What we need at this time

Published August 4, 2020, 11:03 PM

by Former Vice President Jejomar C. Binay


Normally, news of a record-breaking increase in the number of patients who have recovered from the coronavirus would have been greeted with jubilation. Instead, the Department of Health (DOH) found itself fending off criticisms that it was fiddling with the numbers after it announced total recoveries of  38,075 recorded in a single day.

The skepticism and scorn that greeted the DOH announcement illustrates how the agency’s credibility has been eroded by the mismanagement and inefficiency at its highest level. It was not surprising that calls were again made for the removal of the scandal-prone Health Secretary, whose track record during the pandemic has been untarnished so far by concrete accomplishments.

The DOH is not alone. For many, government’s credibility is at an all-time low. 

Recall that early this year, senior government officials confidently dismissed the coronavirus as a minor inconvenience that will simply go away. It did not. Instead, it went on a rampage. Even after imposing a severe lockdown in March, government fell short of boosting the capacity of the health system to handle cases. It failed to put in place mass testing and a system for contact tracing that would have allowed authorities to isolate cases and anticipate where outbreaks would most likely occur. January to April were critical months squandered.The entire nation and its people are now paying for the cost of missed opportunities. 

Last week, the heads of the country’s leading medical associations provided the public with the real situation at the front lines. Contrary to the manufactured exuberance of government, the doctors described the situation as much graver than it was in March and April. Hospitals and health facilities have reached their capacity, the health care system is on the brink of collapse, and the front liners are exhausted. A two-week breathing space, they said, would give government time to address existing lapses in managing the pandemic. 

These candid remarks apparently did not sit well with the national leadership. They were interpreted as an affront to government’s competence. Instead of showing compassion and understanding – and lifting the spirits of  the battle-weary heroes at the front lines – the national leadership resorted to combative, scornful and abusive language to show displeasure. At one point, the leadership even threatened our front liners for supposedly undermining government.

Focus and coherence – in messaging and governance – have not always been this government’s main strengths. But one would expect that after four years, and during this crisis, it would somehow be able to talk and govern clearly.

There was a glimmer of that in March, when government, through the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF), started giving daily updates to the public. There was a semblance of sobriety and coherence in the regular updates on government policies, health advisories and alerts. They filled a void in information for many anxious citizens. 

Midway through the lockdown, however, the tone of the public statements shifted. They became more combative. They went from providing essential information to deflecting and slapping down any criticism of government and its flaccid and meandering response to the pandemic. The shift, however, merely reiterated government’s over-all approach to governance in general: combative rather than conciliatory, partisan rather than inclusive, iron-fisted rather than compassionate.

In times of crisis, the task of government and its leaders is to help the public navigate through the uncertainty. They must be assured that government’s eye is on the ball, and that the different agencies and offices are doing their work.  Expectations must be managed, goals should be realistic, and the public’s cooperation enlisted.

I may be hoping against hope. But there is still time for government and our leaders to change. They could start by using language tempered by prudence, science, and introspection. During a crisis, how government talks – and what it tells the public – are equally important. As things stand, government’s pandemic response puts politics and partisanship first. That needs to change. 

You do not defeat a stubborn pandemic with propaganda and spin. You overcome it with science, empathy and competence. And you deliver your messages with cohesion and clarity.

[email protected]