ADDING TO the grim start of 2022, the second week of the year saw the steady rise in COVID-19 cases, breaching the three million mark within less than two weeks. On January 12, the country recorded an all-time high of 208,164 active cases.
On the third year of the pandemic, authorities could only resort to pointless policies that could put the population at even greater risk.
CMFR took note of how the media reported developments without critical analysis.
Shortened isolation, quarantine for healthcare workers
Because of the shortage of healthcare workers (HCWs), the Interagency Task Force (IATF) approved shorter isolation and quarantine periods for HCWs who are asymptomatic and fully vaccinated, including those infected but showing only mild or moderate symptoms. The same rule was applied to those who were exposed to COVID-19.
As news accounts cited protests from health workers and medical professionals, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III clarified that the policy was discretionary and not absolute. He failed to make clear how this helps, as policy should be defined to provide greater safety.
Media, however, did not ask how the government planned to address the crisis presented by the shortage of nurses, medical technologists and hospital personnel.
No mass testing, contact tracing
Media reported that the DOH acknowledged possible underreporting in the number of cases. In separate interviews on ONE News and ABS-CBN News, spokesperson Maria Rosario Vergeire said antigen test results are still not included in the daily case counts, and that the submission of these has been inconsistent.
In a January 12 press briefing, Vergeire said the DOH submitted for IATF approval a policy dropping testing for asymptomatic close contacts, recommending instead monitoring the development of symptoms. Healthcare workers, senior citizens and persons with comorbidities would be prioritized for testing. Dr. Edsel Salvana, technical adviser to the DOH, reasoned that "many, many" Filipinos have been vaccinated, and the chance of recovery is higher and hospitalization is less likely for a vaccinated individual who is not in the vulnerable population.
ONE News reported that Dr. Rabindra Abeyasinghe, country director of the World Health Organization in the Philippines, agreed with targeted testing as a more prudent use of resources. He added that testing asymptomatic people would artificially drive up positivity rates.
But a TV Patrol report included an important point made by Edson Guido, data analytics head of ABS-CBN: fewer tests conducted would yield lower numbers, which might give the public a false sense of security.
Media still have not checked the status of government funding for testing and how it has been using its allocated funds. Reports have not indicated whether these questions were asked, let alone answered.
In seeming contrast to the proposed policy of less testing, President Duterte himself ordered the ramping up of testing capacities. But reports did not clarify whether this presidential directive could be implemented as soon as possible.
As testing laboratories continue to be swamped, reporters have not pointed to the government's belated appreciation for self-administered test kits, which other countries are already using. It was only on January 6 that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) opened applications for product registration to manufacturers. The following day, Duque cautioned that the kits already being sold online might be counterfeit products, as they have no FDA approval. As of this writing, the DOH had not released the official guidelines for the use of self-administered test kits. Journalists have not confronted the government's slowness on this intervention.
Media failed to track the budget allocations made for contact tracing, which DILG Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya in a January 12 ANC interview said have been cut for 2022.
The DOH itself was uninterested in this important strategy. Duque said in a January 12 press briefing that contact tracing is no longer a priority intervention. He said the "widespread community transmission" renders contact tracing impractical, suggesting that contact tracers monitor those in quarantine and help in vaccinations instead.
But contact tracing plays a critical role as Filipinos and other travelers enter the country. They may be involved in spreading the virus unless they are effectively restricted by quarantine, which is obviously not the case given the notorious breaking of protocols as exemplified by Gwyneth Chua.
No public transport for the unvaccinated
Media should have discussed more fully other problematic policies.
On January 11, the Department of Transportation (DOTr) issued an order prohibiting unvaccinated individuals from using public transport in Metro Manila. Media reported reactions of transport groups and the Commission on Human Rights that the order violated the public's right to mobility and sidelined the need for a more efficient vaccination program. Artemio Tuazon, DOTr undersecretary, said the unvaccinated are still allowed to go out using private vehicles.
Only Philstar.com included key figures to question the wisdom of the policy: only 67 percent of Metro Manila's population are vaccinated, and around 71 percent of households do not have private vehicles.
Media reported that the Commission on Elections junked two petitions seeking to delay the national polls: one filed by the group National Coalition for Life and Democracy asking to suspend the May elections due to COVID-19, and another by the Cusi faction of PDP-Laban asking to reopen the filing period of COCs. The junking of the PDP-Laban petition means the faction has no official presidential candidate for the 2022 elections.
Citing Commissioner Rowena Guanzon, journalists also reported that the Comelec's First Division will promulgate its resolution on the disqualification cases against presidential aspirant Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, Jr. on or before January 17.
CMFR jeered Manila Bulletin's exclusive story on an alleged hacking of Comelec's servers went off the beaten track. The Bulletin cited a "source" who provided them with the information for the story. Aside from the breach, sensitive data were supposedly downloaded by hackers.
Comelec denied the claim, questioning the Bulletin's process of verification. Interestingly, some news organizations also questioned the Bulletin on the same point.
But CMFR noted, "whatever its deficiencies, the Bulletin's report flagged the vulnerability of election data to hacking, a matter of security that Comelec needs to guarantee and media should continue to closely scrutinize before May 2022."