PNoy as hands-on leader: Defusing MERS-COV threat

Published June 27, 2021, 6:19 PM

by Sonny Coloma

  • PNoy was focused on a singular objective: trace, contact and test all of the fellow passengers of ‘Patient One’ who had tested positive for MERS COV — the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome caused by a coronavirus.
  • He marshaled all of the relevant facts: the nature of the disease and how it was spread; the testing of Filipinos in Saudi Arabia and other areas known to have been affected by MERS COV; how the tracing procedures could be improved in light of this particular experience
  • The MERS COV incident happened five months after he dealt with three consecutive challenges: the Zamboanga siege in September, the Bohol earthquake in October, and Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in November — all in 2013.
Former President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III (OFFICIAL GAZETTE WEBSITE / FILE PHOTO / MANILA BULLETIN)

(The author served as Secretary of the Presidential Communications Operations Office during the administration of President Benigno S. Aquino III from 2010 to 2016.)  

On April 16, 2014, President Benigno S. Aquino III inspected the major transportation terminals in Metro Manila shortly after noon to observe the movement of people who were leaving for the provinces to observe Holy Week with kith and kin.

The author, former Press Secretary Sonny Coloma, (right) with former President Benigno Aquino III on a flight to France from Germany in 2014, in an impromptu press conference with the Malacanang Press. (photo by Genalyn Kabiling)

The first stop was at the North Harbor in Manila, followed by the bus terminal for Bicol-bound passengers in Pasay; then we proceeded to the domestic and international airport terminals.  The last two inspection points were the bus terminals in Cubao and at EDSA-North Avenue in Quezon City.

On the way back to his residence at Bahay Pangarap in Malacañang Park, he decided to take a snack at a fastfood outlet near their family residence on Times Street.  By then it was nearly dinnertime.

At about 10 p.m., I received a call to proceed to Bahay Pangarap, the presidential residence across the Pasig River from Malacañang Palace.  When I got there, I realized that the President had called for a meeting with some Cabinet members and officials of the Department of Health (DOH) headed by Secretary Enrique Ona.

It turns out that a male overseas Filipino worker arrived at the NAIA about five hours earlier from Saudi Arabia and was already on his way to his home province.  He had tested positive for MERS COV — the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome caused by a coronavirus.

(According to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control:  “Most MERS patients developed severe respiratory illness with symptoms of fever, cough, and shortness of breath. About 2 or 4 out of every 10 patients reported with MERS have died.”)

That he had tested positive was not known before he boarded the plane, and that was why he was not prevented from travelling.  When the Philippine embassy was informed of the result, a heads-up was issued immediately.

(Photo by Genalyn Kabiling)

President Aquino was concerned about the more than 300 passengers who had arrived at the NAIA together with this particular Filipino worker aboard a Middle Eastern airline. They needed to be informed and required to report for testing if they, too, may have been infected considering that the Jeddah-Manila flight takes more than 11 hours. MERS COV is “contagious (infectious) from person to person by respiratory droplets, either by breathing airborne droplets, or contact of respiratory secretions with surfaces.”

Throughout the meeting, the President tasked the agencies to ensure that each passenger would be traced, contacted and brought for testing at the nearest government hospital.  If anyone would test positive, the case would be referred to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM).

The meeting lasted until the wee hours of Holy Thursday, April 17, the start of a four-day, non-working holiday.

In the afternoon of Holy Thursday, the President called a follow-up meeting that was held at the PhilHealth offices in Mandaluyong.  He asked for progress reports on contact tracing efforts.  Hearing that very few of the passengers had been contacted, he directed that full-page advertisements be placed in each of the three major broadsheets, namely, Manila Bulletin, Philippine Daily Inquirer and Philippine Star.  The advertisement would list the names of all the passengers of that plane that brought in the infected person.

Although he did not call for a meeting on Good Friday, he directed the Presidential Management Staff to monitor the progress of the contact tracing efforts.

Former President Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III (Malacañang Photo Bureau/Noynoy Aquino’s Facebook page)

In the afternoon of Holy Saturday, April 19, he called for a meeting at the Department of Health office in Manila.  There was a piece of good news: more than 100 passengers had been traced.  Some responded to the newspaper advertisement, but the bulk of the tracing was achieved through their Facebook accounts.  The meeting lasted till dinnertime, so he invited a small group to join him at one of his favorite restaurants in Binondo.

On Easter Sunday, there was another piece of good news. A second test had been performed by RITM on the concerned Filipino passenger and thankfully, he had tested negative this time.

At close quarters, those of us who had been meeting with him since late Wednesday evening, observed his calm demeanor.  He was focused on a singular objective: trace, contact and test all of the fellow passengers of ‘Patient One’.  He marshaled all of the relevant facts: the nature of the disease and how it was spread; the testing of Filipinos in Saudi Arabia and other areas known to have been affected by MERS COV; how the tracing procedures could be improved in light of this particular experience.

(Malacañang File Photo)

Indeed, his crisis management mettle continued to be tested and refined.  The MERS COV incident happened five months after he dealt with three consecutive challenges: the Zamboanga siege in September, the Bohol earthquake in October, and Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) in November — all in 2013.

In the 19-day Zamboanga Siege, he personally directed the military efforts to neutralize the armed insurgents and minimize civilian casualties. He stayed overnight in a field tent in Bohol to know first-hand the situation of the families who had lost their homes.  He also mounted large-scale efforts for the rehabilitation of areas destroyed by ‘Yolanda’ through a presidential unit headed by then former Senator Panfilo Lacson that prepared a comprehensive recovery and rehabilitation action program.

I was fortunate to have had many opportunities to take mental snapshots of President Aquino as a hands-on leader: calm and focused, determined and resolute.

 
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