Duterte vows to lead Philippines out of pandemic in last year in office

He defends handling of health crisis, says government is ramping up vaccination drive

President Rodrigo Duterte, who will step down next June, speaking during his final State of the Nation Address yesterday. Among other things, he elaborated on key reforms and changes he made.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who will step down next June, speaking during his final State of the Nation Address yesterday. Among other things, he elaborated on key reforms and changes he made.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

President Rodrigo Duterte vowed yesterday to shepherd the Philippines out of the Covid-19 pandemic in his last year in office, outlining plans to pull the economy out of a deep recession and keep the coronavirus at bay.

"Back when I decided to answer your call to run for higher office, never did I imagine that my presidency would not only be judged on how I made good on my promises to fight drugs, criminality and corruption but how well I led my nation during the global pandemic," he said in his sixth and last State of the Nation Address.

Elected president in 2016, Mr Duterte will step down next June.

He said the pandemic has rolled back economic gains made in the first three years of his term.

Mr Duterte defended his government's response to the pandemic, insisting that lives were saved.

With close to 1.6 million cases and more than 27,000 dead from Covid-19, the Philippines has earned the dubious distinction of being the second-worst hit country in South-east Asia despite a rotation of sweeping, hard lockdowns and tough quarantine restrictions.

Health officials are now scrambling to contain the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant, which data experts warn could be fuelling a spike in cases in Metro Manila.

Mr Duterte said the government was ramping up its vaccine roll-out, with supplies already locked in that could cover more than half the population of some 109 million by year's end.

"We can't continue living in the shadow of this potent enemy, especially now that science and medicine have proven that it's possible to live with, if not entirely defeat, this virus," he said.

He said that he was not inclined to fall back into rolling lockdowns "lest our economy bleed to the point of irreversible damage".

But if the Delta variant leads to the same deadly, crippling surge now plaguing Indonesia and Malaysia, he said, then "you have to go back to lockdowns".

Planning for the long haul, Mr Duterte asked Congress to pass legislation that would create the Philippine version of a Centres for Disease Prevention and Control like in the US, as well as a research institute that could develop its own Covid-19 vaccines.

Mr Duterte also looked back on his five years in office, which he said had "truly been challenging and humbling".

He conceded that he fell short on delivering on his promises to rid the Philippines of the drug menace and to end corruption.

"When I assumed the presidency five years ago, dominant in my mind were dreams and visions of a better life for all Filipinos. I saw them as reachable… Today as I approach the end of my term, I have fewer visions but more remembrances," he said.

Still, he elaborated on key reforms and changes he made, even though most proved unpopular.

He cited his efforts to push back against communist insurgents and Muslim militants, the roads, highways, bridges and airport terminals completed during his term, as well as laws that made tertiary education in public institutions free and provided healthcare to all Filipinos.

Mr Duterte took pride in his foreign policy, saying that he did confront China, with the Philippines' victory before an international tribunal that invalidated Beijing's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea.

But he also said he had gone as far as he could go without provoking China into a war.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2021, with the headline 'Duterte vows to lead Philippines out of pandemic in last year in office'. Subscribe