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Doctors wary of Duterte's 'militaristic' COVID-19 response

Ana P. Santos Manila
August 6, 2020

Health workers have urged the Philippine government to provide them protective gear as new coronavirus infections continue to rise in the country. President Rodrigo Duterte slammed doctors for their critical approach.

Police officers patrol through a village during the start of a lockdown due to a rise in COVID cases in the city of Navotas
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Favila

On August 4, staff of the Fabella hospital in Manila staged a demonstration to demand safety measures for health care workers. About 100 people at the hospital, which has an estimated 1,500 employees, have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. 

"With so many hospital staffers getting infected, we might be transmitting the virus instead of treating patients," Margarita Esquivel, president of the Fabella chapter of the Alliance of Health Workers union, told DW.

The situation in other hospitals is equally dire. "Many staff members have been tested positive [for COVID-19] but we are still working. Some nurses are even doing 12-hour shifts," said Cristy Donguines, a nurse at Manila's Jose Reyes Memorial Hospital and head of the hospital's union of healthcare workers.

"We are not robots. We are human beings who can be infected and also die of COVID-19," Donguines told DW. On July 31, her colleague succumbed to the disease after getting infected with the virus.

Read more: Philippine activists concerned about spike in child abuse linked to coronavirus crisis

The Philippines has so far recorded around 120,000 coronavirus cases and over 2,150 related deaths. In the past few weeks, the Southeast Asian country has seen a surge in new cases. To contain the COVID-19 spread, the government has imposed fresh lockdown measures in Manila and neighboring provinces.

Doctors' complaints

The lockdown was imposed by President Rodrigo Duterte after 40 medical organizations held a virtual press conference on August 1 calling for a two-week community quarantine to give the government time to recalibrate its COVID-19 strategy and give doctors and health workers a "timeout" to avoid getting infected themselves.

"The healthcare workers are sounding a distress call. We need a breather; we are exhausted," said Jose Santiago, president of the Philippine Medical Association, in a statement after the press conference.

The doctors also demand that the government come up with a plan to address the gaps in its public health interventions – increase COVID-19 testing, release test results early, establish effective contact tracing measures and hire additional healthcare workers.

Read more: Philippines: Church warns against 'holy alcohol' for COVID-19

President Duterte on Sunday expressed solidarity with the healthcare workers but also censured them for publicly criticizing his administration's response to the health crisis. "Next time, don't talk about 'revolution.' It's more dangerous than COVID-19. If you start a revolution, I will have to stage a counter revolution," Duterte warned.

The president's "threat" forced the Philippine College of Physicians to issue a statement, saying that "there was never a call for a revolt, nor was there any threat of leaving our patients on their own."

Explaining Duterte's warning, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque told media the doctors didn't need to go public with their complaints and that the president was just irked by the "revolutionary song," "Do you hear the people sing?" that is being shared on social media.

Junice Melgar, who also works for a local NGO, says the government should have carried out a more "humane intervention" instead of imposing a lockdown that is likely to increase financial pressure on people.

"We need a calibrated response to identify clusters of infections and isolating them. Currently, we have blanket militaristic measures in place. The prescription can't be right if the diagnosis [of a disease] is wrong," Melgar told DW.

Read more: Is Philippines muzzling free press amid coronavirus lockdown?

'Slow and chaotic' response

Members of the Citizens Urgent Response to End COVID-19 (CURE COVID) has called for the resignation of Health Secretary Francisco Duque and a complete revamp of the government's Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19 (IATF), which is headed mostly by high-ranking military officials.

"If we continue to have the same people [in the IATF], nothing will change," said Carlos Zarate of the Bayan Muna Partylist.

President Duterte's administration has come under fire for its largely punitive and militaristic implementation of the COVID-19 measures. Last month, the government started deploying police to accompany medics and to transfer infected patients to isolation facilities.

"Unless we have a comprehensive medical and scientific response [to the health crisis], the lockdown will be useless," said Julie Caguiat at a CURE COVID press conference.

"The government's response has been too slow and too chaotic," she added.

Read more: Philippines: How women pay the price of pandemic-induced health care shortages