By Reuben Pio Martinez
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Acclaimed writer H.P. Lovecraft’s exact words echoed in my ears more than once these past few days. In the lack of concrete plans from the national government, the absurd budget allocations per department, the bizarre decision to allow incoming travels from China despite the circumstances, to the questionable peacekeeping strategies from authorities, perhaps that is where this “unknown” lingers.
It was the afternoon of March 16, 2020. COVID-19 was just declared as a pandemic, and Metro Manila was on the verge of a region-wide quarantine. My mother bursted through our house’s doors in a mild frenzy. In paraphrased words, she said that the government is planning to put the entire island of Luzon in an “enhanced” lockdown. This surprising announcement came very shortly of the initial Metro Manila-exclusive quarantine the week before. Intrigued, we all tuned-in to CNN’s Just the Facts: COVID-19, with reporter Pinky Webb relaying some of the most essential bits of information relayed at that time.
Then, Sen. Vicente “Tito” Sotto III stated that this is no longer just a medical threat. This pandemic is now a “national security threat.” Shivers went down my spine as I laid my back against a plastic chair, worried about what Sen. Sotto was talking about.
I thought that was my fear realized, but Sen. Salvador Panelo’s interview, which came after, fulfilled that role. The seemingly confident but evidently conceited Panelo attempted in vain to answer the most riveting questions. After numerous awkward pauses and inconsistent points about how the community is expected to function, it finally came to the point that Panelo hanged-up after Webb inquired again and again about when the lockdown would take place.
A confused hello and a visibly frustrated Webb were all that were needed for me to realize exactly what I was afraid of. It was at this moment when I realized that this was not an isolated incident; as of recent history, the Palace has been releasing inconsistent public statements here and there, be it through online means or live broadcasts.
This terror now is neither a being from the beyond, nor is it a faceless, tentacled monster that can kill you at a mere gaze. It is not even a monster that is too great for my consciousness to handle. It lives and breathes within the confusing statements and whatever unorganized image the government now has. There it was: the “knowable” unknown. It is something that could’ve been explained, but wasn’t. The lack of transparency that only pesters the privileged, but stalks the marginalized and others who have no means to access information.
There are plenty of cases to be made by certain people that this is a mere overreaction on my part. However, what so many fail to realize is that government officials and every single statement that they make is of public interest. Whatever they may say, it would somehow matter to anybody or even everybody in the community. There are three reasons why a clear communication process is a must.
“Hindi ito martial law!” (This isn’t martial law.) No matter how he assured everyone, I always found myself questioning “why does it feel like it?” The answer could never have been any clearer. In one certain Facebook live-stream, all I could notice was the pair of soldiers accompanying the president at the center. Adding fuel to the fire was the overabundance on “military” tactics over medical plans.
How can the people be assured if they are only hearing unsuitable plans for the situation? Duterte asked his audiences to pay close attention to the Department of Health (DOH), but how could we even take that seriously when there is not a single medical professional given the floor to? He calls the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) “our” soldiers, “our” guardians. While that might be true in both technical and figurative terms, and surely not every single soldier is a bloodthirsty goon, how can the people expect to be reassured when the AFP and most persons of authority have done plenty of unspeakable, violent acts against innocent bystanders?
The ministers of mistrust
When Webb asked Sen. Panelo regarding the timetable for the quarantine, all he could say was “immediately.” But, as Webb stated, “immediately” is relative. Panelo gave a terrible answer to a simple question, and the viewers were left frustrated.
Likewise, Duterte has a knack for the strangest comments imaginable Improvising statements is one thing, but inserting random paragraphs that simply repeat already easy-to-understand points is another. Case in point, this statement from one of his broadcast: “so it’s actually the social intercourse that is bad at this time.” What that really means will forever be lost in translation.
The administration as a whole is no stranger to erratum and self-contradicting statements. The most loyal, the most devoted of supporters would clamor on and on that the office was working through the details as the interview went on, and in similar cases, “human errors” were made. That should never be the case in any given situation because this is the government we are talking about, and being the very people charged in implementing protocols, confusing and at worst irritating people should be the last thing they should do.
We heal as one (or else)
“Sundin nalang natin, tutal para naman ito sa lahat. (We all should just follow. After all, this is for everyone.) Do not try to overdo things or think that you can do what you want to do because that is not allowed.” That very statement from Duterte, in a press conference regarding the cooperation from local government units (LGUs), sounded like a threat more than anything else, especially since he brought-up the possibility of arresting LGU officials who only wanted what is best for their respective communities. As the popular meme goes, “this does not spark joy.” What it instead sparks is terror, hopelessness, and incompetence in their part.
This is ultimately why there must be a need for a holistic communication process. Misconceptions can be clarified, but they should be avoided at all costs. Threaten the public and call it “maintaining order,” then all the President’s men would be opening Pandora’s Box. If Duterte wants cooperation, or a country moving in one direction as he puts it, then it must start with him dropping the already played-out bad boy gimmick and the “I couldn’t do enough” image. Stop spouting threats, and start talking sense.
Honesty is hardly ever heard
As the duly-elected leaders of the Philippines, it is their job to inspire people to move, and not to hide behind the most devoted supporters who may or may not have a clue to what is happening now. Secrets and lies can only do very little to convince people to fall in line, and can do massive damage once the truth comes to light. In worst cases, the people who truly cannot update themselves, including the poor, the marginalized sectors, the indigenous peoples, and others would be abandoned in this supposed “united” healing process.
Unfortunately, this has been a lesson that the government as a whole still refuses to learn. In all of our years of being colonized by foreign empires, of being burgled out of our taxes and human rights, of being exploited by the more powerful countrymen, the people in power still mock the people, and still keep us in the dark, even though some have their best to do better.
They wave signs saying that they are one with the frontliners, but they are the ones who secretly have themselves tested over the other people who need it. They beat people with sticks, telling them that they are “pasaway” for not following curfew regulations, yet one Sen. Koko Pimentel can just go around contaminating innocents unscathed. We sought transparency, and now, on March 27, 2020, the Palace has taken a side against public trust by banning media from government media.
They talk about compassion, but all there is injustice. Perhaps in dear time, true leaders can finally give the people reasons to trust the system again.
As for the rest of us, the things that we can do are limited; in this limited space, we can ask questions. Though it may not be too much to do it, speaking out here and there can go a long way. We need answers because the people need and deserve to know the truth, no matter how ugly it is. Only then can we truly make the unknown knowable, and for us to fight against fear itself. [P]