In an interview with ANC, Interior and Local Government secretary Eduardo Año said that Cebu City is the new epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country. He says the growth rate of new cases as well as the number of deaths are alarming.
The Secretary is quick to revert to a narrative that has become so common during the lockdown you can make a drinking game out of it. “We’d also like to enjoin and ask the people to observe the health standards protocols. There are so many people violating the quarantine protocols, not wearing masks, not observing physical distancing,” he says, citing a recent fiesta that was supposedly held in one of its barangays. (For the record, we agree that celebrations are a point of concern, Mr. Secretary.)
To be sure, there have been a lot of alarming bits of news that have come our way from the Queen City of the South. There are the criticisms against Cebu’s Governor Gwen Garcia on her rather defensive stance on not regularly wearing a mask; her, let’s just say, alternative methods and questionable opinions about the virus; and her recent #DoctorShaming. Many found the news about the city’s missing chicken eggs as equally absurd as that of the “aerial review” of Cebu City conducted by Joint Task Force COVID Shield commander Police Lt. Gen. Guillermo Eleazar. Private hospitals in the city are full of COVID patients and medical frontliners are scaredenough to quit. And a lot of people (including the Vice President) are asking what we think is a rather reasonable question of why there are tanks on the road to address a health pandemic.
While the city has been under the strictest lockdown in the country, National Task Force on COVID-19 chief implementer Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. thinks that even more restrictions should be implemented because of the rise of severe cases. “Nakikita namin talaga kailangan pa ng stringent restrictions. Kasi na-find out namin na noong nag-ECQ sila, hindi ito properly implemented," said Galvez Jr. during a Palace press briefing.
Understandably, an unsettling air pervades over the city. And as attested by those on-the-ground, this distress and disquiet is aggravated by shortcomings from both the citizenry and the authorities.
“The anxiety about the situation during this time of uncertainty is still there. Most people are complying with the community quarantine and observe social distancing when they really have to go out of the house,” says Alexandria Llamasares, Cebu Province head for non-government organization Bayanihan Mission. “But I also think most people are also frustrated because it has been over 100 days of community quarantine and there seems to be no signs of cases going down.”
Bayanihan Mission was established last March in response to the pandemic. Even before home quarantine measures were mandated by the govt, the organization was already on the ground in Cebu, providing food packs and health teaching to street dwellers. They’ve reached over 20,000 people and hope to reach more. Since that initial thrust, the organization has evolved and is now focused on implementation of real community quarantine as piloted in Sitio Marna through its Sitio Pledge Program as well as the production and distribution of PPEs, face shields, and face masks to small frontliner orgs and urban poor communities.
Writer Joanna Cuenco says it’s disheartening to see their community like this. “I feel that our local government is doing the best it can, having to make major adjustments and difficult decisions every two weeks. However, there is not enough support from the national government,” she says. The same questions arise every time there is a crisis, Cuenco points out. “Where did all the funding go? Where did our taxes go? I see the private sector exerting so much effort to donate PPE and food packs. Filipinos are inherently helpful and generous but the national government is the opposite, and everybody is suffering from it,” she adds.
For Llamasares, however, the LGU has an equally important role. “People in Cebu City need strong and compassionate leadership and proper guidelines from the LGU. Based from our experience on the ground, people will listen and comply if they understand why we're doing this and how, by staying home, they are able to mitigate the spread of the virus,” she says. “But of course, this is only possible if people are not going hungry and that they are also made aware of the health protocols in place should they need medical assistance.”
Bayanihan’s Sitio Pledge Program, Llamsares points out, has proven that when communities are made to understand the situation and are empowered to be accountable for their neighbors, real community quarantine can be observed. “When we started, over 400 families signed up to our program and pledged to stay home. In return, Bayanihan Mission ensured food security within the community. We also established, with the help of their community leaders, health protocols which laid out the process should someone manifest symptoms of COVID,” she says.
Entrepreneur and HR consultant Connie Barrientos-Carey adds that the government’s crisis management needs to be improved massively. “The fact that our lockdown has lasted more than that of Wuhan is rather worrying. We can't prioritize our healthcare workers' welfare, but we can fast track an anti-terrorist bill. Plus the handling of OFWs is beyond alarming. It needs to be improved,” she says.
As for their LGU, she doesn’t even know where to begin. There is a “lack of transparency, poor prioritization, lack of system and organization, poor implementation, and the fact that there are multiple bodies—City Hall, OPAV, IATF—barking orders, it's nothing more than confusing. It's not helping anyone at all. Also, it's alarming how many propaganda pages have come out from out of nowhere.”
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The city is ill-prepared and the responses and actions to this pandemic is reactive, says physician and professor of Gross Anatomy Albert Christian Borbon, who is a resident of Brgy. Mabolo. “Contrary to what the administration has been posting on social media, that the city is one of the most prepared cities in the country is a hoax,” he says. “They lack transparency, accountability and competence in handling this crisis, from the decision to build from scratch the quarantine facilities that they're bragging about, reporting the numbers of infected patients and penalizing hospitals for their ineptitude.”
Tristan Pagusara adds that he thinks the local government is too lax in enforcing ECQ measures. “Take Brgy. Mambaling for instance where people openly defy social distancing. Even during the first ECQ you see people and children on the streets without face masks,” Pagusara says. “The Mayor and Mike Dino keeps on saying that the city is the most prepared but its way past preparation and time for actual action.”
Like the views of Bayanihan Mission founder Dr. Grace Rojo, Llamasares believes that more can be done in terms of compliance to stay indoors. “Cebu City LGU should ensure that basic needs are provided for everyone especially those without savings and rely on their daily wages for survival, or establish food stores with goods for those who can afford it,” she says. It would also be great, she elaborates, to see better coordination between various units and sectors of the local, as well as provincial government in the provision of food security and health kits and implementation of evidence-based policies and mandates as recommended by public health experts.
Sven Chua, a Brgy. Guadalupe resident who works in the event industry, says that the city government in this time of pandemic is infuriating. “Leaders are not working hand-in-hand to defeat our enemy. As to what I can see, the local chief is not even using his powers so well to govern the city. The city has loose rules in which people are truly complacent to violate such guidelines and rules implemented during the time of the quarantine period. I know they are working very hard but unfortunately, they were not able to control the situation and we now are considered as the epicenter of the virus of the entire nation,” he says.
“In the midst of this crisis, people need to be fully informed on the real situation,” says Chua, “and we must fully understand the problem well so that we can take part in putting up a solution.”
For more on Bayanihan Mission, visit BayanihanMission.com and their Facebook page