MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte's fifth State of the Nation Address is seen to seal a new normal in Philippine politics when he delivers his most important speech yet since being elected into power in 2016, as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts political tradition.
Duterte is set to deliver Monday afternoon his second to the last SONA physically at the Batasang Pambansa, shunning alternative suggestions and prompting his guards to prepare a "360-degree shield" for the 75-year-old chief executive as he steps into halls of the legislature, where over 20 have been confirmed infected.
The President's penultimate SONA is unlike any other as it would be delivered before just some 50 handpicked officials required to wear face masks and keep distance from each other, while others usually invited to the annual affair - hundreds of incumbent and former government officials, the diplomatic corps and other dignitaries - will have to watch or listen remotely.
And for Filipinos still facing the virus threat, many are expected to remain hunkered down in their homes as cases of the virus continued to rise, with almost 2,000 dead, despite having gone through one of the longest lockdowns in the world.
While the nation faced an unprecedented crisis, Duterte is expected to deliver a hopeful report to the nation, said his communications chief.
“The SONA will be one that is full of optimism and hope,” Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said Monday.
“We have programs that the government implemented for the past few months to address the huge problem of the pandemic. It’s not perfect, but the whole world is grappling with the problem of this pandemic,” he added.
While the SONA usually serves as a gathering for political personalities to flaunt their wealth and status, this year's address is expected to be more somber, with the virus limiting activities.
Only 50 guests from Congress and the executive branch will be physically present when Duterte delivers his SONA at the Batasang Pambansa. All guests and personnel entering the legislative complex were required to undergo swab testing for the virus ahead of Monday's address.
Security will be stricter "to ensure a 360-degree shield for the President" given the persisting COVID-19 threat, Presidential Security Group commander Col. Jesus Durante III earlier said.
"All our security preparations work towards the end goal of a peaceful, successful, and a COVID-free SONA 2020 of the President," Durante said in a statement.
All eyes will be on Duterte on Monday afternoon when he presents his administration's plan on how to rescue the Philippines from the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 80,000 and with no sign of slowing the transmission any time soon.
He had recently said he was "inutile" in the face of the virus.
Expectations are high from Duterte as his pandemic response and recovery program could make or break the gains his government has achieved over the past four years, as the country continues to struggle with containing the spread of the virus.
While the Palace has repeatedly insisted that addressing the virus threat is the government's main concern, Duterte has spent the first half of the year confining Filipinos in their homes as a response mechanism while he armed himself with a tougher anti-terror law, and while his allies in Congress fulfilled his promise to shut down the Philippines' largest media network, ABS-CBN.
Some 1,000 mayors, meanwhile, have expressed support for charter change as criticism grew over the country's handling of the virus outbreak.
"This administration has focused all its efforts to fight COVID-19 and how to support the economy, and help the economy and all the businessmen and all the industries get back on its feet," Communications Secretary Andanar said.
But on Monday, the tough-talking leader is expected to steer the Philippines into the new normal when he presents the country’s roadmap for recovery from the worst health and economic crisis to hit since the new millennium.
"This is no time for jokes, enough of the political inanities. If this administration is serious about leaving a positive legacy for the Filipino people, it should devote all its energy and attention to simply 2 things: saving lives and expanding livelihood," political analyst and De La Salle University Professor Julio Teehankee said.
"In Filipino, buhay at kabuhayan (life and livelihood). Anything other than that would be simply distraction to the task at hand," he added.
For the first time since 1998, the Philippine economy contracted in the first quarter by two percent and is expected to shrink further in the coming months. Unemployment rose to a record 17.7 percent in April, which translates to some 7.3 million jobless Filipinos.
More Filipinos are expected to lose their jobs in the coming months as more companies are forecast to shut down after the pandemic wiped out economic gains from Duterte's predecessors.
Recent surveys by the Social Weather Stations showed a record 4 in 5 Filipinos saying that their quality of life got worse, and 5.2 million families saying they experienced involuntary hunger in the past 3 months.
"What we need now is healing, what we need now is a calming voice," Teehankee said.
"We do not need fear, stress, bullying...There’s still time if he sets his vision, plans, program for the Filipino people," he added.