The wartime president
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - April 8, 2020 - 12:00am

By war, we refer to the war of the 21st century: humanity versus a common enemy, COVID-19.

Call it World War V – for Virus. It’s the war of our generation – against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, Ebola, bird flu, swine flu, Zika fever, dengue, and now SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“This is worse than war,” President Duterte said in his address to the nation late Monday night as Luzon entered the fourth week of enhanced community quarantine. “Bakit sa panahon ko tumama ito (Why did this strike during my watch)?… Sa akin lahat (Everything is on me).”

For sure, he isn’t the only world leader with this lament. US President Donald Trump has a bigger problem, although darned if he’ll ever show how worried he truly is. The United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson is fighting not just to protect his compatriots from the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s also fighting for his life, landing in the intensive care unit for the deadly disease.

You know the UK is in dire straits when Queen Elizabeth II makes a rare address to the nation and the Commonwealth, reassuring them that “we will succeed – and that success will belong to every one of us.”

She evoked memories of her first public address, when she was all of 14 and still a princess in 1940 – as her country braced for World War II and British children had to be evacuated.

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While people older than Duterte, who were kids during World War II, tell me that their suffering during that war was still far worse than this one, he’s right in stressing that SARS-CoV-2 is an unseen and highly lethal enemy, against which there is still no weapon… except possibly prayers.

You know Rodrigo Duterte it as his wit’s end when he begins invoking God and turns to prayers for help.

“This being the Holy Week,” he said, “I am calling on the nation to come together this Holy Wednesday afternoon and pay tribute to the indomitable spirit of the Filipino, and unite in prayer to God to defeat a common enemy.”

He admitted that he couldn’t say if the situation had improved after three weeks of enhanced community quarantine, during which Luzon – and consequently much of the rest of the country, considering that Metro Manila is included in the ECQ – is now on a ventilator in the economic ICU.

“God is really the only one who can solve the problem for us,” Duterte intoned.

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It can be unnerving to see the profanity-prone, God-cussing Duterte finding religion. Perhaps it helped bring home to everyone the seriousness of the situation and why everyone should stay home.

He unburdened himself during his address Monday night, saying the problem was giving him nightmares, that when he woke up in the middle of the night, he could no longer return to sleep.

It pained him, he said, to add to the suffering of people arising from the enhanced community quarantine, knowing that when one goes hungry and can no longer put food on the family table, “the human being can be violent.”

And while he realizes the need to help affected sectors including the middle class, he admitted, “I don’t know where I will get the money.”

This is markedly different from his message as the contagion was just starting in the country.

“Do not panic. Huwag kayo masyadong ma-stress,” he said before he imposed the first phase of the community quarantine. “Don’t be scared. Don’t be nervous… Do not minimize it, but do not kill yourself with worry.”

With unemployment, poverty and hunger now stalking households, people are not just worried and stressed but terrified, and some may be ready to kill themselves.

Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez must be having nightmares and sleepless nights himself, with Duterte telling him to steal or borrow – “magnakaw ka, manghiram ka, I don’t care” – to raise additional funds for COVID assistance.

Most economic activities are on hold and people cannot pursue their livelihoods, so revenue collection is down, income taxes are disappearing, and consumption has plummeted so value-added tax collection has also taken a beating.

Nearly all countries are suffering from the pandemic, so the usual sources of official development assistance have their own economic problems to confront. The multilateral lenders / donor organizations need contributions from member states so their resources for emergency aid are also constrained.

Dominguez, in a statement yesterday, pointed out that incentives and other aid measures are being rolled out to ease the pain for various sectors including the middle class.

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At the end of his usual rambling address, Duterte announced, almost apologetically, the likelihood of extending the quarantine for another two weeks, until April 30.

Some people liked his candor in baring his despair on national TV; others wished for a more optimistic, we-can-beat-this-together message from the wartime President. He has been getting flak from those who believe the government had a belated and initially messy response to the contagion. Even with the government now catching up with public expectations, the responses cannot please everybody.

If it’s any consolation to the President, his message is sinking in, for healing as one and ending the pain as soon as possible through compliance with measures imposed by the government. I hear such sentiments in the streets, from vendors and shoppers in public markets, from drivers and people delivering various types of goods.

People want to get this over with ASAP, so they can get their life back. Most people realize that life around the planet will never be the same again after this pandemic. Still, just finding work again or being able to reopen shuttered businesses will be good enough; adjustments to a new normal can come later.

At this point, there are more bitter pills that we all have to swallow. Let’s hope it leads to national healing, and allows us to win this war.

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