Yearender: Duterte navigates through unprecedented challenges posed by pandemic

Published December 31, 2020, 8:03 AM

by Genalyn Kabiling

For President Duterte, 2020 has been an extremely difficult year as many lives were lost and disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.


Duterte’s presidential mettle has also been put to test as he navigated the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic this year.  He took some bold steps to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on public health and wellbeing but also faced setbacks along the way.

“This year, we were faced with the most daunting health crisis in recent history,” the President said during a recent military event. “This invisible enemy – COVID-19 – caused a global pandemic that swept across the world and radically changed our way of life,” he added.

Strict lockdowns

Since the global health emergency broke out early this year, the President has largely relied on sweeping strict lockdowns to curb the virus spread, tapped former military men to lead the government’s action plan vs COVID-19, and asked for additional powers from Congress to address the health crisis.

The country however fell into recession in the second quarter of the year as the strict lockdown crippled economic activities and displaced many workers. The government began easing quarantine measures in June to jumpstart the economy but the country’s cases continued to surge. Infection count has so far soared past the 460,000 level with over 9,000 deaths.

The President has drawn fierce criticisms over the alleged slow and inefficient pandemic response, particularly in allegedly faltering in testing and contact tracing efforts as well as in securing safe vaccine supplies. He was also skewered for initially downplaying the the coronavirus threat when he claimed there was “nothing to be extra scared” about it.

Gov’t response gets high approval

The government’s crisis response however apparently went well with most Filipinos. Based on recent opinion polls, Duterte kept high public approval and trust ratings despite the pandemic woes.

According to Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, the government has carried out swift and concerted action in addressing the pandemic.

“The response of the government to the COVID-19 pandemic is typified by its approach to the concerns regarding the new COVID-19 strain discovered in the United Kingdom. After news of the new strain was reported, on December 22 President Rodrigo Duterte immediately ordered the suspension of flights from the UK beginning December 24 midnight,” Nograles said.

“The urgency in which this new development is being treated by the government also characterizes how it has prioritized pandemic response,” he said.

The President recently cut short his Christmas break in Davao City and flew back to Manila to meet with government officials and medical experts over the weekend to discuss efforts to prevent the entry of new COVID strain. A two-week extension of travel ban on United Kingdom travelers is among the measures approved during the meeting at the Palace.

Before the end of 2020, a year marred by loss, illness, and anxiety, here are some highlights of President Duterte’s pandemic response in the past 12 months:

‘Everything is well’

The government started to partially close the country’s borders after the first confirmed coronavirus case was reported late January.  A ban was enforced on travelers from China’s Hubei province, where Wuhan City the epicenter of the novel coronavirus outbreak is located. A few days after, the Palace expanded the travel restriction to cover travelers from China, Hong Kong and Macau.

By early February, the President appeared in a press conference and assured the nation that “everything is well in the country.” He told the public there was no need to be hysterical over the coronavirus, saying there was “nothing really to be extra scared” about it. The virus would die a natural death, he added. 

Duterte also called for an end to anti-Chinese sentiments over the virus spread, saying China has been kind to the Philippines.

Public health emergency

By March, Duterte issued a proclamation declaring a state of public health emergency throughout the Philippines after health authorities reported the first local transmission.

He placed Metro Manila under enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), the most restrictive of the four lockdown levels, on March 15 and then entire Luzon on March 17 to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. At the time, the country recorded 140 infections with 12 deaths.

The quarantine measures included stay-at-home rule except for work and essential trips to the market and pharmacies, travel restrictions, ban on large gatherings, and suspension of classes. The strict lockdown was supposed to lapse in mid-April but the President extended the lockdown in Metro Manila and other high-risk areas in Luzon until mid-May.  

Testing, contact tracing isolation

To stem the outbreak, the government also pursued aggressive testing, contact tracing, isolation and treatment of coronavirus patients. The government however has yet to implement free testing for all Filipinos due to limited funds.

Duterte repeatedly advised the public to follow quarantine measures such as frequent washing of hands and one-meter distancing to avoid getting infected. He has backed the arrest of quarantine violators to teach them “a lesson for all time.”

Face masks, face shields

By April, the Philippines required people to cover their faces with masks when they leave their homes to slow down the spread of the virus.  Wearing face shields was declared mandatory in mid-December.

Bayanihan 1 and 2 laws

The President sought the passage of two Bayanihan laws to sustain the government’s pandemic response and recovery efforts.

Republic Act No. 11469, also known as the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, was signed by the President last March. It granted the President extra authority such granting two-month emergency subsidy for low income families, realigning funds in the national budget, and directing operation of hospitals and other private establishments for COVID response. 

By September, the President inked the Bayanihan 2 law providing for several COVID relief measures such as grace period for loan and utility bill payments as well as mechanisms to accelerate economic recovery.  The measure includes P140 billion in regular appropriations and P25.5 billion in standby funds

No face-to-face classes; Deployment ban of health workers

In April, the government prohibited health workers from working abroad to ensure the country has sufficient workforce to help deal with the pandemic. The deployment ban is expected to be lifted on January 2021. Only 5,000 medical personnel however will be allowed to work outside the country every year.

In May, Duterte declared he would not allow students to physically return to school until a coronavirus vaccine is available. Alternative learning methods such as online and modular instruction has been introduced in lieu of in-person classes.  A few months later, Duterte approved the education department’s plan to implement voluntary face-fo-face classes by January. The plan however was recently recalled due to the discovery of a new COVID strain.

Medical ‘timeout’

When the medical community pleaded for a two-week timeout to ease the burden on healthcare system, Duterte agreed to reimpose stricter lockdown in Metro Manila and four nearby provinces from Aug. 4 to 18.  The health workers were concerned about the continued spike in the country’s cases which reached more than 100,000 at the time.

Before making such decision, the President railed against the health workers for publicly criticizing his administration’s pandemic response. Duterte, apparently annoyed that he was last to know about their petition, threatened to quell any revolution from their ranks.

Reopening the economy

With the movement restrictions imposed by the government, many businesses were forced to close or scale down operations, displacing millions of workers. The economy shrank 16.5 percent in the second quarter of the year, prompting the government to prepare its fiscal recovery plan.

By June, the government started to gradually relax the quarantine restrictions across the country to stimulate the economy and restore livelihood. More businesses have been allowed to reopen, travel has been eased, but some health restrictions remain in public transportation and mass gatherings.

The country is largely under the modified general community quarantine, the most relaxed of the lockdown measures for the month of December. Metro Manila and seven other areas remained under general community quarantine in the same period.

“Enforcing Covid-19 protocols strictly and consistently is vital in government efforts to safely reopen the economy. We believe it is possible to stimulate economic activity while containing Covid and preventing a surge in the number of cases in the country,” Nograles said.

Nograles noted that the country’s unemployment rate has already dropped from 17.7 percent in April to 8.7 percent in October.  These figures, he said, are expected to improve as more people resume work and the government efforts to stimulate the economy take off.

“The past year has been challenging, not just for the country, but for the whole world. With a clear plan and path forward, the government believes we will be in a good position to recover and rebound from this pandemic, and regain our status as one of the most promising and dynamic economies in the region,” Nograles said.

Vaccine purchase

The government has started to negotiate for the country’s supply of coronavirus, armed with P73 billion in financing sources. Around 24 million Filipinos, initially health workers, seniors, poor citizens, and uniformed personnel, will be given priority in the free vaccination drive.

“Even while these vaccines were in various stages of development, the government was already taking steps necessary to obtain these vaccines. The President even gave the green light to pay for the vaccines in advance in order to guarantee vaccine shots for millions of Filipinos,  and the government has been working to obtain financing in order to procure these vaccines,” Nograles said.

Back in August, Duterte announced that he has accepted Russia’s offer to supply coronavirus vaccine to the Philippines. He also volunteered to get the first vaccine shot to show trust and gratitude to Russia.

When he spoke before the United Nations for the first time, Duterte called for fair and equitable access to coronavirus vaccines. Vaccines, he said, should be considered a global public good. 

Duterte made a similar pitch in a regional summit of Southeast Asian nations, saying all nations – rich or poor – must have access to safe vaccines. “No one is safe until all of us are safe,” he said.

Standing behind Duque

President Duterte has refused to let go of the country’s health chief despite allegations about his incompetence in handling the pandemic, insisting he continues to trust him.

Health Secretary Francisco Duque III has been criticized for the alleged lapses, including delayed distribution of benefits and personal protective gear for health workers, as well as the PhilHealth mess but the President found no reason to remove him from his post.

Coronavirus-free Duterte

The pandemic has changed the way people live and work, even the country’s president.

The President’s security team has enforced strict safety and health protocols when it comes to his movement. Duterte’s public engagements have been significantly reduced as a precaution against the coronavirus. Among the health protocols are coronavirus testing for people scheduled to meet the President, no-touch policy on the Chief Executive, and a six to 10-meter distance from other people.

Every week, the President kept the public updated about the pandemic response after holding a meeting with some Cabinet members. His public address has been pre-recorded and edited, a departure from Malacañang’s past practice of airing live his remarks on state television.

Duterte has also ventured out of the Palace a few times for activities such as visits to typhoon-hit places but most of his meetings with officials were held via video conference.

The 75-year-old leader has also started to wear a mask but at times removes protective cover when delivering his remarks.  

So far, President Duterte has managed to stay coronavirus-free given the safety protocols implemented by the Presidential Security Group. A number of Cabinet members however already contracted the illness while performing their duty.