MANILA -- The ebb and flow of a military career dictates that the higher up the ranks you climb, the farther you are able to step away from the dangers of warfare. Officers take on more strategic command positions with the passage of time, and eventually become the orchestrators of battle rather than the ones pulling the actual triggers – or stand in the line of enemy bullets.
But it seems the novel coronavirus 2019 or COVID-19 pays no mind to the chains of command.
On Friday, March 27, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana confirmed that General Felimon Santos, Jr., the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (CSAFP), tested positive for COVID-19.
“This morning, I was informed by CSAFP Gen. Santos that he tested positive of the COVID19 - the result he got yesterday,” Lorenzana said in a text message.
While he admits there is no way to be certain where he got exposed, Santos has reason to believe he was infected by a senior military officer who had tested COVID-positive on March 23.
This officer was newly promoted and, on March 13, it was the Chief of Staff himself who pinned his new rank onto his shoulder, in a military ceremony called the Donning of Ranks.
“Yung Donning of Ranks, yung mga napromote, inilalagay namin yung rank sa uniform nila. So I was close to him, dahil ako yung nag-pin ng ranks. We are observing yung distancing sana, pero yung pag-pin ng ranks, yun yung nalapit siguro ako,” Santos recalls.
The Chief of Staff was in a small group meeting with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana when he was informed of the officer’s COVID-19 test result. Santos, realizing he had been exposed, immediately left the meeting.
“Umuwi kaagad ako, I left the conference kay SND (Secretary of National Defense),” said Santos. “So [March] 23 nung nalaman ko, nag-home quarantine ako, until now. Nagpa-test ako dahil nga may close proximity kami nung one occasion, and then this morning lumabas yung test from DOH [Department of Health].”
Upon learning that Santos was a confimed positive case, Lorenzana placed himself on quarantine.
“I shall be on self-quarantine effective today (March 27),” said Lorenzana. “I have no symptoms, but protocol says I have to self-quarantine for 14 days.”
But in the days between the Chief of Staff’s exposure and his knowledge of it, Santos attended several functions with high officials of both government and military.
As a result, all the chiefs of the major services of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) are now on self-quarantine.
The Commanding General of the Philippine Army – Lieutenant General Gilbert Gapay – is on quarantine from March 28 to April 10, after learning of Santos’ test results. Gapay was last with Santos on March 16, at the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) conference in Malacañang.
The Flag Officer-in-Command of the Philippine Navy – Vice Admiral Giovanni Bacordo -- will further extend his self-quarantine after having been exposed to the Chief of Staff as well at the March 16 IATF meeting in Malacañang.
Bacordo was also exposed to Senators Migz Zubiri and Koko Pimentel at the Senate on March 11, where he and more than 20 other military officers appeared before the Commission on Appointments. His Senate-exposure quarantine started on March 16, which will now have to end on March 30 after being exposed to Santos.
The Commanding General of the Philippine Air Force – Lieutenant General Allen Paredes – is also on self-quarantine from March 24 to April 7.
Paredes’ last physical contact with General Santos was on March 21 at the Villamor Air Base, where they welcomed a C-130 plane that delivered donations of personal protective equipment from a Philippine-based Chinese businessman.
With Santos and Paredes in that event were: Senator Bong Go, Secretary Lorenzana, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, and Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Secretary Charlie Galvez, and Office of Civil Defense Director Ricardo Jalad.
Jalad has also placed himself on self-quarantine following that event.
On the night of March 14 – the eve of what was then the Metro Manila-wide community quarantine – Santos sat down for a meeting with Brigadier General Alex Luna, the Commander of Joint Task Force NCR that was then tasked to support the Philippine National Police in manning border checkpoints.
Right after the meeting, Luna proceeded to speak to the troops that were about to be deployed to the Northern Manila checkpoints. While he conversed with his staff and the media, Luna kept his distance from the troops he deployed. Luna has also placed himself on quarantine that ends this weekend.
“That’s why I’m announcing na nag-positive ako, to alert all people na nagkaroon ng close contact sa akin, to have themselves quarantined, to prevent the spread of the virus,” Santos said. He said many AFP personnel have been going on quarantine, for exposure to him, to the first COVID case, or as precaution after having travelled abroad.
He dissuaded fears that the Armed Forces was running headless, explaining that officers and commanders are still functioning, with only the modes of communication having to shift.
“One week na kaming nagre-remote control lahat, and the AFP is still doing good,” Santos said. “Palit-palit kami ng quarantine. And we are working from our quarters, video conferencing, telephone, work-from-home. We are getting used to it.”
The commanding generals of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, Lorenzana, Undersecretary Jalad, and Brigadier General Luna, remain asymptomatic to this day and continue to work remotely.
Santos himself, even after having tested positive of COVID-19, remains asymptomatic, too. He encourages the public to look at his case as an example of the elusive nature of the disease, and why the public – whether sick or well – should also continue to remain at home.
“Kung pwede natin i-explain to people, that’s why we are locking down… because we do not know the carrier. Our purpose is to prevent the virus from spreading. Not all carriers have symptoms.”