Under Pressure: Covid-19 Pandemic Tests Populist Duterte Government

“You know what this reminds of? 9/11.”

CNN Philippines President Armie Jarin-Bennett mumbled these words inside the control room as we were breaking the news on March 16, about the Palace’s urgent attempt to contain the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).

Hearing these words from the leader of our newsroom made me realize the gravity of the situation and the weight of our calling as gatekeepers of information.

These are extraordinary times—people anxiously uncertain of the future, the healthcare system almost at its breaking point, and the economy in a standstill.

The news we broke that day was the President’s order to put the entire Luzon island under an Enhanced Community Quarantine or, essentially, a lockdown. There were no initial details given. No guidelines on how it would be implemented. No parameters.

The lack of information created ripples of panic. Some supermarket shelves were empty that same day. People started panic-buying.

What was supposed to be a 30-minute special program was stretched to more than two hours of rolling coverage, two hours of ringing public officials, putting them on air to find people answers they need.

The President later on addressed the nation hungry for information, but it was almost midnight. This went on as a habit amid this pandemic—people always have to wait for the President’s late-night addresses, until it became a running joke among netizens—the Presidential time, a Presidential meme.

But we in the media always have to stay up, plan our newscasts even at a time we could be watching Netflix. It is our burden to convey to the public what the President meant and also clarify what he did not mean.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Urgency in a Pandemic

Why would the President’s sense of time trend on Twitter more than the content of his message? It’s because time in a crisis speaks volumes of the government’s sense of urgency.

As it turned out, delays in policy pronouncements also mirrored delays in actual response—particularly in two most important things: the distribution of cash aid and the rolling out of Covid-19 tests.

The cash aid has been plagued by problems—from the identification of beneficiaries to the system of distribution. The local and national governments were at odds. The deadline for the distribution has been moved thrice, yet it hasn’t been completed as of press time.

The government also admittedly failed to meet the target capacity for Covid-19 testing. “Mass testing” requires more than 20,000 Covid-19 tests per day in a population of over a hundred million and we have yet to achieve that more than 60 days since Day 1 of lockdown.

There were also massive delays in the purchase of personal protective equipment or PPEs for healthcare workers, which could have prevented deaths. To date, one in every six deaths due to Covid-19 are medical frontliners.

Media as Watchdog

It is in times like this—a crisis—that media have to be a more aggressive watchdog. It is our role to help people make informed choices—like as simple as making them understand why they have to stay home.

It is also our mandate to hold government leaders accountable—not just for things they don’t do but also for things they do.

Read: This is a time for the media to stand as one to protect our role as the Fourth Estate and a pillar of democracy.

A Senator of the republic breaking quarantine protocols and a metro police chief throwing a birthday party amid this pandemic stole the headlines. But the news value lies in what seems to be the government’s double standard.

People couldn’t help but compare how these officials easily get away with it, when thousands of curfew and quarantine violators were being arrested on the streets. Some have been punished excessively like a group of teenagers who were put inside a dog cage, a fish vendor who was beaten by village police, and a former soldier who was shot dead.

‘Equalizer’ a Myth

With these stories some people would say this pandemic is a great equalizer. So it seems as both the rich and the poor are locked down in their homes, but that’s a myth.

The truth is—the poor will always be more vulnerable in a pandemic. The poor don’t get easy access to Covid-19 testing like the VIPs. The poor will have to endure long queues for cash aid because they have lost their livelihood, their jobs and daily wage.

And why should we talk about this in our reportage? Most populist leaders around the world have capitalized on the plight of the poor, projecting themselves as the hero of the masses, which drove their rise to power.

But this pandemic puts that to an ultimate test. Will populist leaders be able to protect the most vulnerable, the powerful poor that put them in office?

Read: Even with a pandemic, media has kept working and people have been appreciative. It was just a few years ago when a number of netizens started calling us ‘biased’ or ‘presstitutes.’ 

Reminiscent of 9/11

Photo of the One World Trade Center by Roberto Lee Cortes from Pexels

This pandemic is indeed like the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US that killed almost 3,000—a doomsday scenario bringing about a new normal—changing protocols and our way of life. It highlights how unprepared we are, how reactive than preventive governments can be.

This is governance under a crisis test, and the damage can be cured with a spin by officials with vested interests, if people are not vigilant enough and if journalists fail to do their job. But what’s really at stake here is our survival.

Featured photo by Denniz Futalan from Pexels

[Entry 303, The SubSelfie Blog]

About the Author:

Ephraim Aguilar is an Executive Producer for CNN Philippines. He handles the daily newscast Balitaan Kasama si Pinky Webb. Ephraim used to be an executive producer for GMA Network and a correspondent for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. He is a vegan and an aspiring singer-songwriter. Journalism 2006, Bicol University. Read more of his articles here.

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