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Little ‘czars’

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - April 7, 2021 - 12:00am

By memory, it was presidential spokesman Harry Roque who dubbed the “czar” designation to members of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging and Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID). Roque gave these “czar” titles related to the specific assignments under the government’s National Action Program to fight the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. As the official spokesman also for the IATF-MEID, Roque began ascribing the “czar” designation to obviously cut short the long job titles of these IATF officials.

There is nothing wrong though bestowing “czar” titles. It’s nothing but honorific titles to these additional job assignment and work loads given to these IATF officials.

Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. who was first assigned as the chief implementer of the National Task Force (NTF) against COVID-19 pandemic earned Roque’s calling him as the “vaccine czar.” This was after President Rodrigo Duterte designated Galvez to lead the National Vaccination Program.

Roque bestowed other “czar” titles to the rest of the IATF members. They are, namely: Department of Public Works and Highways Secretary Mark Villar as the “czar” for COVID-19 isolation facilities; NTF deputy chief implementer, Bases Conversion and Development Authority chief Vivencio Dizon as “testing czar;” Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong as “contact-tracing czar;” and, Department of Health (DOH) undersecretary Leopoldo Vega as the “czar” for One-Hospital Command.

So it looks like all the basic things to do on how to put COVID-19 pandemic under control are already fully covered. But how come it seems our country is going back to square one? A year after the government seemed to have fully addressed the requirements in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re back to hard lockdowns.

The total confirmed COVID-19 cases all over the Philippines stood at more than 800,000 already as of yesterday. Our DOH authorities suspect the foreign variants of the COVID-19 infection may have been the main cause of the resurgence of the contagion. More than 100 cases were already detected to have originated from the COVID-19 mutations originating from the United Kingdom, South Africa and lately from Brazil.

The OCTA Research Group of the University of the Philippines (UP) raised the alarm that our country might likely breach the one million mark by this month. However, OCTA-UP counts on the impact of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) – euphemism for hard lockdown – to help reduce the number of COVID-19 cases and delay the inevitable hitting the one million mark.

This was after President Duterte approved the one-week extension until April 11 of the ECQ for the national capital region (NCR) and the provinces of Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna and Rizal. Collectively called as NCR Plus, these are the parts of the Philippines where there is a high resurgence of COVID-19 cases.

Thus, a much longer curfew from 6 p.m. to 5 a.m. was reimposed at the NCR Plus starting April 4.With movements of people now again more restricted at the NCR Plus, the DOH and other health experts believe this could slow down the local transmissions of COVID-19 infection.

Thankfully, the NCR Plus has been placed on “granular” or area-specific lockdowns on limited basis only. Unfortunately, we also started seeing again the “little czars” who reappeared and making lives of the people at the ECQ areas more miserable than they are already.

These are the little “czars” exercising their delegated job and duties at the local government units (LGUs) from barangay down to village association officials. Although they are also elected officials these little “czars,” unfortunately, have poor understanding if not exaggerated implementation of the national government’s ECQ guidelines.

Some of these little “czars” could thus be more dangerous than the deadly variants of the COVID-19 infection. A case in point was a curfew violator in General Trias City, Cavite who reportedly died a few days after policemen made him do 300 push-ups as penalty for his offense. Darren Manaog Peñaredondo was accosted by barangay watchmen and was taken to the municipal grounds last Thursday evening.

A cousin of the victim, Adrian Luceña, alleged in a Facebook post that Peñaredondo told family members that the police made him complete the punishment despite stumbling a few times due to sheer exhaustion. “He went home Friday at 8 a.m. and he could not walk properly anymore. Come Saturday early morning, he started to convulse but we were able to revive him in our house,” Lucena claimed. Peñaredondo eventually died Saturday at 10 p.m.

During the IATF meeting at Malacañang last Monday, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra disclosed having recommended a policy amendment on the IATF guidelines. Given the real life difficulties during ECQ, Guevarra pointed out, curfew violators should not be detained but instead make them undertake community service. Guevarra likewise urged LGUs to amend their local ordinances related to ECQ curfews along this line.

The Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG), which supervises the Philippine National Police (PNP), vowed to look thoroughly into this case. And also as the immediate supervising agency for LGUs, the DILG sternly called the attention of the little “czars” among officials of barangays and village/subdivision homeowners associations about misapplying the curfew regulations on food deliveries.

In fact, a “lugaw” (rice porridge) incident became viral in social media last Holy Week. To make the long story short, a woman barangay officer in Bulacan prevented a Grab food delivery of “lugaw” that arrived during curfew hours. She pointed to ECQ guidelines that did not include it as “essential” delivery. Roque had to step in to issue the clarification all food deliveries are allowed 24/7 under ECQ areas.

These little “czars” could really be a handful only. But beware, they create more difficulties than helping people comply and cope with ECQ.

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