'Medical populists' like Duterte hit in study over pandemic response

Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 23 2020 01:24 PM | Updated as of Sep 23 2020 07:17 PM

Roque belies tag, says Duterte, IATF guided by science, data

MANILA (UPDATED) -- President Rodrigo Duterte joined the list of "medical populists" criticized for their style of leadership during the pandemic by a global team of experts crafting strategies against COVID-19, which has sickened more than 31 million people worldwide.

"One reason for failure to suppress the epidemic is a style of political leadership that has been called medical populism," according to the The Lancet COVID-19 Commission, which also named Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and US President Donald Trump.

The statement, released in time for the 75th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly, drew from the study of medical anthropologist Gideon Lasco.

Citing the examples of Trump, Bolsonaro, and Duterte, he described how political leaders resorted to “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 medical knowledge claims to support the above”.

"All countries should combat decisions based on rumor-mongering and misinformation. Leaders should desist from expressing personal viewpoints that are at odds with science," the commission said.

Duterte earlier told Filipinos that they could use gasoline to disinfect face masks, worrying medical experts who feared the public might take his word for it. He said he was not joking.

But Health Secretary Francisco Duque III said in a forum last month that the president was just being "playful." "Deep inside him, he’s really concerned with what’s happening and that he really wants government to respond as best as it can and muster all the resources that there are," Duque told an online gathering of doctors.

In April, Trump suggested injecting bleach into one's body as treatment for COVID-19, alarming the medical community.

"We call on governments to prioritize advice from the professional public health community, working in cooperation with international agencies and learning from the best practices of other nations," the commission said.

The Philippines has the most number of COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia at 291,789 as of Tuesday, despite imposing the longest pandemic lockdown in the world.

In his study, Lasco cited how "dramatic actions" such as total lockdowns and mass testing "can take political precedence over less spectacular measures like contact tracing and increasing health care capacity.

This "spectacularization" of the government approach, he said, could undermine the "efficacy of pandemic responses – and, as in the case of the Philippines, potentially exposing the public to abuses of power."

The study also ranked the Philippines 66th out of 91 countries in terms of suppression of COVID-19.

It said a country is classified as “being in suppression” if there are 5 or fewer new cases per million population per day for August. The rank also takes into account mortality rate or deaths per million per day, tests done relative to number of cases and the rate of spread of the virus based on the average effective reproduction rate.

Asked for comment on the study, Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said the health department will continue to work, unfazed by criticism.

“We always receive itong mga ganitong mga komento. There are rankings and there are these specific comments. Sa amin magtatrabaho lang kami ng tuloy-tuloy,” she said during a virtual briefing on Wednesday.

(We always receive itong mga ganitong mga komento. There are rankings and there are these specific comments. For us, we just continue to work.)

Vergeire said that the Philippine government was "doing a whole of nation and whole of society approach to this response that we have for COVID-19."

She said that whatever comment they receive, they will continue to work and prevent the spread of the disease and ensure the health of the population.


In a statement on Wednesday, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said that contrary to the "medical populism" tag raised by some quarters, "the President, together with the members of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF), has met the challenges of COVID-19 head-on, with science and hard data guiding the Chief Executive’s decisions and actions."

"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 said.

Roque added that the government also consults "every sector from public health to economics" for its action plan.

Last month, he also defended the government saying: “We may not be as successful, but I can assure you, everyone is working darn hard to find a solution to the problem."

"Kung magkulang man, well, pagpasensyahan po pero hindi niyo po maaakusa ang gobyernong ito na natutulog sa pansitan," said Roque.

(If there are shortcomings, bear with us but you can't accuse the government of sleeping on the job.)

-- With reports from Kristine Sabillo and Arianne Merez, ABS-CBN News