Last Tuesday, Dr. Maricar Limpin, president of the Philippine College of Physicians, and Dr. Anton Dans, leader of the Healthcare Professionals Alliance Against COVID-19, joined the Zoom meeting of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases to appeal to the group to put the National Capital Region (NCR) back under a stricter quarantine lockdown. Limpin told the group that shifting back to GCQ would mean COVID-19 cases would continue to rise and the healthcare system would not be able to handle the situation. “We are begging you to please place the NCR and other places here in the Philippines to Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ),” the doctor pleaded, her voice cracking.
In response, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, his face snarled, eyes glaring, voice raised and in angry tone, index finger in castigating motion, ranted:
“We are employing an entire government approach thinking about the people who will go hungry. It does not mean that we are any less. Do not sit there as if you are the ones right. We are trying to achieve total health. Who wants COVID to kill people? Are you saying that only medical frontliners are concerned about the health of the people? We all want to save lives, for crying out loud. No one in government wants a single life lost! No one! How dare you think that we are not considering steps to prevent the loss of lives?”
After someone off screen told him to calm down, Roque growled: “No. They have to hear this. This group never said anything good about the government response.”
In interviews with television talk show hosts days later, Limpin said she felt Roque’s behavior was “uncalled for” as she was just speaking her mind and presenting relevant data about the state of the country’s healthcare system. She was puzzled as to why Roque responded in an overbearing way. “I could not think of anything in what I said that would appear arrogant. I just stated the facts — which is the state of the healthcare system at this particular time of the pandemic,” Limpin said. The soft-spoken Dr. Dans merely said Roque’s outburst was inappropriate.
Roque, in his daily broadcast, apologized for his emotional outburst, justifying it by saying that Dr. Limpin herself was emotional when she made her appeal to the IATF. That justification is typical Roque gobbledygook. The doctor’s emotion was one of empathy towards her overworked fellow doctors and other healthcare workers, Roque’s was one of anger towards the doctors.
I find puzzling the circumstances surrounding Roque’s rant and the video. While Roque is a member of the task force, he is there in representation of the President. Dr. Limpin and Dr. Dans joined the IATF meeting to ask the IATF to reconsider its decision to downgrade Metro Manila to GCQ. The appropriate person to have responded in behalf of the IATF should have been the chairperson of IATF, who is Health Secretary Francisco Duque. If Duque refrained from joining the discourse out of delicadeza, he being a doctor also, the co-chairperson, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles should have responded instead. Then there is Restituto Padilla, spokesperson of the National Task Force, the implementing arm of the IATF.
And if there is anyone in the IATF to speak in behalf of those who have lost their livelihood or their job due to the protracted lockdown, that person would be any one of the representatives of the IATF-member departments: Social Welfare and Development, Labor and Employment, and Trade and Industry. Roque represents the President, who is not among the poor and the hungry that Roque ranted for.
I am also puzzled why, after Roque had berated the doctors, they were not given a chance to react. Roque himself said IATF meetings are secret to allow free debate. “There really has to be a debate because if there is no debate, the IATF might not make the right decision,” he explained.
And if IATF meetings are secret, why was the video of his harangue released to both mainstream and social media? Why didn’t the video include footage showing Limpin making her appeal to show what Roque was reacting to so strongly? Why did the video only come out days after the controversial event?
I tend to think the rant was staged and the video “leaked” to both the mainstream and social media only after it had been edited. The video initially shown in media had only Roque ranting. It did not include what he was reacting to. Some footage was spliced after Roque barked, “No, they have to hear this.”
The video showing Roque delivering a tirade against the doctors and other healthcare workers pleading for a stricter community quarantine was, I believe, a political stunt. It was meant to win the hearts and votes of the hundreds of thousands who have been adversely affected by the protracted lockdown. Roque has been included in PDP-Laban’s senatorial slate for the general elections next year. It seems his heart has mended. It will be recalled that Roque made a run for the Senate in 2019 but withdrew his candidacy on the advice of his doctors. His heart would not be able to take the rigors of a national campaign.
What Roque does not know is that those who had been adversely affected by the long lockdown do not blame the doctors for it. They know from the President’s regular Monday “Address to the People” TV program that it is President Duterte who decides, on the recommendation of the IATF, what kind of lockdown will be imposed — enhanced, modified, regional, granular, or whatever. Some citizens see the lockdowns as disguised martial law, a system by which the President can have better control of the people. This suspicion is bolstered by the dominance of ex-generals in the IATF.
Roque, next to Bong Go, is the public official most closely identified with President Duterte. He is as much a victim of the fallout from the lockdowns as the President. By scolding the doctors for appealing for consideration and government assistance for the healthcare workers, Roque also lost the votes not only of those in healthcare but the votes of their families as well. Maybe his own doctors would soon tell him that the political situation has become worse than that in 2019, that his mended heart would not be able to handle a more rigorous campaign.
Incidentally, when the video went viral, TV talk show hosts tried to get his reaction to the flak he was getting. But he was unavailable. Could the rumor that social media is buzzing with, that Roque is in New York campaigning for his acceptance into the International Law Commission be true? Rumor or not, there is a signature campaign blocking that acceptance.
Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant, and management professor. He has been a politicized citizen since his college days in the late 1950s.