Yellow Pad

Said President Rodrigo Duterte:  “Perhaps our number one problem today is COVID.”

The President is tentative in his pronouncement by adding the adverb “perhaps” in his statement. His tentativeness is unusual; his unforgettable statements are marked with an air of boldness and an appearance of certainty. Some examples:

“Slaughter them.”

“Give me salt and vinegar, and I’ll eat his liver.”

“I don’t care if I burn in hell for as long as the people I serve live in paradise.”

So let me revise the President’s statement, by removing the modifier “perhaps.”

Our number one problem is COVID. Period. This statement frames the state of the nation.  Said another way, to borrow the language of the Left, the principal contradiction of Philippine society (and of the world, for that matter) is between the people and COVID-19.

The implication of this is that regardless of our ideological, political, religious, ethnic, and other affiliations, we all have to unite to fight and beat COVID-19.

Vice-President Leni Robredo has a firm grasp of this problem. Said in the early stage of COVID-19 transmission in the Philippines, Vice-President Leni’s video message was unequivocal:  Panahon ito ng pagtutulungan, hindi bangayan…. Binibigkis tayo ng isang layunin; kailangan nating magkaisa. [The time calls for cooperation, not hostility…. We are bound by one purpose; we have to unite.]

Some of the President’s men are blind to the call for unity. Recall the act of then Anti-Corruption Commissioner Manuelito Luna who asked the National Bureau of Investigation to probe the Vice-President’s initiatives in responding to the pandemic. It is to the credit of the President that he ordered the firing of Mr. Luna as Commissioner of the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission for the unwanted statement. He appreciated the Vice-President’s cooperation to fight COVID-19.

This could have been the cue for unity and collective action. But the President, it seems, thrives in creating conflicts. To quote fellow columnist Diwa Guinigundo, the President is “picking untimely fights.”

The killing of suspects in the illicit drug trade continues. The all-out war against the Communist Party and radical activists is merciless, even resulting in the death of non-combatants. The administration has likewise divided and polarized society by threatening the media and denying ABS-CBN a broadcasting franchise; by allowing an anti-terror law to pass in a context where trust in the police and the military is low; and by launching a campaign for Charter change and term extension.

The art (or science) of war informs us to focus on the principal enemy. Thus during World War II, the forces of the “free world” and communism set aside incompatible differences and united to defeat the common main enemy that was fascism. In China, the warring Communist Party and the Kuomintang forged a united front to fight the Japanese aggression and occupation. In the Philippines, during the period of Martial Law, the communists and the anti-communist bourgeois democrats had tactical alliances to effectively fight the Marcos dictatorship.

COVID-19 undeniably is “the number one problem” today. It behooves us, especially the political administration, to avoid division in order to target the main enemy that is COVID-19.

The need for cooperation has all the more become urgent in the wake of the sharp spike in the COVID-19 transmission. Do note that it is in the most polarized countries like the US, Brazil, and India where a rampaging COVID-19 is overwhelming society.

Here, it is worth quoting the abstract of a preprint (forthcoming in the Canadian Journal of Political Science) titled  “A Rare Moment of Cross-Partisan Consensus: Elite and Public Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic in Canada,” authored by Eric Merkley, Aengus Bridgman, et al.:  “Effectively containing the pandemic requires a societal consensus. However, a long line of research in political science has told us that polarization tends to occur on highly salient topics because partisans ‘follow the leader.’ Elite consensus is thus essential to fight the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada. We examine the degree of partisan consensus that exists in Canada at the level of political elites and the mass public…. Elite and public response to the COVID-19 pandemic can be characterized as a cross-partisan consensus.”

Sadly this kind of consensus is still absent in the Philippines. But it is not yet too late to have that elite and public consensus, a necessary condition to defeat our number one problem.


Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.