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Messages can be good or bad medicine

The Manila Times logo The Manila Times 6 days ago The Manila Times
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PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte’s brief address to the nation late Tuesday night presented us with an unexpected study in contrast because of a controversy that erupted earlier in the day, following some rather shocking comments by Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia. A comparison of the two leaders’ messages to their constituencies and the reactions each provoked provide a valuable lesson in the importance of thoughtful information, instruction and encouragement in times of crisis.

Speaking from prepared notes after 10 p. m. on Tuesday, President Duterte sought to reassure the country that the government is putting forth its full effort to act in the people’s best interests, urged politicians to set aside ideological differences and thanked legislators for their swift action in providing the administration “emergency powers” to address the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) pandemic.

“I ask the entire country for patience, understanding and utmost cooperation. With your support, I am confident that we will emerge triumphant. Nothing is more formidable and resilient than the Filipino spirit,” Duterte said in Filipino and English. “Do not be afraid. Your government is here to truly serve you… We will not leave anyone behind. Together, we will fight Covid-19 for the common good.”

He reminded squabbling politicians, “We only have one common enemy and that is Covid-19,” adding, “Our transparency, integrity, accountability and responsiveness are needed and I expect all of you to exercise all these in safeguarding our fellow Filipinos.”

Acknowledging the legislature’s quick action on a bill to give the administration new budgetary authority to combat the epidemic, Duterte said, “I especially thank Congress for granting the executive department with special powers — through the Heal As One Act — to effectively respond to the challenges caused by the Covid-19 global pandemic.”

Although some critics complained that Duterte’s address was bereft of details about how the “emergency powers” under Senate Bill 1418 (“We Heal As One Act”), in contrast to his earlier late-night national addresses, which left many of his audience confused and worried, Tuesday’s speech was calming, much-needed reassurance a week into the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine.

At the opposite end of the spectrum lie comments made by Governor Garcia earlier Tuesday, which were not in the least calming or reassuring and, in fact, may have been illegal.

As reported by the local Cebu media and widely shared online, Garcia warned that she would “go after” those who would post critical comments about the government’s actions in combating the Covid-19 epidemic, adding, “[We have a] special unit, specially dedicating to tracing you.”

Garcia’s outburst was accompanied by the farcical show of local rap artist Brandon Perang swearing an oath in Garcia’s presence (so much for social distancing) to “never to make negative comments or posts on social media about the measures of the government against Covid-19,” a video of which was also widely circulated online.

Apart from the obvious glaring flaw that Garcia’s threat violates the constitutional protection of the right to free speech, it was appallingly in bad form — sowing further anger and uncertainty at a time when people are grappling with profound disruptions brought about by the Covid-19 crisis.

President Duterte’s speech, while it may have lacked specifics, was appropriate and effective — good medicine, so to speak, in that it may not be a cure for the ailment troubling the country, but relieved the symptoms of anxiety and isolation. Duterte, although he could compel everyone’s obedience, chose to ask for it instead. Garcia simply demanded it, under threat of unspecified dire punishment for noncompliance.

Spreading disinformation or being intentionally rebellious and putting others in harm’s way cannot be tolerated, but expressing disagreement with the government’s policies and actions is not only a right, but a benefit to the country’s evolving process of finding a solution to our current shared calamity. The President, although he sometimes expresses frustration with criticism, clearly understands this, because he spoke on Tuesday in a manner a leader should to people who understand it, as well. Governor Garcia clearly does not understand it, and if the backlash she has received for her execrable comments does not educate her, Cebuanos may be better off with a more thoughtful leader.

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