Should Duque be the only one accountable for supposed gov’t lapses on COVID-19 response?

April 16, 2020 - 9:00 PM
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Senate hearing on Dengvaxia
Department of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III during the Dengvaxia hearing in the Senate. (The STAR/Geremy Pintolo)

At least 14 senators called for the resignation of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III on Thursday due to his alleged failure to handle the COVID-19 crisis.

In its Senate Resolution 362, the senators sought for the immediate resignation of Duque, citing his alleged “lack of foresight and inefficiency” in handling the epidemic.  

“Knowing fully well the danger posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in the beginning of the year, Secretary Duque failed to put in place the necessary precautionary measures to lessen, if not at all prevent, the impact of this health crisis,” part of the resolution read 

Among the signatories of this resolution are:

  • Senate President Vicente Sotto III
  • Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri
  • Sen. Sonny Angara
  • Sen. Nancy Binay
  • Sen. Grace Poe
  • Sen. Manny Pacquiao
  • Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian
  • Sen. Francis Tolentino
  • Sen. Joel Villanueva
  • Sen. Ronald Dela Rosa
  • Sen. Imee Marcos
  • Sen. Ramon “Bong” Revilla Jr.
  • Sen. Lito Lapid
  • Sen. Panfilo Lacson

The senators’ move sparked debate on whether Duque should be the only to be held accountable for the national government’s supposed lapses on COVID-19 response.

They pointed out that the health secretary was merely following the orders of President Rodrigo Duterte since the Department of Health reported the first confirmed case in the country last January 30.  

Despite the senators’ call for Duque’s resignation, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, said Duterte still trusts the health secretary and still has confidence in him.  

“Gaya ng paulit-ulit ko ng nasasabi sa mga nakalipas na panahon, every Cabinet member serves at the pleasure of the President. And habang hindi sila tinatanggal, the president continues to have full trust and confidence in them,” Roque said 

Duque said he felt hurt by the senators’ demand.

“It is very unfortunate and I’m really hurt that at this time the Senate is calling for my resignation, when in fact we need to come together because we need to unite. We have such a formidable enemy, this is a war, this is World War III and this is against an invisible enemy,” he was quoted as saying during the virtual technical working group hearing of the House of Representatives’ Defeat COVID-19 Committee.

“The Senate’s call for my resignation is a fair opinion, we respect the fair opinion but this I have to say–I serve at the pleasure of the President and for as long as he continues to put his trust and confidence in my capabilities, I will lead the DOH and the IATF (Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases ) in putting forward a very effective response against COVID-19 in this country,” he also said.

Is Duque just a scapegoat?

While Duterte supports Duque as his health secretary, those who are in favor of the latter’s replacement speculated that he is a mere scapegoat.  

“Duque put Duterte’s and China’s interests on top of frontliners and the Filipino people. He let Duterte and his generals to turn a nat’l health emergency into an excuse to impose corrupt and inept fascism,” blogger and newspaper columnist Tonyo Cruz said.  

A Reddit user commented that regardless of the senators’ motives, Duque deserved to be removed from his post.  

“Scapegoat or not, he deserves to be fired. Dapat sya mismo nangunguna sa pagpapaimplement ng mass testing nuonanyare ngayon?” the user said. 

Acting on the chief executive’s behalf   

Human rights lawyer Rosselle Tugade applied the doctrine of political agency in the situation of embattled Duque.

Under the doctrine of qualified political agency, aren’t the acts of a cabinet secretary also the acts of the President, as alter ego?” Tugade said.  

In the 2013 case between lawyer Ma. Rosario Manalang-Demigillo and the Trade and Investment Development Corporation of the Philippines and its board of directors, the doctrine of political agency was defined as a legal principle wherein: 

“The heads of the various executive departments are the alter egos of the President, and, thus, the actions taken by such heads in the performance of their official duties are deemed the acts of the President unless the President himself should disapprove such acts.” 

University of the Philippines political science professor Jan Robert Go also cited Duterte’s priority on security rather than public health as among the supposed lapses of the government.

“The entire response strategy of the government centered on security and order was not only Duque’s work. If you recall, the national action plan was implemented by military generals. Also, Duque’s position on China echoes that of the president,” Go said.  

He also added that most of Duque’s decisions have Duterte’s blessing.  

“Make them all accountable,” Go said. 

Overall lapses 

Duterte only imposed the temporary travel ban against individuals from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau after the second confirmed case died on February 1 

Even then, Duterte told that “everything is well” and warned Filipinos against fostering any sinophobia or anti-Chinese sentiments. 

Placing the entire Luzon under the enhanced community quarantine and the subsequent rules implemented were also under the chief executive’s orders.  

Accusations of VIP testing against the DOH also involved several government officials, including Duterte and the senators who signed the resolution, and their families. The health agency had earlier denied prioritizing these officials. 

Duque’s faults as health chief  

Sen. Kiko Pangilinan, who supports the Senate resolution, reiterated on Twitter that the senators have been criticizing Duque’s leadership last February, particularly during the early Senate hearings into the DOH’s response to COVID-19.  

Pangilinan cited the health agency’s lapses in contract tracing procedures of the first confirmed case from Wuhan, China, where the new coronavirus strain reportedly originated from, and the 80 other suspected cases that time.  

Duque earlier admitted that only 17% of the co-passengers of the first Chinese couple who tested positive of the new pathogen have been contacted.  

The health chief was also unaware that 31 of the 80 suspected cases came from Wuhan.  

“All these failures led to the spread of the disease,” Pangilinan said 

Angara, who also tested positive for COVID-19 and recently recovered from it, likewise denounced the health secretary’s lack of resolve in solving the health crisis..  

We were late for testing. Contact tracing is almost non-existent. Hospitals are short of protective gear. We need to be better. Buhay ng mga Pilipino ang nakasalalay dito,” he said 

In June 2019, relatives of children believed to have died after receiving Dengvaxia vaccine shots also called for the resignation of Duque, citing ‘delicadeza’ or consciousness for his acts.