Department of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III proudly said in a recent press briefing that the country’s COVID-19 curve has flattened since April. This is despite the rapidly increasing number of cases in the country. As of Friday, July 17, the country has logged more than 63,000 cases of coronavirus infection, 60% of which remain active. Each day, hundreds more are added to the list. At least 1,600 people have already died, and hospitals in Metro Manila are starting to raise the alarms as their facilities reach critical capacity.
And that’s only the public health aspect of the pandemic. There are far-reaching economic implications too.
We are now deep in PHP 8 Trillion of loaned funds from various institutions (which the Filipinos have to pay for decades), we have recorded the highest unemployment rate since 1987 with 7 million jobless Filipinos, and our economy is plummeting fast that a recession may be underway.
Sec. Duque’s lie, however, is a well-placed public relations spin. On national broadcast available to the majority of the public, he was reassuring: the curve has flattened, we are winning. Hours later, he would retract his statement on social media and offer a clarification (that is anything but clear): actually, the curve has curved downwards, thanks to the quarantine last March. Sorry for the confusion!
In a single day, the country’s Health Secretary has managed to botch an otherwise simple message twice by a consistent stance of denial. But this is hardly any surprise. All throughout the course of the pandemic, denialism has been the go-to strategy of the administration as a response.
When COVID-19 found its victims in the first outbreak in Wuhan, China, President Duterte was quoted in February in saying that the reactions towards the new virus are almost hysterical, and there was no need for it. On his March 11 speech, he even said that we are too scared and we are fools for believing the grave implications of the virus. Weeks later, he would declare a national emergency and put the National Capital Region under Enhanced Community Quarantine, and express his confidence in the country’s capacity to handle a wide-scale public health crisis. What ensued, however, was a tragedy of errors.
Militarism was Duterte’s solution to the virus. Instead of channeling funds to the healthcare system, he deployed policemen in checkpoints. He ordered arrests of quarantine violators under the guise of the tired “pasaway” narrative. In his late-night speech in April, he asked the law enforcers to “shoot them dead.” This strategy didn’t solve anything aside from lining the pockets of the national police through bails.
The health deputies of the president also gravely ignored the calls for mass testing — both from the World Health Organization and healthcare experts. At one point, Harry Roque said that it’s impossible to implement mass testing in the Philippines. No country can do that, he said.
When his statement was reported by CNN Philippines, he responded with a denial and scolded the wrong reporter in the briefing: that’s not what I said; I was misquoted. But upon the inspection of transcripts from the press conference, it is exactly what he said. He continued to deny the statement many times on different platforms.
Roque, on June 30, also said that we have already won against the pandemic as we were able to beat the University of the Philippines Technical Working Group’s prediction of 40,000 coronavirus cases.
We won, he said. He raised his fist and said that we won.
Tens of thousands infected with a killer virus, hundreds of people dead, a nation deep in debt, and millions of Filipinos left jobless and hungry are indications of victory for the Malacañang. The mere callousness of that statement is enraging, but it’s just another one of the Duterte administration’s use of denial as a tactic to give lopsided assurance to themselves and the unknowing public.
Duterte, the country’s top executive, has also been dismissing the grave misgivings of his allies. He coddled Duque from calls for his resignation, expressed by legislators, and by a list of healthcare workers’ associations namely the Philippine Medical Association, Philippine Hospital Association, Private Hospital Association of the Philippines, and the Philippine College of Hospital Administrators. Duterte shielded police chief Debold Sinas from criminal or civil liabilities in connection to his quarantine violations. And he continues to shield the blunders of the Philippine National Police, even on the case of the cold-blooded ambush of army men on June 29. He has used denial of culpability and liability of his men, and denial of the fraught condition that millions of Filipinos are confronting. And the administration will continue to deny and deny despite the facts being against their words.
With two years left for the Duterte administration, their handling of the pandemic is crucial. This can make or break the future of their party and the succession of leadership in the country — and they seem to recognize the steep decline of public support.
That leads us to their use of denial on the Palace’s involvement in shutting down a mass media giant. After a series of exhausting and roundabout hearings, ABS-CBN’s franchise has been rejected by Congress, and their re-application may not happen anytime soon. This means one less reliable source of information for people who have no access to the internet, which is an otherwise more liberal medium. This also means one less autonomous watchdog that can dissect the actions of the government for the public.
Like always, the Palace denied any connection, feigning neutrality, even when confronted by journalists with records of direct threats from the President on multiple occasions.
In the field of Public Relations, the use of denial as a tool to curb a crisis can be effective if the party it serves is, in fact, not guilty. However, researchers later found out that denying can tremendously damage the image it sought to protect. Timothy Coombs, a public relations expert, said that people will reject the denial if an organization has an obvious connection to the crisis. In fact, it can further hurt the reputation of the organization further.
In politics, it’s far more complicated to see the outcomes of denialism as a strategy. While polls and surveys can paint a more immediate picture, it is only through elections that we can truly measure its effects.
If the use of denial by the government continues, the administration will effectively weaken the already brittle scaffold it is standing on — one that is characterized by a public polarized between blind support and loud indignation. This crisis is a marking point for the administration and can either make or break the future of their party and the succession of leadership in the country.
But denialism endangers far more than the reputation of our leaders. At best, Filipinos will gain a false sense of security to let down their guards in the middle of a pandemic. At its worst, it can lead to thousands and thousands of otherwise avoidable deaths — and that’s exactly the situation the country is currently in.