The collapse of national leadership

With the Taal Volcano eruption and the Wuhan virus scare, which could transform into a pandemic, we are seeing the collapse of presidential leadership. That is because of the obsession of this administration with politics—where the President has equated his personal interest with that of national interest, where decisions are now being made on the basis of politics and not scientific evidence.

After the Taal Volcano eruption scare has died down, with the lowering of the alert level and the lockdown in the affected areas lifted, there is once again reason to put on face masks—this time not to protect the public from ashfall but from a previously unknown pathogen known as 2019-nCoV or the novel coronavirus.

To date, little is known about this new virus other than it was supposedly first detected in the live seafood and animal market of Wuhan City, China, sourced from animals. It appears to be spreading from human to human. Although there were similar outbreaks in the past like SARS and Merscov, the nCoV is a new strain of the coronavirus family of pathogens and remains shrouded in mystery. How it is spreading, how long the incubation period is, how to treat those infected, whether or not it will mutate and a lot more questions still swirl around the real nature of the nCoV. Surely, the uncertainty of it all is a breeding ground for speculation and rumor mongering, which is why the Internet is awash with false and unverified posts and videos that fan the fears and apprehensions of the public.

In the past when humans do not know as much as we do today, our ancestors turned to shamans, witchcraft, astrology and other pseudo-sciences for remedies and consolation. The Black Death of the 14th century, for instance, which killed more than 50 million or 60 percent of the entire population of Europe caused so much frenzy, panic and eventually despair that people had no other recourse but to turn to their gods for consolation amid hopelessness.

Since then, science has taken great strides to such an extent that we can practically find a cure to almost all imaginable and unimaginable medical disasters without resorting to incantations, hocus pocus and other antiquated methods. This is precisely why in times of crisis, like volcanic eruptions, epidemics or severe weather disturbances, there is every reason for the public to listen carefully and trust the experts.

Medical professionals, meteorologist, biologists, geologist and the like have the know-how and expertise to grapple with these problems that are beyond the comprehension of ordinary laymen. Not only the public at large but more so the national and local governments should therefore base their decisions and formulate individual and collective responses according to empirical evidence anchored on scientific findings in order to reduce uncertainties and risk.

In short, science, natural, social or any of its other branches, must become part and parcel of every policy decision making. As human interactions are becoming more and more complex, science and technology are increasingly becoming more relevant to public policy. Thus, the government as a whole, i.e. the legislative, executive and judiciary, cannot operate in isolation of scientific findings and methods.

The Taal eruption incident and 2019-nCoV will show how evidence-based decision making can result in rational, effective and economical social interventions. For instance, the Phivolcs periodic bulletins on the activity of Taal Volcano which greatly aided the national and local governments in coming up with their responses. The same goes with the regular bulletins and updates coming from the World Health Organization, Department of Health and other agencies concerning the novel coronavirus.

It is safe to assume that these agencies may not be 100-percent perfect but they are the best that the humans can device to inform the public on such matters. The information and data that these agencies issue is the most reliable, trustworthy and unbiased that will guide individuals and organizations in decision making.

It is regrettable that the President, as is now characteristic of him it seems, has the penchant of making far-reaching policies and decisions without first establishing the facts. In Taal, he has blurted out he want to pull out “his” police and let the local government officials take care of their own citizens. On the Wuhan virus, decisions have been slow in coming in keeping the public safe, feeding into the frenzy of disinformation and racism.

The threat by the President to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) dealing with the treatment of Filipino military personnel in the US, signed in October 1998, is an example of making decisions without evidence. There might be good reasons for scrapping the VFA but it should not be done because of the cancellation of Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa’s visa. An impact assessment is now being done by the Department of Justice—but only after the fact.

We saw this, too with the anti-drug campaign of the government. The policy to stamp out drug use and trafficking without regard to human rights has resulted in thousands of casualties and rampant violations of intrinsic and constitutionally protected rights of the victims and families. Worse, as is shown by anti-narcotic officials and the Vice President herself, Duterte is utilizing flawed and exaggerated data to support his claim that the country is turning into a narco-state. And while we are now faced with the great challenges with the Taal eruption and the Wuhan virus, the President still insists that illegal drugs is biggest problem.

I would also argue that his attacks against the Ayalas, Manny Pangilinan, and others are not justified by the evidence. They are done for purely political reasons.

It goes without saying that every policy decision by government officials, more so the president, must be measured, well-thought of, dispassionate, untainted by personal biases and prejudices. The President, the highest ranking official in government, cannot shoot from the hip every time he makes a policy decision.As we face what Taal and Wuhan may bring, I hope the government gets its act together in time. Otherwise, untold suffering is about to engulf our country.


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