By Corina Oliquino

MANILA — Presidential spokesman Harry Roque denounced reports President Rodrigo Duterte’s “medical populist” stance is the Philippine government’s way of suppressing COVID-19, insisting science and hard data are guiding the decisions of the government.

“The President, together with the members of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF), have met the challenges of COVID-19 head-on, with science and hard data guiding the Chief Executive’s decisions and actions, contrary to the ‘medical populism’ leadership style issue raised by some quarters,” Roque said.

“The Duterte administration has put in place concrete interventions to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, which includes ramping up the country’s testing capacity, enhancing contact tracing efforts and scaling up of local health system capacity, especially for community isolation and critical care,” he added, stressing that the approach is “whole-of-government and whole-of-society” and a strategy under the National Action Plan to “ensure that the adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is addressed.”

In a report by The Philippine Star, leading international medical journal Lancet in a study published on September 14 ranked the Philippines 66th out of 91 countries in suppressing COVID-19 based on incidence, number of new cases per day, mortality rates, tests performed and effective reproduction rates.

The journal defined suppression of the coronavirus as “having five or fewer new cases per million population per day in August,” and classified the Philippines as having “moderate transmission” with 37.5 new infections and 0.5 new deaths per million per day in August.

The Lancet COVID-19 Commission also grouped President Duterte among “medical populists” US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, with the study citing the work of medical anthropologist Gideon Lasco who described top government officials as “simplifying the pandemic by downplaying its impacts or touting easy solutions or treatments, spectacularizing their responses to crisis, forging divisions between the ‘people’ and dangerous ‘others,’ and making knowledge claims to support the above.”

“One reason for failure to suppress the epidemic is a style of political leadership that has been called medical populism,” it said, noting the political style not only impacted the implementation of non-pharmaceutical interventions such as wearing of face masks but also “breeds misinformation and rumor trafficking.”

The Commission said 19 countries including Taiwan, Thailand, New Zealand, and South Korea, to name a few, were able to suppress the transmission of COVID-19 when they reported five or fewer cases per million pollution per day in August provided that  testing is “ample” or at least there were 20 tests per new case.

It also categorized countries’ transmission rates into low, high, and very high – or having 10 new cases to over 100 or more cases per million population per day.

“The COVID-19 epidemic can and should be suppressed through non-pharmaceutical interventions, including effective community health services, that cut transmission of the virus, to be followed by the introduction of effective and safe vaccines as rapidly as science permits,” the Commission said.

“Countries should not rely on herd immunity by natural infection to suppress the epidemic. The disease and death that would accompany natural infection rates to reach herd immunity, typically estimated as 40 – 60 percent of the population infected, would be unacceptably high,” it added, urging countries to “scale up with all urgency their public health workforces, including epidemiologists, public health technicians, nurses, testers, contact tracers, and community health workers.”

In another report by GMA News, President Duterte caused concerns among scientists in July when he suggested the use of gasoline to disinfect face masks during a national televised address.

“Totoo’ yang sinabi ko, alcohol. ‘Pag walang alcohol available hindi ka naman puwede lalo mahirap pupunta ka lang diyan sa gasoline station pagkatapos magpatulo. That’s disinfectant.”

Roque and the Department of Health (DOH) dismissed the suggestion as a joke, while the Integrated Chemists of the Philippines warned against the use of gasoline.

Duterte has also repeatedly told Filipinos during his televised addresses that a COVID-19 vaccine “is the only way to stamp out the virus,” urging the public not to listen to members of the Opposition calling for an improved pandemic response from the government.

“‘Wag kayong maniwala diyan. Sus, itong mga dilawan lalo na, I hate to mention her name, but itong si Leni kung ano ang pinagsasabi,” Duterte said in a briefing in Davao City this month.

“Alam mo Leni kung gusto mo, if you really want to do away with the COVID, i-spray-han natin itong Pilipinas o Manila ng pesticide para patay lahat,” he added.

As of Monday, September 28, the Philippines logged 3,073 new COVID-19 cases, 37 deaths and 163 new recoveries.

The country has 307,288 total COVID-19 cases, of which 49,242 are active as of press time.

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