OPINION: Glaring omission

Inday Espina-Varona

Posted at Feb 02 2020 10:38 PM

During crises, silence is the enemy. Information dissemination is among the most critical of tasks in the management of emergencies and disasters.

Silence provides a vacuum, allowing lies and half-truths fertile ground to take root and spread, sparking confusion and, sometimes, hysteria. Conversely, it withholds crucial information from the public, leaving people adrift, and prevents experts from collaborating in the search for solutions.

The Philippines has just announced its first death from and its second confirmed case of the novel coronavirus (2019 nCoV) that has so far infected more than 14,000 in China and killed 304 persons.

The fatality, a 44-year old man from Wuhan, epicenter of the outbreak, died on February 1. Officials announced the death on February 2. It is the first 2019 nCoV death outside of China, according to the World Health Organization.

The two confirmed 2019 nCoV cases involve a man and a woman in a relationship. They had come from Wuhan, flew to Hong Kong, then Cebu and Dumaguete, where they stayed in two hotels and a resort, before arriving in Manila.

The Department of Health announced the death, as President Rodrigo Duterte expanded the ban on foreign visitors arriving from Hubei to cover all foreigners from China, Hong Kong, and Macau. Filipino nationals and permanent residents are exempt but will have to undergo a 14-day self-quarantine. The order also bans Filipinos from traveling to China, Hong Kong, and Macau.

Big hole

The disclosure raises many questions about the Philippine government’s priorities amid the World Health Organization's declaration of a global health emergency. The government is upfront in providing information, Health Secretary Francisco Duque claims. But the fatality emerges as a glaring gap in the government’s information drive.

Duque announced the country’s “first confirmed case” of the novel coronavirus on January 30. National health officials said the woman sought medical advice on Jan. 25, showing no other symptoms but a mild cough. Confirmation came with the arrival of her lab results from the Victorian Infectious Disease Reference Laboratory in Melbourne, Australia.

Officials implied the virus only had a mild effect on the infected woman, though that also raised concern about the inability of the traditional thermal scans to detect infected people.

There was no word about her partner, the man who later died.

Turns out, it was her partner’s plight that prompted the woman to seek medical aid. The man was admitted by the San Lazaro Hospital in Manila on Jan. 25 with signs of pneumonia: fever, cough and sore throat.

Duque said the patient was stable and showed signs of improvement in the following days, before his condition deteriorated in the last 24 hours.

The health secretary does not explain why he left out the inconvenient truth about the man’s conditions during the first announcement. Other health officials later said the woman was traveling with a boyfriend, who was also under observation. Nothing about his medical state.

Diplomatic concerns

San Lazaro Hospital officials did acknowledge on January 29 that a couple had been admitted. But the onus for information dissemination rests on Duque. Even granting the woman’s results could have come in earlier, keeping silent on the partner’s medical state is hard to understand. It couldn’t be on grounds of privacy as no patient’s name has been revealed to date.

Perhaps, it had to do with aides not wanting to put pressure on Duterte, who trumpets his close relations with China.

On Jan. 29, a day before Duque announced the first confirmed novel coronavirus case, Duterte nixed a ban on travel from and to China. “It is hard to suspect everything because they (Chinese government) are not also suspending theirs,” he said. Duque, speaking to legislators, warned of possible diplomatic repercussions from the Asian power since other countries have also confirmed cases.

The Chinese Consul General Jia Li said a ban was unnecessary because of his government’s travel lockdown. But on the same day, four days after Beijing ordered a halt to tours abroad, a flight from Jinjiang was allowed to land in Davao.

On Jan. 31, a day Duque confirmed the first case, legislators, Vice President Leni Robredo and netizens were pushing hard for an all-China ban. The WHO had by then declared the 2019 NCOV a global medical emergency

Duque, however, said the government would continue to await new risk assessment reports. Duterte spokesman Salvador Panelo also defended the decision on a limited ban.

Silent Duterte, angry trolls

By then, angry citizens had sent the hashtag #OustDuterte trending on Twitter, nationally and globally.

Duterte was silent, leaving secretaries and his trusted former aide, Sen. Bong Go, to speak for him. Panelo said Duterte was in Davao, busy reading. Go said the President was scheduled to meet medical experts and key government officials the following week.

During the Sunday press conference, Duque said an inter-agency committee had agreed to a blanket ban on all foreigners from China on Jan. 31.

Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea said Duterte had “immediately” approved the guidelines. Officials did not say why they waited until Sunday to announce the move.

If Duterte was silent, trolls and his die-hard supporters were busy casting people demanding an expanded ban as racist and inhumane. They were also busy copy-pasting sob stories that gave an impression of hostility and cruelty towards Chinese visitors here.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.