Executive Director, CMFR


A country situated on the typhoon belt was struck with the perfect storm that has proved more devastating than disasters wrought by extreme climactic conditions. The pandemic which hit the world in 2020 swirled the Philippines in a tailspin which has not yet eased as of this writing. The numbers of cases are still too high to justify complacency. The vaccine program has yet to reach to a critical mass. 

To help us move forward, we need to appreciate what caused the country to be among the worst performers in the fight against COVID-19. The story should be told as simply as possible, with facts that were out in the open, even recorded in official as well as media reports. 

On December 31, 2019, China reported 27 cases of pneumonia with unknown cause in the city of Wuhan. By January 7, 2020 Chinese health authorities had isolated and identified the new pathogen as a member of the coronavirus family.  But many questions about the discovery and early spread of the disease in China remain to date unanswered. However, the memory of the SARS outbreak in 2003 should have alerted the Philippine government about a potentially catastrophic threat. There were enough connections between the Philippines and Wuhan to have sounded an alarm.

Unfortunately, in January 2020, the eruption of Taal Volcano engulfed both government and media. Itself a tourist destination, the volcano has made more popular the adjoining provinces that surrounded the lake and the ridge that rises above it, a perfect weekend place for rest and recreation. The eruption spewed ash over several provinces. Numerous communities were endangered, their future uncertain and compromised. The event dominated the news and marginalized other stories in the public mind. 

But the various and multiple connections of the country to the epicenter of the new disease should have flagged the peril that the country would face if government did not set up protective barriers in time. The president and his cabinet should have consulted with experts here and abroad so they could decide how best to provide protection against the worst health threat confronting the world in a hundred years. 

Through January, government agencies undertook the established procedures to monitor the disease, with the DOH issuing instructions to the Bureau of Quarantine to strengthen closer surveillance of travelers from certain countries. Early January is peak travel season so airports set up the usual procedures to monitor temperature and issue forms for health information of travelers moving through international terminals. These have become familiar to Filipinos who travel for work, the routine measures to check and contain the spread of a range of infections, including SARS. 

By February 3, the same day that Duterte said the virus would die a natural death, the WHO reported 17,391 had been infected globally, 153 of which were recorded outside China. On this same date, 361 deaths in China were recorded, and the only recorded death outside that country came from the Philippines. News accounts during this early period did not report any other efforts undertaken by government. Neither did media start the kind of coverage that could link government and public to sources, international experts and resources, including the WHO, to raise the level of public discourse about what was then called the 2019 novel coronavirus.

The lack of understanding of the immediacy of the threat and later the failure to consider the efficacy of various procedures including testing and contact tracing hounded the government response and hobbled all its consequent efforts.

There was little in the capacity of government leadership that could match the oncoming catastrophe. 

We all know now how other countries in the region were able to protect their population despite initial cases, such as Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, to name a few. Among the key actions was the early closure to all travel from China’s hot spots and then as it spread in the country of origin, barring all arrivals from China.

The Philippines has ranked among the poorest performers in the region and compares negatively to neighbors in Southeast Asia. Australia-based Lowy Institute placed the country 79th of 98 in terms of performance. In a survey report by the Asean Studies Centre of Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 53.7% of Filipinos disapproved of the official handling of the pandemic. The figure makes Filipinos the most disapproving of their government’s response out of all Southeast Asians.

True, more developed countries were similarly caught unprepared. There are other places with more resources who could not mount an effective response. Donald Trump disregarded the reality of the threat and used the pandemic to deepen the rifts breaking up the fabric of American society, dismissed scientific counsel and needlessly caused the largest loss of American lives in their country’s history.

But the misfortunes of others are of little comfort especially when others have done so much better. 

President Duterte knew the danger. He declared a lockdown in early March. But in his mind, there was little more that needed to be done, either on the medical, health and economic fronts. He mistakenly expected that the lockdown could outlast the disease, based on limited experience of previous epidemics such as dengue or measles. 

Media Times provides a record of developments in 2020 from the perspective of media and as tracked by the CMFR media monitors. Media reported on the pandemic, on government statements, actions and strategies while bearing the burden of the crisis like everyone else. Journalists worked in quarantine conditions and those who had to be physically on site or in meetings with sources were likely to be checked on the streets, just like other people. 

As our contributors shared, it was more difficult to get sources to return calls, to answer requests for clarification or follow-up questions. Digital briefs were packaged and delivered online on a take-it or leave-it basis. 

The lesson of 2020 could draw out the strengths of the very best in journalism practice. We recognize that there were journalists who in the year of pandemic continued to check facts despite the odds, exposing the flaws, checking the false claims and mistaken spins, establishing timelines and recalling backgrounds, and connecting the events to the larger picture of the year that was.

Theirs was a heroic effort, fearless of the threats to both mind and body. In the end, they redeemed the weaknesses of a media community locked in the passive tradition of simply recording government statements, of a press divided into political factions, afflicted by the lack of institutional solidarity. 

May their tribe increase!