Former DICT undersecretary slams alleged 'gatekeeping' in IATF coronavirus response
This undated photo shows resigned DICT Undersecretary Eliseo Rio Jr.
The STAR/Geremy Pintolo, file

Former DICT undersecretary slams alleged 'gatekeeping' in IATF coronavirus response

(Philstar.com) - August 17, 2020 - 7:00pm

MANILA, Philippines — Former communications technology undersecretary Eliseo Rio Jr. slammed what he said were "gatekeepers" within the government's coronavirus task force whom he said were holding back the participation of civil society groups in its pandemic response.  

In a tell-all posted on his personal Facebook account, the former Department of Information and Communications Technology exec broke his silence on his tenure once more, this time slamming members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases for, he said, ignoring science-backed proposals.

He was referring to IATF sub-Technical Working Group which was headed by DICT  Assistant Secretary for Digital Philippines Manny Caintic, whose conversations with Rio were posted on Facebook.

“This involves an exchange of text messages between myself and a member of the IATF on May 21, 2020, the day before the surprise acceptance of the President of my resignation from DICT filed four months before. This exchange of messages showed my frustration on how decisions are made in IATF,” Rio wrote. 

"And the result of this is clearly shown in the uncontrollable steep rise of COVID-19 cases in our country that caused and is causing more deaths, permanently closure of numerous businesses, millions of unemployed Filipinos, and seriously damaging our economy," he added. 

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Rio, who resigned from his post in early February citing anomalies in the disbursement of the agency's confidential funds, also narrated that his proposal for a centralized data hub went unrecognized and unconsidered by task force leadership despite already having the endorsements of no less than Carlito Galvez, Jr., the chief implementer of the National Task Force Against COVID-19 and DICT chief Gringo Honasan. 

According to the former DICT official, the data system would have aggregated and operationalized data from "frontline agencies, private sectors, and vetted Covid-19 apps, including contact tracing, in a centralized data warehouse" as early as June when general community quarantine was first hoisted.

At the time, the application would have also been made available to all authorized IT and medical experts, and economic and data analysts.

'We can never flatten coronavirus curve'

Rio pinned most of the blame on IATF Resolution No. 36 which, he said, "closed the IATF ICT system by allowing only favored providers and preventing contributions from other IT, medical, economic experts and data analysts [and] is the main cause why we have now a run-away pandemic and economic crisis."

Approved on May 13, Section I of the resolution reads:

I. The Information and Communication Technology system for COVID-19 as presented by the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) is hereby designated as complete and closed, and any new system that will be introduced hereafter shall have to comply with the prescribed data sharing, format, and data privacy guidelines. 

The former communications technology exec also said that even after his resignation, the COVID-19 Central Advocacy Group, a multi-stakeholder group of which he was part of and whose potential contribution would go free of charge, was also for the most part ignored by the task force.

"The reason I am bringing this up is that even now, the gatekeepers in the IATF are still preventing the contributions of talented groups and individuals and meant to address our worsening pandemic...I predicted then that without a system like this in place when we open up movements of our people for economic recovery, we can never flatten our pandemic curve," Rio said.

"Maybe this public declaration to help will be more effective in attracting the attention of the IATF."

READ: Has pandemic response been recalibrated or is MECQ a repeat of the same policies?

This is not the undersecretary's first time airing his grievances with the administration's approach. 

Earlier in June, he questioned the efficacy of the government's official contact-tracing app StaySafe in battling the coronavirus pandemic, pointing out that the app is not equipped with necessary features to cover millions of Filipinos. 

At the time, he added that he felt he was "eased out" of the DICT for pointing out alleged drawbacks in using StaySafe in contact tracing efforts.

Rio shared much of the same sentiments as Dr. Tony Leachon, the former special adviser to the National Task Force Against COVID-19, who said in June that he felt he was "asked to resign" from his position after airing his criticisms of the government's approach against the pandemic. 

'Suffering consequences of IATF inaction'

Five months, exactly 153 days into the government's community quarantine, the Philippines is still under the world's longest quarantine.

As of the latest update provided by health authorities on Monday, 164,474 cases have been recorded in the country since the new pathogen emerged in China in late December.

READ: Coronavirus infections in Philippines hit 164,474 with 3,314 new cases

The Palace asserts that it could be worse, pointing to other countries with more dire situations when confronted with the worsening pandemic.

"Some people tried to brighten the picture by saying that the sharp rise in daily confirmed cases is because more testings are being done now and deaths are declining. But when our health facilities are now being overwhelmed, our tired heroic front-liners are calling for a “time-out”, these definitely are not caused by more testings. And while deaths from Covid-19 are declining, the toll on our economy can in fact cause more deaths and sufferings," Rio said. 

"While other neighboring countries have flattened their pandemic curves with efficient and scientific means, it seems that we can only hope and pray for a cure or vaccine yet to come against the virus, while falsely comforting ourselves that some countries are in worse condition," he added. 

 — Franco Luna

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