MANILA - Health Secretary Francisco Duque III on Tuesday said he has been "trying his best" to solve the COVID-19 crisis after senators told him that he has "miserably failed" in Philippines' fight against the global pandemic.
It was "extremely difficult" to fight a new virus that was evolving from day to day, Duque told the Senate Committee of the Whole after Senators Franklin Drilon and Grace Poe blamed him for making the Philippines the epicenter of COVID-19 in southeast Asia.
"If there have been some lapses in terms of our initial response, those were not deliberate. They were a product of honest assessment of data and facts that were coming in," Duque said, noting that they have been relying on the pronouncements of the World Health Organization (WHO).
"I took full responsibility of my decisions and actions. I'm trying my best. If my best is not enough, I just have to do some reflection, soul searching and I will be the first to let everyone know [what] we need to learn," he said.
Drilon blamed Duque's "lack of urgency" as Philippines logged 164,000 COVID-19 cases. He noted that the Health chief failed to issue a travel ban against tourists from Wuhan, China where the virus originated.
The Cabinet member denied the allegations, saying Health officials have imposed a travel ban against travelers from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau by late January.
News reports however show the ban was announced on February 2.
Duque even advised the public not to wear face masks in March, Drilon said.
The pronouncement not to wear face masks was based on a WHO advice, Duque said.
"We had to cull as much information as we could. The WHO was the resource of the information that I felt was going to guide our actions," he said.
"The blindspots can be overwhelming. What we think is right on Monday, the situation changes by Tuesday," he said.
The Senate Minority Leader challenged Duque's assertions, saying that Vietnam - which has the fewest COVID-19 cases in the region - also relied on WHO's advice, but is in a better health and economic situation compared to the Philippines.
"That only indicates that if you exercised your discretion and professional judgement correctly, we would not have gotten to this situation today," Drilon told Duque.
While the Philippines has the most number of COVID-19 cases in southeast Asia, the country's mortality rate of 1.67 percent is better compared to Indonesia, Duque said.
"Ninety-one percent of our cases are mild. Recovery rate has been pretty much improving though not as much as recovery rates in Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia," he said.
"If others think that my best is not good enough, that's their opinion. That's their judgement," he said.
At least 14 senators earlier signed a resolution calling for Duque's resignation as DOH chief, but President Rodrigo Duterte refused to remove the Health chief from his post.