SONA 2020: Duterte offers detours on road to pandemic recovery

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President Rodrigo Duterte speaks during his fifth State of the Nation Address on Monday

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, July 27) — President Rodrigo Duterte openly admitted flaws in the government's battle against COVID-19 in his fifth State of the Nation Address, his newest enemy that came four years into his term.

Duterte promised to fight the pandemic with the same passion he puts in the war on drugs, a formidable enemy yet to be vanquished since his promise to eradicate the illegal substance trade in his first three to six months in power.

"Together, we shall fight this pandemic with the same fervor as our campaign against illegal drugs, criminality, insurgency, and corruption in high places," Duterte said during his speech that lasted 1 hour and 41 minutes.

Cabinet officials earlier claimed that Duterte will zoom in on the country's pandemic strategies and the roadmap to recovery during the address, but he took numerous detours as he waged a word war against other enemies in his penultimate speech.

He did thank health frontliners, including military and police, food supply workers, security guards, and the national and inter-agency task forces as he recognized those who risked their lives to serve the people. He said an additional 20,000 health workers will be hired going into 2021 to boost presence in rural areas, especially at the barangay level, and dubbed them as heroes.

Duterte started on time, removing his face mask and taking the podium at 4:04 p.m. by acknowledging the "troubled" time the country is facing. Still, he told Filipinos not to live in fear.

"Let us not despair, the vaccine is around the corner. Sooner and not later, the virus that gobbled up thousands of lives will itself be laid to rest," the President said.

He later on bared that he sought the help of Chinese President Xi Jinping to allow the Philippines to be among the first to receive the supply of vaccines in case Beijing makes them first, along with a credit line to fast-track access to the cure.

RELATED: Duterte changes mind on face-to face classes, only to happen when vaccine becomes available

Duterte asked the help of Congress in passing key bills which will provide additional support to businesses, particularly small-scale firms hardest hit by lockdowns from March to May which paralyzed the economy. Among those he pushed were the Bayanihan 2 Act, the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises or CREATE Act that cuts income taxes for firms, and the Financial Institutions Strategic Transfer or FIST Act that lets banks sell their soured loans to make way for new credit lines.

The road ahead

However, the Chief Executive left little hints as to what lies ahead, save for an abstract pledge that the government will not rush into easing quarantine rules and reopening the economy.

"To open up the economy to pre-COVID-19 levels at this time is not an option because whatever good it can produce will only be gobbled up or be outweighed by the bad it will generate," Duterte said.

RELATED: PH economy may not return to 6% growth post-pandemic – analyst

"Buhay muna bago lahat [Lives above all]," he added, saying that current infections were much lower than initial projections which run as high as 3.5 million cases locally.

He pointed out that the global battle against the pandemic will take longer than expected, adding that there were issues with the distribution of cash aid to the country's poorest. "I must admit that our actions have been far from perfect — totoo iyan, I admit it. There could be improvements here or there, but all of us in government, including myself, assure you that we will not stop until we get things right and better for you," he added.

Among his other requests include pleas for rent and loan payment deferrals from property owners and banks; additional funding for micro, small, and medium enterprises; and skills training programs for thousands of overseas Filipino workers who returned home.

Duterte went on to admit that the state response was bumpy at the start, saying there were initial "difficulties" in ramping up COVID-19 testing. There are now 93 laboratories, which should help the government towards its goal of running 1.4 million tests by end-July.

Critics of the government's COVID-19 response have called for mass testing, wherein anyone — not necessarily all 100 million Filipinos — needing to get checked for the disease can get tested for free.

RELATED: Efficient mass testing, contact tracing New Zealand’s secret in containing COVID-19

As he was delivering his speech, the Department of Health reported another 1,657 new infections, bringing the case count to 82,040. Some 26,446 patients recovered while 1,945 died.

Duterte came by helicopter to the Batasan Complex in Quezon City to deliver his fifth SONA in front of a limited audience of lawmakers and government officials, where he laid out his priorities for his last two years in office. He mostly stuck to his prepared speech, although at one point admitted in jest that he doesn't understand what he has been reading.

The venue was almost changed just hours before 4 p.m. after swab tests revealed that a few lawmakers and security personnel supposed to join Duterte in the plenary hall tested positive for COVID-19.

War on oligarchs, telcos

Duterte quickly dove into criticizing the Lopez family behind ABS-CBN Corporation barely five minutes into his speech, as he called out Senator Franklin Drilon for supposedly blasting the President's political dynasty and dubbing it a form of oligarchy.

"I am a casualty of the Lopezes during the 2016 elections," he boldly claimed, saying the billionaire clan used the media network, which lost its franchise bid earlier this month, to "battle with political figures."

Duterte had a personal issue with the Kapamilya network over the airing of a smear ad against him during the 2016 elections, but said he has accepted the firm's apology. He then alluded that the network's now unused frequencies will be used by government to broadcast remote-learning lectures, as he took back his earlier order to allow face-to-face classes in low risk areas, saying it was a big gamble on public health.

RELATED: Duterte claims victory in dismantling oligarchy in PH

The President went on to shame private businesses, namely telecommunications firms Smart and Globe, as well as water concessionaires Maynilad and Manila Water and all other providers of public utilities. He even accused Drilon of crafting the Manila Water concession deal as a private lawyer back in the 1990s, which Duterte earlier deemed "onerous."

He dropped just three curse words during his entire speech — quite a feat for the tough-talking president — and all were directed towards the telco firms as he gave them a December ultimatum to fix their "lousy" service, threatening that they too could be out of the picture in the next two years.

He was generally friendly to other companies, even pledging that rules cutting red tape and improving the ease of doing business are on the table, with the promise to put an end to "over-regulation."

Drug woes remain

Duterte candidly admitted that drug trafficking remains rampant, claiming that operations have moved into the country's biggest jail facility which made it harder to track.

He made this as the basis of his renewed call to bring back the death penalty, preferring lethal injection to execute those convicted of violating the Dangerous Drugs Act of 2002.

He also warned that crimes will increase as more people fall into poverty due to the pandemic, but said he will keep the country "relatively peaceful."

"'Pag bumalik kayo sa dati, kagaya noon, patung-patong na naman ang patay dito. Sigurado, hahanapin ko kayo [If you go back to your old ways, bodies will pile up again like before. I will certainly hunt you down]," Duterte added, telling them to just look for jobs.

The administration has been repeatedly criticized for thousands of extrajudicial killings under its Oplan Tokhang program.

In the same speech, he vowed that the Philippines will not dodge its international commitments to uphold human rights. He argued that "freedom from illegal drugs, terrorism, corruption, and criminality" is part of such liberties. The President then vowed to uphold the rights of children and likewise called for an anti-discrimination law.

No aggression towards China

Duterte acknowledged anew how powerless he was in standing up against China on the West Philippine Sea.

"We have to go to war and I cannot afford it. Maybe some other President can, but I cannot. Inutil ako diyan, sabihin ko sa inyo [I am inutile regarding this, I can tell you that] and I'm willing to admit it," the President said, as he addressed critics of how his administration is handling the territorial row.

He insisted that the Philippines continues to enjoy an independent foreign policy, just as he blasted the supposed plan of the United States to set up military bases off Subic as he feared for another World War.

Other paths to growth

Duterte likewise batted for sustained infrastructure spending, greater support to agriculture via its "Plant, Plant, Plant" initiative, the creation of new departments and agencies to support various sectors, reforms in military pension, and the activation of the coco levy trust fund, to name a few.

LIST: Stimulus bills, new departments top Duterte's Congress wish list

The pandemic forced Malacañang to scale down the annual SONA, including its long queue of VIP guests who walk down the red carpet at the North and South entrances of the House of Representatives plenary in their designer wear.

Even media personnel were not allowed inside the Batasan premises, as they tapped into the broadcast feed of state-run Radio Television Malacañang for their coverage.