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A wrong mantra

Nick V. Quijano Jr.



“Obey first, complain later” is the mantra many, even by well-meaning Filipinos, often say in these days of the COVID-19 pandemic. But this mantra is the one we must be keenly aware of, even avoid at all costs.

Right off, however, I want to make it clear this has nothing to do in any way with us suspending our normal, daily routines and the need for us to stay inside our homes to flatten the curve of viral transmissions. That is science.

Being explicitly conscious of the science of quarantine and to obey it to contain the pandemic is beyond question. But it is altogether another matter to obey without question when the plea is made for political reasons.

On close examination, the “obey first, complain later” mantra ingeniously hides the insidious fact it also orders us to suspend criticism against government efforts, particularly the lack of it, against the dreaded disease.

It is, therefore, in this vulnerable moment when we follow rigorous science where we need keep our guard up when science is being used for political agendas.

We need our critical faculties on high alert in these times when scientific or medical expertise is put in service of political issues. We need to be aware there is a large distinction of what science is and what is political.

In fact, for epidemic experts, our mantra shouldn’t be about us being blind. Instead it should be “know your epidemic, act on its politics.”

The clearest questions in this pandemic are always political. And those questions always revolve on one essential question: What should the public demand of their governments during this public emergency?

Seeking answers to that essential question will always come in the form of complaints. And it is only when those complaints are satisfactorily answered and how fast those are answered that it bares to us the politics of it all.

It is only through such responses can we be clear about the political motives for — and consequences of — public health measures. Public health measures, I believe, have always gone far beyond controlling the disease.

As one social theorist says, “Pandemics are the occasion for political contests, and history suggests that facts and logic are tools for combat, not arbiters of the outcome.”

Illustrative of this point is the fact that recent loud complaints — with which some dismiss as mere politicking — against some draconian quarantine measures, shown clearly either to be illogical and false but which this government sought to undertake, enabled the junking or modifying or correcting of such measures. The battle, however, still continues.

As I write this, the Department of Health (DoH) is still unable to paint a clear picture of the COVID-19 situation. In its daily briefings, the Health department has so far confined itself to announcing new cases, donations made but has not adequately answered questions on health policies or the true progress of the COVID-19 fight.

We need to demand answers to those crucial questions if only to adequately prepare ourselves should there be a scientific need for a much longer time to defeat the disease.
And the prospect of a much longer fight against the disease means there is no return to the status quo, which is an earthshaking political development.

In fact, the “obey first, complain later” mantra allows no other conclusion but that it is to give time for any government to prepare itself for the ensuing political storm once an overwhelming crisis is over.

Political leaders urge us to suspend our criticism so that they can be one step ahead once the public outcry comes is the naked political truth.

When it come to our domestic politics, the outcry will come in the form on how this government responded to the disease. With all the emergency power and funds given to Mr. Duterte, he and his allies no longer have any excuse if they fail is the one political conundrum this government will have to deal with in the foreseeable future.

But while we cannot exactly foretell how the politics will go after this crisis, this does not mean we keep our silence in the present. We still have the obligation to call out inadequacies now that the state is calling for us to discipline ourselves, to make “every man be a quarantine officer.”

And being individual quarantine officers, we cannot go on with the old ways, quickly making judgments about how our fellow Filipinos have reacted to the health crisis. All the more we must always keep our privileges in check in this crisis.

While we can adequately calculate by ourselves the risks to our health it must be emphasized there is always great uncertainty about the public’s behavior towards a health crisis. We can never calculate that.

In fact, the “obey first, complain later” mantra always fails to explain why many Filipinos have acted the way they acted in face of this crisis. Most of those who invoke the mantra quickly conclude Filipinos are plainly hardheaded and undisciplined. That is far from the truth.

If that were true, how then are we to see how the same hardheadedness and indiscipline, which also plagues well-developed countries?

Histories of pandemics and epidemics also tell us we cannot make such easy conclusions. Chroniclers of pandemics have written about the reckless indifference of people, especially the poor, to the dangers of contagion, and their subversion of whatever sanitary or quarantine measures were imposed upon them.

Many reasons are given for this. It ranges from fatalism, to gambling with uncertainty — epidemiologists call it the “lottery of the microbe” — to the predictable hardships brought on by poverty, unemployment and, tragically, hunger.

We need to clearly address all our reactions and responses, not with unfounded remarks or thoughts but in the only human way we can do — respect for other people.

It is only by respecting other people and their condition that we can reach out and persuade them about the need to do the necessary health precautions and to understand their needs, particularly food.

It is only when we openly and clearly communicate with other people using neither insults nor force, which makes for strong communities. And strong cooperative communities are the only health measure to fight the disease.

It is only by understanding our individual communities where we gain mutual trust within our communities. Mutual trust, not fear or disdain, between people lies our best hope to get us through this crisis.


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