Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made a number of bold pandemic-related claims during his fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, July 27. Among the most striking is that he had personally asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to prioritize the Philippines once a COVID-19 vaccine is available.
Going off-script, Duterte said: “Four days ago, I made a plea to President Xi Jinping that if they have the vaccine, can they allow us to be one of the first.”
Duterte said he also asked Xi if the Philippines can be “granted credit” in buying the vaccine, so the Philippines can “normalize as fast as possible.” Duterte, however, did not say how the Chinese leader reacted to his request.
The Philippines has developed a warm diplomatic relationship with Beijing ever since Duterte became president in 2016. Early in his presidency, Duterte said that the Philippines would cut ties with its longtime ally, the United States and “realign” with China. This has led to concerns that Duterte is too submissive to the Chinese government, to the point of putting the Philippines’ national sovereignty at risk.
Duterte for example, has refused to take a stern stance on the Philippines’ historic claim on the disputed areas of the South China Sea put forward by the previous administration, despite the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in its favor in 2016. In September 2019, Duterte said that he is “ignoring” the ruling and agreed to a “joint exploration” of the area with China. The two countries have also signed into several multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects and the Philippines has opened its doors to more Chinese businesses.
In June, the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines said that Duterte and Xi had discussed their strategies in responding to the pandemic, confirming that the two governments are closely working together.
The pandemic figured heavily in all aspects of this year’s SONA. In a historic first, less than half of the members of the Philippine Congress attended the event, with a majority of senators and representatives tuning in through video calls. Those who were physically present sat on socially distanced seats and many wore face masks and shields.
Social distancing during Duterte's State of the Nation Address on Monday, July 27. Photo: Courtesy of the Presidential Communications Operations Office
SONA attendees wearing face masks and shields. Photo: Courtesy of the Presidential Communications Operations Office
Duterte also praised his administration’s efforts in managing the pandemic. This, despite having no clear plan for the outbreak, and the Philippines having the highest number of active cases in Southeast Asia.
“When the pandemic struck, I decided to prioritize life over other considerations,” he said. Duterte then gave a rundown of the programs the government started in order to manage the pandemic, like establishing testing labs and providing financial aid to those who lost jobs due to the lockdown.
While he admitted that these initiatives could have been implemented better, he did not go into detail about the fact that these programs were mishandled and failed to reach many of their intended beneficiaries.
Duterte also thanked Congress’ controversial fast-tracking of a law that gave him “special powers” to fight the pandemic. These powers allow him to "direct" privately-owned hospitals and health facilities and "reprogram, reallocate, and realign" parts of the government's 2020 budget.
“May I again reiterate my thanks to you, the men and women of Congress, for the effort you invested into passing that law,” Duterte said to a room filled with many of his allies.
The government said that granting Duterte special powers was necessary in managing the pandemic, but critics say it has done little to improve the country’s health crisis.
And yet Duterte appeared optimistic about the country’s current situation, seemingly removed from the realities on the ground. Hospitals are beginning to buckle under the weight of the pandemic, telling prospective patients that they no longer have resources to treat more cases. Even Duterte’s estimations of when a coronavirus vaccine would be ready were far-off.
“But let us not despair. The vaccine is around the corner,” Duterte said during his speech. “Sooner and not later, the virus that gobbled up thousands of lives will itself be laid to rest.”
He admitted in the speech that he previously thought a vaccine would be ready by September. Experts say that the earliest time vaccines will be ready is mid-2021.
Duterte echoed the same euphemistic attitude with regards to the state of the Philippine economy which he said was robust and strong.
“Yet in the throes of this global health emergency, we have been able to withstand the headwinds generated by this coronavirus,” the president said, failing to acknowledge the ongoing recession and forecasts that the Philippines’s GDP could drop by 8 percent because of the prolonged community quarantine, the longest lockdown in the world.
Still, Duterte remains popular with Filipinos and enjoys majority support from all branches of the government. The president ended his speech with no specific plans of action on how to address the pandemic moving forward.