Politicking in the midst of a pandemic

There ought to be a proper place and time for partisan political talk. No president in his right mind should use his weekly meetings with his COVID-19 team to talk about his political plans when he finishes his term. But that is exactly what President Duterte did last Thursday in his address to the nation. He laid out what he intends to do if he is elected vice president in 2022.

It is insensitive, it is irresponsible, it is disheartening—and it leaves one wondering if the country’s highest public official has any notion at all of the gravity of the ongoing pandemic, and how it is affecting every aspect of our people’s lives. If the President’s mind is elsewhere, as it evidently is, who in his Cabinet is in charge?

Who is coordinating the government response to the pandemic at the highest level? Who is making the crucial decisions, and on what basis are these being made? What contingency plans are in place so that our beleaguered health system can withstand the surge in serious COVID-19 cases we are seeing today?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the highly transmissible Delta variant is testing the limits of the world’s most sophisticated health systems. This is happening even in places where the number of fully vaccinated people far exceeds those who are not.

The reason for this is that while COVID-19 vaccines have been proven to be effective in preventing serious illness and death, they have not been as effective in blocking infection. Mounting cases of transmission by infected individuals who manifest absolutely no symptoms of illness have been reported in places like Israel and the United States.

By any measure, this complicates the problem, particularly in countries like the Philippines where people typically get themselves tested, if at all, only when they are feeling sick. So long as our capacity for testing and genomic sequencing is limited, we can thus only assume that the surge is really far worse than the daily numbers from the Department of Health indicate.

The WHO’s regional director for the Western Pacific, Dr. Takeshi Kasai, seeing the trends on a global scale, sounded the alarm a few days ago. Against all the early expectations that accompanied the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, he somberly declared: “The virus will not disappear in the near future.” Kasai’s warning tells us in no uncertain terms that we can’t let our guard down for the rest of the current year at least. Despite more than one-and-a-half years of economically debilitating lockdowns, our situation has never been more precarious.

We don’t know what this still-evolving pandemic has in store for us in 2022. But in the next few months, as the nation gears up for next year’s elections, we can expect the more tractable virus of politics to infiltrate every available space of public discourse. The more urgent problem of containing the coronavirus will be relegated to the background, not least because our people have grown weary from worrying and grieving. And politics has always been entertaining.

In terms of sheer entertainment value, what can possibly surpass the presidential family’s telenovela? Mr. Duterte himself offered a glimpse of an evolving story loaded with conflictful subplots when he announced that, “for the benefit and interest of the country,” he was accepting the nomination as the PDP-Laban’s vice-presidential candidate in the 2022 elections, with the option to choose his presidential running mate. The latter was subsequently identified as Sen. Bong Go, Duterte’s long-term aide.

Is this serious? If it’s not, what could be the motive behind it? It now appears, if things are to be taken at their face value, that its principal addressee was none other than the Duterte daughter herself, Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio of Davao City. Sara saw it as an attempt to force her to make up her mind about her plans for 2022.

In a recent Facebook post that has gone viral, Sara revealed that she recently had an unpleasant exchange with her father, after the latter proposed that she either endorse the Go-Duterte tandem, or, if she is herself running for president, to take Go as her running mate. Her response, according to her, was to “respectfully advise them to stop talking about me and mak[ing] me the reason for them running or not running.”

Many people praised the daughter for her very public rebuke of her father; it confirms her independent streak. Yet others saw it as nothing more than a carefully staged performance aimed at raising her public profile. I did think it was a very carefully worded statement and wondered what it was trying to achieve. Sara’s problem as a politician has always been how to distinguish herself from her father, whose popularity is precisely the main, if not the sole, reason she is today regarded as presidential material.

In the time of social media, the careful curating of one’s personal profile has become a crucial factor in politics. One can’t fail to note how the negative feelings the father-daughter tension generates are cautiously deflected from Mr. Duterte to the ever-loyal Bong Go. In one analysis of this unfolding family saga, for example, the meek senator is portrayed as the cordon sanitaire that keeps the President’s two families from entering each other’s turf.

It’s easy to excuse these “posturings” (to borrow a word the President uses to refer to criticisms directed at his administration) as integral to today’s brand of politics. But I hope we don’t get so absorbed in them as to lose sight of the pandemic that requires our focused attention if we are to survive it.