Francisco Duque III should resign as Secretary of DOH because he is not acting as the country’s health official, instead he is acting more as a political hack. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, he is a danger to the Philippines.

During a deliberation in Congress on Jan. 30, on why travel ban should be imposed against China, the following was said: “I just value too much the health of the Filipino people…108 million people..” One would think this would come from Duque; the statement was from Rep. Loren Legarda, who advocated a travel ban on China early on.

What Duque instead said was: “We have to be very careful also about possible repercussions of doing this, in light of the fact that the confirmed cases of coronaviruses are not limited to China.” Rather than thinking about the protection of the welfare and safety of Filipinos by reducing possible coronavirus contamination from Chinese tourists, Duque protected Duterte’s sentiment not to offend China.

In late February, Duque said: “I don’t think that the threshold has been reached to say that a pandemic is nearly happening. It is still “far off.” This short-sighted incompetence made Duque unprepared for what was to come. Although he said: “So far, the way it is, our preparedness, readiness are adequate.”

PH has never been prepared and ready, contrary to Duque’s assertion. Duterte imposed a lockdown on Luzon which has 62 million people and thus far, as of April 8, the DOH had only performed 23,000 coronavirus tests. To put in context, it means the DOH has only performed .00037% of Luzon’s total population. If the epicenter is Metro Manila, which has 14 million people, the 23,000 tests represent a measly .00164% of MM’s people or less than 1% of the population. If an ordinary Filipino in MM is asked, if he/she knows a friend, relative, or neighbor, who has been tested for coronavirus, the most likely answer is NO.

The other evidence that Duque is caught sleeping on the job, is the fatalities among Filipino doctors caring for coronavirus patients. More than 20 physicians had died from the disease because they were infected since they were not properly protected with PPE. Who will care for the sick if those who care for them are ill?

In January, WHO distributed to countries the protocol for the Covid-19 testing kits it had developed. That month, one of South Korea’s (SK) infectious disease official summoned medical companies and delivered an urgent message: the country needs kits to detect coronavirus and promised quick approval. One week after, one company’s diagnostic test was approved, and others followed. By end of February, SK had tested 290,000 people. SK officials instilled a sense of urgency and one who attended that meeting said: “we acted like an army.”

Meanwhile in late January, Dr. Raul Destura, a scientist from UP National Institutes of Health (UP NIH) and his team, started developing test kit. On February 4, Dr. Destura told the Senate that UP has developed a rapid test kit to be produced locally at a cheaper price. The test kit used by DOH costs P8,500, whereas, the kit from UP NIH would only costs P1,300. Rather than acting quickly, the DOH thru FDA, only approved UP’s rapid kits on March 30, which are slated to be used starting April 14.

Why did FDA take months instead of days to approve the UP kits? Why didn’t Duque act decisively to push FDA for the quick approval of UP test kits, just like what SK did? Why didn’t Duque act like it’s URGENT!
Duque knew the virus had arrived in PH when on January 30, in a press conference, he announced that a Chinese tourist from Wuhan, was positive. It is now middle April, but Duque has not conveyed a clear message how many Filipinos have been tested; how many testing kits are available; how many tests are done every day; where can a person who is symptomatic get the test; where can people go for testing? etc.

Testing data is crucial to ascertain the severity of the pandemic. In PH, many Filipinos may now be infected, and many more people would die without them knowing it due to lack of access to testing. Without comprehensive testing, planners and policymakers are deprived of valuable data to prioritize and allocate resources. Like in any war, allocating resources is a critical consideration. Fighting the coronavirus without widespread testing is like battling an enemy blindfolded.

Duque assumes the role of a propagandist for the administration rather than as a general in charge of the Covid-19 war. On March 29, DOH Usec. Maria Vergeire said: “Those test kits sent earlier by China have shown 40-per cent accuracy and so we did not use them.” After China protested, Duque said:” Again, your [China] test kits …. are very good and up to the standards as those which were donated by WHO and approved by our RITM.”

On April 9, Duque gave a briefing portraying an optimistic scenario that PH is one of the lowest number of infections in the world due to the decisive measures on travel ban on China and on lockdown of Luzon.

Duque misled the public by not explaining the reason for the low numbers. Numbers are low because DOH has not done widespread testing. If Duque is comparing PH to U.S., the latter would have higher confirmed cases due to number of tests performed and number of populations. The U.S. has conducted over 2 million tests compared to PH of 23,000; U.S. has three times more people at 331 million than PH of 108 million. Logically, more tests, more confirmed cases. Duque comparing PH to U.S. is misplaced. He should compare PH to its closer neighbors like SK, Singapore and Taiwan. Lest Duque forgets, these Asian countries have no lockdown orders.

Duque’s disingenuous briefing did not go unnoticed by more candid officials. Usec. Vergeire said, before the “true picture” of the Covid-19 pandemic could be determined, the testing capacity of the country must first stabilize – 8,000 to 10,000 tests a day. On the effectiveness of the lockdown, Beverly Ho, a DOH special assistant, said the impact of the lockdown would be known by mid-April as it was early to tell whether it had a role in curbing the spread of coronavirus.

What is noteworthy in PH’s battle against Covid-19, is the absence of Dr. Destura and his team’s input who indisputably, know the science. Without a doubt, Destura’s group can lend invaluable expertise and information in the government’s strategy on how to battle coronavirus because they have developed a testing method to detect the virus.

Experts have advised that the most important thing to remember when considering how to weather a crisis similar to Covid-19, is to maintain trust. The key to doing that is open, honest and transparent communication with the public and stakeholders. Disinformation and “fake news” can be countered with transparent and honest communication.
Duque is nowhere near those qualities. He has not earned the trust of the public because he has not been direct, honest and transparent. As a DOH Secretary, he has not been open to the Filipinos as to the true state of affairs of this public health crisis. Instead of warning the public that it will get worse before it gets better, and give the people a heads up to brace for difficult times ahead and to implore sacrifice, he pats himself and the Duterte administration on the back and paint a rosy picture.

Duque’s lack of candidness is very dangerous because the coronavirus’ peak in the PH is still unknown due to insufficient data to rely on from inadequate testing. Unfortunately for PH, there is no glimmer of hope on the immediate horizon as many more Filipinos are expected to get sick and hospitalized. Also, in the days ahead, expect shortages of body bags as many more Filipinos will die from Covid-19.

Leaders all over the world will be tested by how they responded to the coronavirus crisis. A case in point is Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, in a true act of leadership, he reminded his constituents that if they are looking for a person to blame, don’t look anywhere, blame him. In PH, Duterte will not be blamed for Covid-19; he will be blamed for the way he managed the crisis. It is not too late for Duterte to right the ship. Duque is a disservice and a danger to the country. In an exercise of leadership, Duterte should fire Duque in behalf of the Filipinos and accept the blame for letting the Secretary go.