By Mario Casayuran
Opposition Senator Francis N. Pangilinan said on Tuesday that “failure of leadership” is the main problem in alleviating the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019 nCoV) and the fear of infection among Filipinos.
In Tuesday’s public hearing of the Senate health committee chaired by Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, Pangilinan criticized Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Francisco Duque III for seeming unprepared for the worst, and not knowing the basic numbers involving the spread of the disease, including the number of flights from China and other affected areas over the last two weeks.
Pangilinan, who called on Jan. 27 for a travel ban on travelers arriving from China, said these figures would make the government realize “how exposed we are.”
“If we knew the volume, then we would know what we need to do,” he said.
Pangilinan wanted to know how DoH is conducting the contact trace on all visitors from Wuhan, but Duque initially did not know the numbers right away; later the DoH secretary said 31 of the 80 patients under investigation are from Wuhan.
“That flight came from Hong Kong. For all you know, you have 15 to 20 asymptomatic passengers. You err on the side of caution, you go the whole mile and figure out where these 300 are. You cannot try to minimize the problem. And that’s why that 17 percent of having contacted, 17 percent of those passengers is completely unacceptable,” Pangilinan said.
“I do not think that it is just a failure of communication but a failure of leadership from the Secretary of Health,” he added.
On detailed questions from the senators, Duque started pointing fingers at other agencies and his own staff on the low rate of contact-tracing among the fellow flight passengers of the first confirmed case of the disease who arrived in the country in Jan. 21, or 14 days ago.
Duque blamed the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), the Bureau of Immigration (BI), and even the Bureau of Quarantine (BoQ) under his department for being only able to trace 17 percent of the 331 passengers who shared the same flight as the first confirmed case who travelled from Wuhan to Hong Kong to Cebu to Dumaguete to Manila.
In his defense, Duque said no issues on contact-tracing were raised.
“This is quite operational and I have been in touch with our epidemiology bureau. In fact, for the record, I would like to state his name. His name is Director Ferchito Avelino and in all of our meetings, there has been no indication or no issues raised to me that this is a problem.
“He is saying that he has already spoken to my undersecretary but I am not aware that this is the — As Secretary of Health, I don’t know the specific measures of how this should be done,” Duque said.
“I can see here an issue of lack of transparency on the part of some of my people here. I would like to investigate this,” he added.
Pangilinan also appealed to some Cabinet secretaries who were asking permission to leave the Senate hearing to address the problem of communication.
“May we just appeal to the other Cabinet secretaries who are meant to leave that can we get the problem of communication addressed so that we can—at least when you leave, we are given the assurance that the matter will be addressed,” he said.
Pangilinan also suggested that the DoH hotline be manned 24-7 so that those who have nCoV concerns would have someone informed respond to their queries.
Earlier, Pangilinan suggested that to remain on top of the situation, the government agencies concerned should identify and try to locate all potential carriers of the virus from the list of all passengers of flights that arrived in the country from Wuhan and other Chinese cities in the last two weeks or so.
He said these agencies should start with all the passengers on the flight from Wuhan that arrived last Jan. 21 together with the two confirmed nCoV carriers.
Pangilinan said the concerned government agencies must, as best as they can, identify, quarantine, and monitor all suspected carriers as the first step in containing the spread of the disease.