MANILA (2nd UPDATE) - President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday hailed Health Secretary Francisco Duque III as a "hero" of the Philippines' response against COVID-19, amid a new surge of infections in the country.
Duterte claimed in a taped public briefing that the Philippines has responded better due to its recovery rate from the deadly pathogen compared to other countries.
"It's not really the time to make comparisons, but we're doing good in the fight against COVID. And Sec. Duque is the hero there," he said.
Duterte also accused Duque's critics of using the health chief's name just to get in the spotlight.
The health chief said he "appreciate(s) wholeheartedly what the President said."
“The heroes are our medical frontliners, our economic frontliners. Sila po ang ating sinasaluduhan dahil sa kanilang mahusay na pag ganap ng kanilang mga trabaho. Lalo na sa pagsalba ng buhay ng mga severe to critical cases of COVID," he said in a press briefing Tuesday.
(Let's honor them for doing their job well, especially in saving the lives of patients with severe to critical COVID.)
Duque has been facing calls to step down over his alleged lapses and failures in addressing the COVID-19 outbreak in the Philippines, which has recorded more than a million infections since the pandemic began, exacerbated by a second wave of cases that began late March this year.
Early in the pandemic, Duque initially rejected a travel ban on visitors from China as COVID-19 was starting to spread from the Chinese city of Wuhan.
He also confused the public and officials alike after saying the Philippines was already in a “second wave” of COVID-19 cases despite the country "never flattened anything yet" at that time. He later retracted his statement.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson also accused Duque of "dropping the ball" in the Philippines' COVID-19 vaccine deal with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, leaving the country behind other neighbors in procuring jabs from the drugmaker.
The health chief was also tagged in a scam in which several PhilHealth officials allegedly pocketed P15 billion in state funds, and approved the request of overpriced projects and fund releases to supposedly favored hospitals.
Due to Duque's alleged lack of leadership, several senators filed a resolution calling for his resignation, citing the health chief's "lack of foresight and inefficiency" as ground for his removal from office.
But, despite public backlash and calls from health experts, officials and even political allies, Duterte has repeatedly defended Duque from accusations, saying the health chief still has his trust and confidence.
As of posting, the Philippines has logged a total of 1,062,225 COVID-19 cases, with 975,234 recoveries and 17,525 fatalities.
The country has a total of 69,466 active cases, accounting for 6.5 percent of the cumulative total.
--With a report from Jerome Lantin, ABS-CBN News