The Philippine health secretary came under heavy criticism Thursday as a majority of the nation’s senators sought his resignation over comments suggesting that the government had the coronavirus outbreak under control, although the country has recorded the highest infections in Southeast Asia.
Fourteen of the 24-member Senate signed a resolution asking Health Secretary Francisco Duque III to step down, citing his “failure of leadership, negligence, lack of foresight and inefficiency in the performance of his mandate” as health chief.
“Senators, as people’s representatives, have been observing and are severely disappointed with the response of DOH to this big crisis,” Sen. Sonny Angara told reporters, referring to the Department of Health by its acronym. “We were late for testing, contact tracing is almost non-existent, hospitals short of protective gear.”
The legislators said Duque’s moves had resulted in poor planning as well as a delayed response in addressing the crisis, as they underscored the health secretary’s alleged “flip-flopping policies and measures” in combating the disease.
Many officials as well as a large part of the public have expressed dismay at Duque for repeatedly flaunting what he described as low infection rates in the country, which he credited to President Rodrigo Duterte’s quick decision making.
“We are one of the countries with a low infection rate that shows the decisiveness of our beloved president,” Duque told a news conference last week, citing Duterte’s order to place the entire island of Luzon under a monthlong lockdown in March, as well as his order to bar the entry of Chinese tourists.
But the Philippines has since surpassed Southeast Asian neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia in number of COVID-19 infections. On Thursday, the government recorded 13 new deaths, bringing the toll to 362. Health authorities also confirmed seven new cases, taking the country’s cumulative tally to 5,660.
Malaysia has so far reported 5,182 cases with 84 deaths, while Indonesia has 5,516 cases with 496 deaths. Globally, more than 2 million infections have been recorded with the death toll at almost 140,000 as of Thursday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
Sen. Christopher Go, who was previously Duterte’s closest aide, was not among those who signed the resolution calling for Duque’s ouster. He agreed that the health department may have had missteps, but he said it was not the time for political infighting while the country was battling the pandemic.
Go, chairman of the Senate’s committee on health, noted that 51 people at the health department’s offices had been confirmed positive for COVID-19.
Medialdea: Health secretary ordered to ‘stay put’
Duterte’s executive secretary, Salvador Medialdea, told reporters that the president has decided to keep Duque in the meantime.
“The President has made a decision for Health Secretary Duque to stay put,” Medialdea told reporters.
The state-run think tank Philippine Institute for Development Studies, in projections done this month but released this week, said nearly 19 million Filipinos would get infected by the coronavirus nationwide if the government failed to implement intervention measures.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque on Thursday said Duterte may extend the lockdown if some Filipinos continued to violate a home quarantine imposed by the government.
Duterte ordered a lockdown on the main island of Luzon five days after health officials confirmed the country’s first domestic transmission on March 7. Last week, Duterte extended the lockdown until the end of this month.
Roque said Duterte had been informed about reports of a recent traffic buildup in the capital, where residents had been ordered to stay at home.
“We Filipinos should be ashamed because we lack discipline. We are doing this because we want our countrymen to avoid getting infected,” Roque told reporters.
“There's no decision yet to enforce a total lockdown, but that will be considered if we don't bring down the number of new COVID-19 infections in the country,” he said
In his late-night televised address to the nation Thursday, Duterte acknowledged that the so-called enhanced quarantine imposed by his government had caused anxiety among the people.
“This is not martial law, but it is like martial law in the sense that I have to impose something on you for your own good and for the good of the country and people,” he said, as he urged Filipinos to follow the movement restrictions.
Nonoy Espina in Bacolod city contributed to this report.