Duterte divides society, demonizes journalists amid virus: Ressa

Kyodo News

Posted at Aug 11 2020 05:03 AM

MANILA - The Philippine government needs to do more than divide society and demonize journalists and opposition leaders as it seeks to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the country, Maria Ressa, award-winning Philippine journalist and CEO of news site Rappler, recently told Kyodo News.

"It sees the problem by dividing society, by demonizing people. Journalists are demonized. Opposition politicians are demonized," Ressa said in the exclusive interview.

With the Philippines having the highest number of coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia, Ressa said the "government's priorities have not focused enough on COVID-19 because on what we've seen," hinting at how Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has relied on retired military generals in the country's battle against the pandemic.

Admitting that the military officials who are in charge of key COVID-19 programs have done their best, Ressa said, "This is a public health crisis. This is medicine. This is science."

"Of course, Filipinos want to see the government succeed, because these are our lives that are on the line," she added.

Ressa also explained if the administration does not deal with the virus using the "test, trace, treat," or "3Ts" formula, then the country will not be able to control the virus or be able to save lives.

"You know our health care system is collapsing. You must do something more than this," Ressa said.

"And that's the other part that leads to why you have health care providers, who have the frontlines, coming up to say they were dying," she added.

Recently, dozens of medical societies urged the government to impose stricter lockdowns and called for a "time out" to allow frontline workers to recalibrate their anti-coronavirus strategies.

They said doctors, nurses and other health care workers are feeling burned out, telling the government that the country's "health care system has been overwhelmed."

"We are now in our 20th week of lockdown. That's the longest globally, and probably among the most militaristic, the most security-focused around the world. They said we essentially wasted any potential gains from the lockdown," Ressa pointed out.

The country reached neared 130,000 COVID-19 cases as of Monday, with 2,270 deaths.

Metro Manila and nearby provinces are now on the seventh day of the so-called Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine after Duterte ordered the areas to revert to tighter quarantine restrictions for two weeks from Aug. 4, as coronavirus cases in the country soared past 100,000.

Ressa, known for her critical coverage of the Duterte administration, slammed the government for their actions, including failing to "actually have the numbers for evidence-based decision-making."

"The problem with a virus is that you can't demonize a virus. The government must actually perform. So this is a test of competence for the Duterte administration," she said.

Amid the strict lockdowns, the Philippine economy shrank by a record 16.5 percent in the second quarter this year.

The drop is the largest since comparable data became available in 1981, and it follows a 0.7 percent year-on-year decline in the first quarter of the year, plunging the country into a technical recession, which is defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth.

"The Duterte administration sees the crisis as an 'either-or' deal with public health issues or if the country should deal with the economy," Ressa said.

Ressa, a former CNN correspondent who was named one of Time Magazine's 2018 Persons of the Year, said the Duterte administration should look beyond loyalty, and instead put in place the right people with talent and competence.

"Instead of dividing, unite, because, in order to deal with a virus, you're going to need a whole-of-society approach...this requires real leadership, not demonization, not consolidation of political power. This is leadership to bring everyone together so that we can actually move in the same direction," she explained.