Duterte Addresses an Ailing Nation

President’s address amid coronavirus crisis

With his economy slipping into negative territory and with 86 percent of the nation’s 109 million citizens reporting they were stressed by the Covid-19 crisis, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, in his fifth State of the Nation address, in a combative speech laid out an infrastructure-heavy program aimed at getting his country back on track, bragged about his bringing the country’s biggest broadcast system to heel, and threatened to expropriate the leading telecommunications companies by December unless they improve their performance.

It was not a conciliatory speech, nor one that one that would reassure anybody interested in investing in the Philippines, but none would be expected from Duterte. The president mounted a slashing attack on the usual subjects -- what he called the oligarchs who control the country’s utilities, saying he was a personal victim of the Lopez family, who own the now-disenfranchised ABS-CBN broadcasting empire.

In particular, he took after the Ayala family, which owns Globe Telecom, and the Pangilinans, who nominally own PLDT, threatening them with expropriation unless service improves. The fact is that in the past. government services have been so botched that periodically they have been handed off to private enterprise — as in an infamous water contract that Duterte has gnawed at with the Ayalas and the Pangilinans that the government was incapable of getting right.

He returned to the subject of his four-year war on drugs, which has taken thousands of lives, calling drugs a scourge destroying families and demanding that Congress pass a death penalty by lethal injection for a range of crimes although his shoot first, ask questions later has had little effect beyond corrupting an already corrupt police force, reducing thousands of poor families to sorrow and ignoring the wellsprings of drug addiction in a poor country whose government compounds the problem by providing insufficient avenues out of poverty.

He once again defended the government’s approach to the Chinese domination of the South China Sea, saying there is nothing his government can do to dislodge them.  “Unless you are prepared to go to war, you’d better solve this with diplomatic endeavors. We are claiming it. China has the arms. We do not have it, it is as simple as that. There is nothing the Philippines can do.” He ruled out any American return to Subic Bay, saying “if they put bases here at this time, this will ensure if war breaks out, it would mean the extinction of the Filipino race."

He adopted a supplicant’s stance toward China over a vaccine for the coronavirus, saying he had spoken to President Xi Jinping, almost begging for China to put the Philippines at the head of the line when a vaccine is developed.

With more than 80,000 people affected by the coronavirus, rising at a rate of up to 2,000 new cases per day, and with nearly 2,000 dead, the government has come under considerable fire for botching the country’s response. But he defended the response, saying the prevention measures put in practice have saved 1.3 million to 1.5 infections. With testing at only 12,398 per million people, the Philippines lags badly. He promised to increase testing stations in an attempt to ameliorate the problem.

Acknowledging the difficulty of dealing with the coronavirus, he said it would take longer than expected and called for "everyone's cooperation in the fight against COVID-19."

Although he outlined a number of programs designed to get the country back on track towards the 6 percent plus growth it enjoyed since 2011 including extensive highway construction, particularly on the island of Luzon, it was not a speech loaded with specific programs.

In any case, returning to normal would be a Herculean job.  Some 5.2 percent of families say they have experienced hunger since the onset of the virus. Some 21.6 percent of the people remain below the poverty line.  The Asian Development Bank is predicting the economy will contract by at least 3.8 percent in 2020, a net turnaround of 10 percent. Inward remittances from the 11 million Filipinos overseas are expected to decline by as much as 20 percent, according to the World Bank. In 2019, remittances topped US$33.1 billion, 9.3 percent of Gross Domestic Product. Another increasingly lucrative leg under the economic stool is revenues from online gaming, primarily from China, which have also fallen sharply, with thousands of Chinese workers returning to China as Philippine Online Gaming Operations, or POGOs close, cutting sharply into real estate values in Manila.

Thousands of protesters rallied outside the government complex where the speech took place, calling to junk the draconian anti-terror law implemented earlier this month, and demanding the renewal of the ABS-CBN franchise.

With tens of millions of children out of school, he continued to say that face-to-face learning in schools is not possible as long as no vaccine is available, although he said he would push strongly to improve telecommunications across the country to facilitate learning.

The president said the government will increase access to healthcare by 2021.

He put together a laundry list of programs, including those involving professional development, a nursing education act, a national disease and management authority to better respond to pandemics of the type that has devastated the world, modernizing fire protection and pointing out that in his own home town of Davao City, the fire department owns a Studebaker fire truck, a US car company that went out of business in 1966.  

He lauded his own crackdown and cleanup of Boracay Island, saying a law should be enacted as well creating Boracay Island Authority and calling for environmental protection across the country, including cleaning up the mining industry, which is notoriously polluting.


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