Optics of power vs voice of science

What were the people in charge of Malacañang’s communications office thinking last Thursday evening when they made President Duterte announce the lockdown of Metro Manila — with uniformed police generals seated behind him? Clearly, it was their way of saying this is henceforth a peace and order issue.

Indeed, Mr. Duterte said so himself at one point in his rambling speech. But, hearing this, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that someone was rushing to deploy the coercive arm of the state using as pretext a public health emergency whose risks and ramifications have yet to be fully explained to the public. I do not wish to be misunderstood: I happen to believe that the threat from this coronavirus is very serious indeed, and warrants the coordinated response of all domains of society.

But, the effect would have been different and reassuring if, after a brief introduction, the President had yielded the microphone to the health secretary and the team of infectious disease experts working with his department. They should have been allowed to explain in the clearest terms possible the scientific basis for declaring the urgency of a community quarantine.

By the same token, a credible spokesperson from the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, preferably a scientist, would have done an immensely better job of laying down the basic principles behind putting an entire city on community quarantine. Then it would make sense to ask someone in charge of enforcement—possibly the local government secretary—to explain the parameters of a Metro Manila-wide lockdown.

That’s not the way it happened at the press conference the other night, because someone in this government chose exclusively to project the optics of power, rather than give space to the voice of science.

In his two previous public appearances where he addressed the same topic, the President had tended to make light of the protocols that were put in place to protect him from infection. “I’m not afraid to die,” he kept saying, as though it was just his life, and not that of others, he would be putting at risk by choosing to mock the need for social distancing. This attitude certainly did not prepare the public for the month-long quarantine he would declare just a few days later.

It is now clear that the exact terms of such a draconian measure had not been thoroughly thought out. The initial guidelines were, if anything, sketchy, leaving the public to conjure dire images of the severe lockdown in Wuhan, China. Not even the resort to the more benign-sounding phrase “community quarantine” was enough to allay the ensuing public fear of finding oneself locked up indefinitely in one’s own home.

As one might expect under these circumstances, people instantaneously took action, seeing in the brief two days between announcement and enforcement a narrow window to do what they thought needed to be done. They went on a frantic buying spree, emptying the shelves of supermarkets, and swarmed bus stations, seaports, and airports in a frantic rush to leave the city.

In modern society, it is clear that a highly communicable disease like COVID-19 can, ultimately, only be defeated if science is given enough space to speak its truth. Unfortunately, the voice of the scientific community is all too often drowned out by the voices emanating from the political and other sectors of society. Under our present setup, the science community can hardly be heard above the din created by the political sector. It can’t even be heard by those in government except through the health secretary and the science and technology secretary, who may not have the gravitas and assertiveness needed to be heard in times like these.

When scientists defer to the requirements of politicians, or constantly beg for budgetary support for their research, or permit themselves to become the tools and mouthpieces of corporate interests, they lose not only their credibility but also their capacity to help solve the problems of humanity.

This certainly does not mean that science can or must perform its function in isolation from the rest of society. Not at all. It only means that it must have sufficient autonomy to do its work and produce findings that may be useful to society. Such autonomy needs to be institutionalized in the form of independent institutes and centers, assured of regular funding support, and protected from undue interference and pressure through appropriate legislation. Only by recognizing the necessity to respect functional boundaries can society move closer to solving its increasingly complex problems.

But Philippine society remains premodern in many ways. At no other time perhaps is this more evident than when, in the face of a hitherto unknown killer infectious disease, the President shows lack of appreciation of the limits of his office by taking on the specialized task of expounding on the nature of viruses and vaccines, and infectious diseases and pandemics. These subjects do not belong to the field of politics, and President Duterte is not a known expert on these topics.

It is certainly the function of government and of the political system as a whole to produce collectively-binding decisions aimed at protecting the public against the dangers of a public health emergency such as COVID-19. An example is the drastic move to place an entire city in quarantine. In this, government must defer to the findings of science, even as it strives to respond to the exigencies of the economy, education, law, religion, the family, etc. But, for the nation’s sake, let the experts speak.