms have not identified the impact of the pandemic on the gathering and reporting

of news. Now that press briefings are done face-to-face, journalists have gone back to follow

the official lead, not ever venturing from the lines well established by the news beats.

 

2022

THE BUNGLED response of the Duterte administration to the pandemic is now a faded memory, as even the worst days of the crisis have receded into such a distant past as to cause the slightest worry. The news has led most Filipinos to forget what it was like, an effect which prevents learning anything from the experience. 

In June 2022, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took over the gargantuan task of dealing with the continuing threat of COVID as various sectors pushed towards economic recovery. He did say in his inaugural speech that there were “shortcomings” that needed to be “fixed.”

The acknowledgement did not lead to quick action. The president left the post of health secretary vacant for almost a year into his term. What was the president thinking? 

A nonsense remark was recorded without question from the media. Asked in October 2022 when he would appoint a health chief, Marcos responded he was waiting for the COVID situation to normalize: “Sa ngayon, naghahanap kami ng paraan para ma-normalize na natin at hindi na natin kailangan sabihin na ang Pilipinas ay state of calamity pa rin (Right now, the government is finding ways to normalize the situation for us to be able to say we are no longer in a state of calamity) … Paabutin natin doon (Let’s get to that point) and then we will normalize also all the reorganization of the government.” 

Media did not ask what exactly he meant. Nor did anyone ask how not having a health secretary could help him get to the point he described. 

The health department was left in the hands of an officer-in-charge (OIC) for one whole year as the country moved toward normal work and production schedules. Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire was a competent career official who was at the forefront of the Interagency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases. (IATF-MEID). But as OIC, she could not undertake anything beyond the parameters of policy and orders set by the previous secretary. She was put on hold when the time could have been given to lay out a strategy for post-COVID challenges. 

2023

WHO lifts PHEIC status of COVID

In May, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that COVID-19 was no longer a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). There was no longer any need for an international coordinated response to prevent the spread of the disease.

Media picked up the development. WHO explained that the downward trend in infection, hospitalization, and deaths for over a year indicated this decision. However, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, stressed that the threat of the virus and the emergence of new variants remained.

News accounts also reported the cautionary statement of Health OIC Vergeire warning against public complacency; the state of public health emergency had not as yet been lifted by Marcos.  

CMFR noted that some news outfits did raise critical issues affected by the WHO declaration, including vaccine donations and their availability. Some medical professionals cited in the media pointed to the need for long-term strategies to ensure the capacity of the Philippines to address future public health threats, including another pandemic in the future. 

Herbosa at the helm 

Marcos worked on reopening the economy, reviving tourism, and relaxing mask mandates, new COVID subvariants notwithstanding. Teodoro Herbosa was appointed only on June 5, 2023.

Three years since the COVID crisis began and with the worst seemingly over, the country entered a period of critical transitions, given the severity of the impact on the national situation. 

In 2020, the country suffered its “first recession in three decades” with the gross domestic product (GDP) contracting to a record 16.5 percent in the second quarter. At year’s end, the Philippine economy was at its worst since World War 2. 

The country experienced the longest lockdown globally. Classrooms were closed for two years. The country lagged among the few others in reopening schools. 

Government did not provide subsidies for small to medium enterprises; “ayuda” or assistance for the poorest of the poor were sorely inadequate. 

No more emergency

As officials echoed the mantra of having to “live with the virus,” little was said about what this involved. There was no urgency on the part of government to set out the strategy for dealing with a still active virus, remaining silent about its planned response. 

With WHO’s declaration, it was only a matter of time before the Philippines moved to further relax COVID restrictions. By July, the DOH was ready to endorse to Marcos the lifting of the state of public health emergency, with news picking up Herbosa’s assertion it was already “de facto” lifted, noting that people were no longer masking up.

News broke on July 22 that Marcos issued Proclamation 297 to end the nationwide state of public health emergency due to COVID-19, declaring the healthcare system as well-equipped and hospitalization low. News accounts added that the proclamation effectively revoked all public emergency measures, including the mandatory mask policy in public transport and health facilities. Testing before public events, vaccinations, and booster shots were all discontinued. Instructions were minimal for those who showed symptoms.

News accounts did say that vaccines acquired under emergency use authorization could still be used up to one year. Health officials did not review the recorded vaccination coverage nor discuss a plan for extending vaccination and boosters as a strategy for “living” with COVID. 

Media reported that during the budget deliberations of the DOH in the Senate, the agency admitted that almost 50 million doses were wasted as these expired, and confirmed that no funds were allocated for vaccines in the 2024 budget. Herbosa said during the budget hearings that vaccines were not the solution. He pushed for minimum public health standards, although he said this really involved “individual-based risk management” — leaving the public to deal with COVID on their own. 

Media reports did not discuss the impact of the policy. Journalists did not check whether government engaged the public about the most effective personal safety measures. 

It is important to note that this problem has not been limited to the Philippines. Cited in news from other parts of the world, international scientists have expressed concern that governments and institutions have not sufficiently learned from the challenges of COVID-19. World news also picked up the observation made by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in its World Disasters Report 2022: All countries remain “dangerously unprepared” for the next pandemic, and they need review legislation to integrate any pandemic preparedness plan. 

Philippine media have not picked up these insights, however, as coverage largely follows public officials who so far have not acknowledged the need for preparedness. 

Flu-like illnesses, walking pneumonia

The 190,000 flu-like illnesses recorded from January to November, as well as the walking pneumonia cases in China prompted the DOH to instruct the public to keep their masks on. But Herbosa said there was nothing to worry about, assuring the public that the DOH had control of the situation. He added that Philippine hospitals have improved their capacity to respond to respiratory illnesses given the COVID experience. The claim went unquestioned. 

Given hospitalization fees, the capacity of hospitals to treat their illnesses may be irrelevant to most Filipinos, many of whom would not turn to hospitals when they feel sick because of the costs. 

News carried stories about health services on the ground. CMFR noted a few stories highlighting small villages’ response to COVID, and it would be beneficial to bring such narratives to national discourse.

For the record 

So far, government has not presented any review of the COVID-19 experience that could evolve a roadmap or action plan for the post-pandemic situation. There has been no assessment of the impact of the crisis on the general welfare of the people, of the psychological toll of lockdowns and the daily reporting of disease and death. There has been no effort at all to measure the impact of the pandemic on children and youth. There has been no review of the psychological effects of isolation, the loss of family members, and the constant shadow of fear on the young and old. 

The cases of depression and suicides among youths have been shared in countries where the pandemic was managed much better, with wider vaccine and booster coverage. There should be a greater awareness of the phenomenon among Filipino youth. 

Even the champions of economic recovery seem oblivious to the need to reevaluate the traditional employment setup; to consider the changing culture of work. The decision of many not to go back to their jobs, or to abandon previous employment in favor of more flexible work arrangements and more satisfying means of earning money poses questions on gains and losses in human resource. 

Media have not inquired into any effort to assess the impact of business closures, especially the small food and service outlets or the overall welfare of agricultural workers and fisherfolk.  

Closer to home, newsrooms have not identified the impact of the pandemic on the gathering and reporting of news. Now that press briefings are done face-to-face, journalists have gone back to follow the official lead, not ever venturing from the lines well established by the news beats. 

The post-pandemic performance of Marcos brings down his score, which was better than what his critics expected when he won. He looked good compared to his predecessor, a simple case of the radically lowered bar on the presidential performance given Rodrigo Duterte’s conduct. 

The post-pandemic challenge however bears more profoundly on the core values of leadership. Given the poor performance of Duterte, Marcos could have done more. And he hasn’t. He has failed this one miserably. Perhaps, we have seen the limits of the positive effect gained from the comparison with his unlamented predecessor. Time to admit, this is as good as it gets. Filipinos should not expect more and should be ready for more of nothing much in the next three years. MT