Messaging has never been this administration’s strongest point. This has been evident since day one of the government-enforced lockdown, when unclear and conflicting directives from senior officials only added to the fear, confusion, and anxiety caused by a still-undefined virus responsible for deaths around the world.
One would think that after more than a year under lockdown, our government officials would have somehow put a semblance of discipline in their messaging. In crisis and emergency situations, government officials, especially those who are at the frontlines of communicating policies to media and the public, are expected to be precise, prompt, and truthful. They must also be compassionate, able to understand the unique and difficult conditions being faced by the public.
It is to our misfortune that some senior officials seem predisposed to causing confusion, either by accident or design.
The latest example is a rather bold and reckless statement from a senior official of the Department of Health (DOH) that we are now a “low risk” country in terms of COVID-19 cases.
The statement received what may be considered a mild rebuke from the Philippine representative of the World Health Organization (WHO).
The apprehension is understandable. The virus has been evolving at a fast rate. The latest mutations are responsible for a surge in new infections and deaths in several countries which had earlier managed to bring down their number of cases. These mutations are again forcing economic lockdowns in these countries and throwing economic projections off track. The reminder from the WHO representative needs to be heeded: “It’s not costly to err on the side of caution.”
The reckless declaration that we are now “low risk” could again give the public the wrong impression that they no longer need to wear masks, observe physical distancing, or avoid indoor gatherings. This would be disastrous considering the highly infectious nature of the latest COVID-19 variants, government’s disappointing contract tracing and testing capabilities, and the insufficient supply of vaccines. We simply cannot afford another surge in cases.
Recall that in the last quarter of 2020, despite the gaping holes in mass testing and contact tracing, government officials were encouraging the public to go out of their homes and even travel to tourist spots. The result was a surge in March that once again brought the health system in Metro Manila and nearby provinces to the brink of collapse.
The WHO is still urging the public to get vaccinated, as it adds to the layer of protection. Yet the agency cautions against treating vaccines as if it were a silver bullet that will instantly kill the virus. Vaccines are important, but it should be regarded as part of the arsenal of defenses against the virus. On the part of the public, we need to continue observing the minimum health standards. For government, it means improving testing and contact tracing, and securing vaccines.
At the moment, vaccines remain in short supply. Delivery dates, earlier announced with fanfare and certainty, have been pushed back several times. The target percentage of the population expected to be vaccinated has also been revised many times, from 70 percent to 50 percent. From herd immunity, the goal is now population protection. A government adviser wants Metro Manila and four other provinces, the so-called NCR Plus, to remain under General Community Quarantine (GCQ) until December when government expects to have vaccinated 40 percent of the population. The new target is “more realistic,” implying that previous targets were not. The promise that we will have a merry Christmas this year now seems to be beyond reach.
What this means is more uncertainty in the coming months, and more Filipinos unable to provide adequately for their families. This period of uncertainty will definitely spill over to the election period.
We can, therefore, expect some of our officials to treat the pandemic as but an extension of the political conflict. One observer advanced the view that the “low-risk” statement was part of the administration’s efforts to spruce up its image in time for the State of the Nation Address (SONA) later this month. That may sound unfair, but the declaration did coincide with similarly upbeat statements touting the supposed achievements of the present administration in public works, infrastructure, and transportation, among others.
As the election period approaches, we can expect more of these self-serving statements. And it would not be surprising if some government officials will continue to engage in misdirection, exaggeration, intimidation, and name-calling. Do not expect clarity any time soon.