Philippine Daily Inquirer / April 16, 2021
How did Harry Roque manage to snag a room at the state-run Philippine General Hospital (PGH) when scores of other COVID-19 patients were desperately waiting in line for one for days on end? Asked that question, the presidential spokesperson turned snarky and gave an astonishing answer: “That is an unchristian question.”
Is it? An expert on Christian matters was quick with a rejoinder: “There (is) nothing unchristian about the question. Government officials should be transparent to the public,” said Bishop Broderick Pabillo, apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Manila.
Roque’s refusal to explain the apparently preferential treatment accorded him, even as reports of COVID-19 patients dying or being ministered to in the parking lots of swamped hospitals were all over the news, is the height of privileged, callous behavior. But he was “in bad shape,” with his oxygen level dipping to 90 or below normal, Roque protested; he didn’t jump the line or pull rank to get a bed that could have gone to a more serious case. Then, quickly demolishing his own argument, he admitted that his PGH doctors were his longtime health providers even before he joined government.
Roque’s breezy entry into a hospital that was otherwise refusing further COVID-19 admissions isn’t the only anomaly needing accountability and explanation. Take his supposed two consecutive bouts with the virus in less than a month. Could one be reinfected so soon after recovery? Roque had declined to show to the public his first COVID-19 test result, invoking his right to privacy. Now, just weeks later, he claimed he was sick again. But, despite being supposedly in such “bad shape” that he had to be admitted ahead of everyone else, he was evidently strong and well-composed enough to host two briefings on the same day from his hospital bed.
In dismissing the public’s right to know the truth about his claimed COVID-19 positive status, Roque had demanded: “Why can’t public officials such as the presidential spokesperson be entitled to the presumption of regularity of pronouncement?”
His arrogant “unchristian” answer answers his own question. A public that is lied to as a matter of course, that is made the subject of ritual dissembling, deception, and gaslighting by its public officials, has no obligation to reciprocate with any measure of trust or “presumption of regularity.” In particular, this administration’s unprecedented penchant for secrecy and smoke and mirrors, its inability to talk straight with the public, sets the tone for an environment of mistrust, speculation, and cynicism, further fraying the social fabric and rending confidence in institutions at a time when the country is facing its gravest crisis since the war.
Before Roque’s caper, there was the mystery of the Presidential Security Group (PSG), 45 of whom were said to have been struck down by the virus, leading to the cancellation of the President’s address a week ago as a precautionary measure. At least that was the official story, except that: Weren’t the presidential guards already inoculated last year with the China-made Sinopharm vaccine? The vaccine had yet to get approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and were then unavailable locally, so they were essentially smuggled goods. The PSG broke the law, but the administration staunchly defended the unauthorized, surreptitious jabs as “compassionate use.” But if, as Malacañang announced last week, PSG members had come down again with COVID-19, is Sinopharm effective at all?
Alas, who would know at this time, when President Duterte had forbidden his men from cooperating with authorities, and the announced probes by the FDA, the health department, and the Senate into the vaccine smuggling have all but fizzled out? Just how efficacious—or dangerous—this vaccine is, which Mr. Duterte himself had expressed preference for? That is crucial, perhaps life-saving information that may never see the light of day, simply because the administration will not come clean on yet another irregularity under its watch.
The latest flap involving the state of health of Mr. Duterte, whose two-week absence from public view amid a raging pandemic stoked rumors of severe illness and possible death, hewed along the same murky lines. On Monday night, Mr. Duterte resurfaced and blithely admitted to staging his disappearing act. “Sinadya ko (I did it on purpose)” to tick off his critics, the President said—and in the administration’s eyes, the boss’ curt words are explanation enough.
No, they’re not. The sheer disregard for a distraught citizenry’s right to information, redress, and fair treatment, in the middle of a national life-and-death struggle that has afflicted so many and left millions more twisted in hunger, is deliberate, casual cruelty.