NEWS FEATURE | SONA 2020: Addressing the Government’s Misplaced Priorities
By: The News Team
President Rodrigo Duterte delivered his fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA) at the Batasang Pambansa on July 27, 2020. Duterte’s address lasted for 1 hour and 41 minutes, exceeding the previous estimate of Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Secretary Martin Andanar who stated that it would last for only 1 hour and 20 minutes.
Despite the threat of possibly contracting the virus and the fact that numerous congressional staffers who were set to attend the SONA tested positive, President Duterte physically delivered his address. A total of 50 attendees, who were subjected to COVID-19 rapid testing prior to the event and observed social distancing, were present in the Plenary Hall of the Batasang Pambansa.
From the passing of several executive orders to the Build, Build, Build Program, to the success of the Boracay rehabilitation, Duterte successfully highlighted his administration’s achievements in the past year. However, his address ended without a mention of the government’s concrete plans on combating the COVID-19 pandemic and issues such as the Anti-Terror Law and press freedom.
“The vaccine is around the corner”
Duterte once again ignited the hope of acquiring the vaccine for COVID-19, which he claimed is around the corner, as soon as possible. To be able to normalize the country’s situation, Duterte requested that Chinese President Xi Jinping to allow the Philippines to be one of the first to be granted access to the vaccine.
In contrast, Dr. Nina Gloriani, head of the Department of Science and Technology’s (DOST) vaccine technical panel, said that the vaccine would probably be available in 2021. She also emphasized that it is not advisable to fully rely on vaccines since its efficacy will only be around 70 to 80 percent.
Duterte further claimed that no nation was prepared enough for this pandemic and was spared from the onslaught of this disease. However, countries such as New Zealand, Cuba, Taiwan, and Vietnam exhibited success in confronting the virus.
According to researcher-writer Dale McKinley, what the four countries have in common are a free and universal healthcare system, a clear and well-communicated plan for managing the pandemic, and strong solidarity between citizens and government leadership.
Meanwhile, Duterte announced that he won’t allow the resumption of face-to-face classes until the vaccine is available. This is contradictory to his previous decision of allowing face-to-face classes in COVID-19 low risk areas.
Government aid during the pandemic
Amidst the pandemic, Duterte highlighted the success of his Pantawid Pamilya and Pantawid Pasada Programs. As there were complaints from drivers who didn’t receive any assistance, Duterte asked the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) and the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) to look into the claims.
Many beneficiaries of these government programs were disappointed with the delayed distribution of the aid. The recent survey conducted by the Social Weather Station (SWS) showed that 5.2 million families experienced involuntary hunger in the past three months.
The Church People-Workers Solidarity group also argued that the cash aid program for workers only reached 1,059,387 out of a total of 43.3 million workers in the country. They emphasized that the majority of the workforce did not receive any financial assistance from the government.
Consequently, as the number of repatriated Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) nears the 100,000 mark, Duterte tasked different government agencies to help sustain the displaced OFWs. The Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) and Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) are expected to launch entrepreneurial projects, while the Landbank and other government financial institutions should also offer loans for OFWs. Meanwhile, the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) will provide scholarship programs for qualified dependents of OFWs.
In relation to this, he then amplified the call to establish the Department of Overseas Filipinos, which will be designated to resolve the needs and complaints of overseas Filipinos abroad.
However, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) disclosed that they are currently in need of more funds to repatriate more than 117,000 OFWs. As of writing, there are at least 8,869 OFWs infected with the disease and 618 deaths.
“We are alarmed because our people abroad are not only infected but they are dying,” DFA Undersecretary Sara Arriola lamented.
Furthermore, Duterte lauded Senator Christopher “Bong” Go for the success of the Malasakit Centers in helping Filipinos. Malasakit Centers aim to help indigent Filipinos access financial medical assistance from agencies such as PhilHealth, Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO), and the DSWD. With 75 Malasakit Centers and 93 accredited laboratories operating all over the country, the government aims to conduct 1.4 million COVID-19 tests by the end of July.
However, despite Duterte claiming that the government’s response stopped millions of infections, critics say that the government was too slow in detecting cases due to weak testing. Dr. Rabindra Abeysinghe, the World Health Organization (WHO) representative in the country, also criticized the weak efforts of the government in contact tracing and isolating COVID-19 patients.
“Buhay bago lahat”
In the first part of his address, Duterte affirmed that he gives much importance to the lives and human rights of the Filipino people. He also pledged that this government would not dodge their obligation to fight for human rights.
However, cases of human rights violation remain rampant. Under his leadership, there are nearly 2,000 COVID-19 deaths and more than 20,000 deaths from extrajudicial killings (EJK).
Hours before his address, different sectoral groups staged a protest at the University of the Philippines — Diliman, while similar protests were also held in other parts of the country. Amidst these protests, several activists were reportedly arrested by the military in Los Baños, Cavite, Marikina, Caloocan, Tuguegarao, and Quiapo. State forces also confiscated the rallyist’s placards and jeepney drivers’ licenses.
During his address, Duterte also claimed that martial law (ML) in Mindanao, which was first implemented in 2017 and finally lifted in 2019 after being extended three times, recorded no cases of abuses by law enforcement. However, reports from human rights group Karapatan says otherwise. It states that there were over 815,734 victims of civil and political rights violations recorded over the duration of ML.
Finally, despite being heavily contradictory to his opening statement, Duterte requested in the latter part of his address to re-impose the death penalty by lethal injection for crimes specified under the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002. Duterte explained that this would deter criminality and save children from the dangers posed by illegal and dangerous drugs. He also made a similar call in his 2019 SONA, but it received little attention from the Senate.
Death penalty in the country was abolished 2006. Senate Minority Leader and former Justice Secretary Franklin Drilon stated that no justice will be served if it involves taking a life. Senator Risa Hontiveros also argued that the death penalty is not the solution to stop crimes from happening.
“What is really a deterrent to all kinds of crime is fixing the country’s criminal justice system. The real deterrent is the certainty that a suspected criminal will be arrested, prosecuted and condemned,” Hontiveros added.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) also warned the public that reviving death penalty would only lead to violence and despair.
Government’s defense of Philippine sovereignty
Many viewers criticized Duterte’s preference for the term South China Sea (SCS) instead of West Philippine Sea (WPS) while discussing the territorial dispute with China in his address. He argued that asserting the country’s rights over the area would entail engaging in war with China. According to Duterte, China is in possession of the area because they have property rights and the capability to defend themselves in case of the occurrence of war.
“We have to go to war. And I cannot afford it. Maybe some other president can but I can’t,” Duterte said. “Inutil ako dyan, wala akong magagawa.”
Four years passed since the Philippines won against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, awarding the Philippines the legal title over the area. Since then, however, the government has taken little to no action against China’s refusal to recognize the ruling, as well as its persistent invasion of Philippine territory. Instead, Duterte continually formed close ties with China, raising this issue only once in all of his meetings with the Chinese President.
In response, former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay asserted that China is in illegal possession of some features of the WPS since the Philippines has a legal title over the area.
Last April 18, China announced two new administrative districts and named 80 maritime features, such as islands, reefs, seamounts, shoals, and ridges in the WPS. According to the DFA, this move by China is a clear violation of Philippine sovereignty. They called on China to abide by international law, which favors the Philippines.
0 Plans for 2021
Subsequently, the President admitted that the ongoing pandemic stretched the government’s resources to its limits. With this, the President proposed several long term plans to improve the healthcare system in the country.
Duterte briefly mentioned plans to increase access to healthcare in 2021 by hiring and deploying 20,000 health professionals and implementing the Barangay Development Program. The program intends to improve barangay health facilities and augment the health workforce in isolated areas. Despite this being a health concern, he emphasized the vital role of the Armed Forces in this program.
Duterte also heightened the call to establish several departments such as the National Disease Prevention Authority and the Department of Disaster Resilience to respond to future outbreaks.
In the same manner, Duterte urged the Congress to make housing affordable by passing the National Housing Development bill and the Rental Housing Subsidy bill.
For the education sector, online and modular learning, to be aided by TV and radio broadcasts, will push through this upcoming school year. Duterte also plans to increase the number of schools with ICT Equipment in the coming months, in support of the Learning Continuity Program.
However, in this SONA, Sen. Hontiveros pointed out that what Duterte failed to mention was a clear health and economic roadmap that could lead the country through this pandemic. She added that the President gave more attention to the continuation of his anti-drug campaign instead of addressing the issues of unemployment and hunger, which she argued are more pressing problems of the country.
“Kailangan niyang makinig sa mamamayan,” Hontiveros insisted. “Para umusad, kailangang may pag-ako ng pagkukulang. Kailangang ding may pagkilala ang gobyerno na ang COVID-19 crisis ang pinakamalaking problemang kinakaharap natin ngayon at ang kawalan ng simpatiya, plano, at kakulangan ng liderato.”
House Minority Leader Bienvenido Abante Jr. also criticized Duterte for not outlining the government’s future plan in combating COVID-19. He also stressed that healthcare workers deserve more than just gratitude and recognition.
“Simply put: if we fail to plan properly, our plan will undoubtedly fail. We need a comprehensive, coherent strategy to beat COVID-19 — one that is not dependent on the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, the mass production of which may be months away,” Abante asserted.