Coronavirus pandemic

Worse times loom, Duterte warns Filipinos

But he offers scant details of what he intends to do as infections spike and economy sinks

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivering his annual State of the Nation address in Congress in Manila yesterday. He devoted much of his speech to attacking a senator, threatening to take over the country's top telecoms and utilities firms, and
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivering his annual State of the Nation address in Congress in Manila yesterday. He devoted much of his speech to attacking a senator, threatening to take over the country's top telecoms and utilities firms, and calling for the return of the death penalty.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte yesterday warned that "worse times loom ahead" for over 100 million Filipinos, as his government struggles to stay on top of a still raging Covid-19 pandemic.

"We are being tested as a people and as a nation," he said in his annual address to the nation.

"All I ask is you continue to put your faith in your government and work with us in achieving what is best for the country and our people," he said.

But he offered scant details about what he intends to do in the coming days to contain a spike in infections that continue to stall efforts to restart a sinking economy.

Mr Duterte instead devoted much of his address to attacking a senator who called him out for shutting down the nation's top broadcaster, threatening to take over the country's top telecommunications and utilities firms, and reiterating his call for a return of the death penalty.

The government is likely to stay the course in its pandemic response.

There is talk that Mr Duterte is considering returning Metropolitan Manila - the epicentre of the disease - to a sweeping lockdown, although his advisers have said the government has already run out of resources to feed those who no longer have the means to earn a living.

"To open up the economy to pre-Covid-19 levels is not an option," said Mr Duterte.

"Haste makes waste," he added. "The recent upsurge of infections when you open little windows of resumption of business is proof of that."

The Philippines, already with the second-highest number of Covid-19 cases in South-east Asia after Indonesia, is on track to surpass China in terms of the number of cases.

Health officials reported 1,657 new cases yesterday, bringing the country's total to 82,040. China, by comparison, had 83,891.

Mr Duterte said the government's early intervention had prevented as many as 1.3 million to 3.5 million infections.

He also held out hope that a vaccine "is just around the corner".

"Sooner, but not later, the virus that gobbled up thousands of lives will itself be laid to rest," he said.

But beyond that, he could offer only broad strokes about how he intends to contain the pandemic and turn the economy around.

More than three million people have lost their jobs after the government wound down nearly all businesses when it placed nearly the entire country under a hard lockdown in mid-March.

The shutdown was eased into a "general community quarantine" on July 1, but many firms have been unable to claw back from the brink, with social distancing guidelines and curfews still in place.

Mr Duterte asked for laws that will give corporations tax reliefs, and create a new ministry to oversee the reintegration of over 100,000 overseas Filipinos forced to come home due to the pandemic.

He appealed for rent clemency for small and medium-sized businesses, and reiterated that schools will remain shut as they pivot to distance learning.

But in segues that derailed his message, he opened and closed his address by chastising Senator Franklin Drilon, a politician allied with former president Benigno Aquino.

The senator had earlier slammed Mr Duterte for claiming he had dealt a blow to the "oligarchy" when ABS-CBN, the country's biggest TV network, was forced to shut down.

Mr Drilon had said Mr Duterte himself came from "political dynasties" that were abetting oligarchies.

The President retorted by accusing Mr Drilon of lawyering for the family that owns ABS-CBN.

Along that line, Mr Duterte warned the "other oligarchies" that run the country's biggest telecoms and utilities firm that the government would come in and take over from them if they did not shape up and improve their purportedly bad service by December.

He also reverted to his favourite topics - drugs and criminality - and again asked lawmakers to reinstate the death penalty for drug-related crimes.

Representative Carlos Zarate, of the party list group Bayan Muna (People First), said: "He fell back on his default mode - drugs, crimes - because these are populist issues he knows he can use to cover up the incompetence of his administration, especially concerning the Covid pandemic."

Added Mr Zarate: "He really did not fully address that problem."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 28, 2020, with the headline 'Worse times loom, Duterte warns Filipinos'. Print Edition | Subscribe