ON DISTANT SHORE: Where is the change President Duterte promised?

It is ironic that the three promises used by then Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte to propel him to the presidency in 2016 would now be used by the opposition to challenge whomever the President is supporting in the May 2022 elections.
Duterte said in his campaign sorties in 2016 that he just needed six months to weed the country of criminals and corrupt elements, a feat no president has accomplished in the 75 years since the Americans allowed us to govern ourselves. He said he would fill Manila Bay with bodies of criminals and the corrupt. If the congressmen and senators tried to impeach him or block his program of change, he wouldn’t hesitate to abolish Congress or declare a revolutionary government.
And the people believed him. Well, at least 39 percent of the voters, or more than 16 million Filipinos thought he would bring change. Here finally was someone who understood them, who spoke their language, who acted and dressed like many of them, and who would finally bring down the drug lords, the criminals and the corrupt people in government.
He also promised to fight for the country’s sovereignty against China’s aggression, even promising to ski all the way to the disputed islands on the South China Sea to plant the Philippine flag on the territory.
But, alas, nearly six years later, the drug problem remains as bad as it had been, and the drug and criminal lords are still lording it over the hapless and hopeless Filipinos. And all the Duterte administration has to show for its relentless drug war are thousands of mostly poor drug users killed while allegedly shooting it out with policemen, and hundreds of politicians, lawyers, journalists, activists and other people murdered mostly by criminals riding in tandem.
Duterte never took the ski to any of the disputed islands in the West Philippine Sea to plant the Philippine flag. Instead, Chinese flags are now flying over those disputed islands, now reclaimed and housing military facilities from where the Chinese now harass Filipino fishermen and threaten Philippine military planes and ships.
This despite a favorable ruling by a UN tribunal that rejected China’s sweeping claims over most of South China Sea and upheld the Philippines’ 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone just a few days after he was sworn in as president, a ruling that he ignored, just like the Chinese did, and described as “just a piece of paper that he can throw into the waste basket, just exactly how the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman described it.
But the bigger issue that confronts Duterte now and would most likely dominate the debates in the May 2022 elections is his promise of curbing corruption and to never tolerate “even a whiff” of corruption in his administration.
Instead of eliminating corruption, it seems, as his erstwhile party mate and supporter Sen. Manny Pacquiao said, corruption is now more prevalent than the previous administration, a not-entirely-baseless claim that eventually led to the boxing champion’s ouster from the PDP-Laban party’s presidency.
Based on the many allegations of corruption through the years, including those made by Pacquiao, and several audit reports by the Commission on Audit that red-flagged several disbursements and non-disbursements of many Cabinet departments and other government agencies, it seems that there is reason to believe that not just a “whiff” of corruption, but a stinking mountain of corruption is being committed by some government officials.
At the forefront of these agencies is the Department of Health, which is being accused of negligence, incompetence and anomalous transactions in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic that is now crippling the Philippine economy, killing thousands of Filipinos, sending tens of thousands to the hospital, rendering millions jobless, and incarcerating millions in their own homes.
The DOH, under Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, was red-flagged by the DOH in its 2020 audit reports for its alleged “deficiencies” in managing P67.32 billion in pandemic funds, which include P11.89 billion in unspent funds. The unspent funds would have been hailed as prudence on the part of the DOH except that in the times of the pandemic, every centavo should be spent with urgency to buy PPEs and other medical supplies, beef up hospital bed capacity, purchase vaccines, increase testing and contract tracing capability, and make other much-needed disbursements to stop the surge of the deadly Covid-19 virus.
Part of these unspent funds is money for the payment of hazard pay and special risk allowances of health workers, who have been courageously and heroically working beyond call of duty and required hours to attend to patients in overcrowded, understaffed, and under-supplied hospitals all over the country. This has angered health workers and several lawmakers, who call such inaction, again not without basis, as “criminal negligence” on the part of the government.
And yet, despite these many unspent funds from 2020 by the DOH and other agencies, the government continues to seek billions of dollars in foreign loans that the present and future generations of Filipinos will pay for decades with their taxes.
This hoarding of funds has led to speculations, again not without basis, that the administration is saving them for until just before the 2022 elections.
Also under investigation by both the Senate and the House of Representatives is the purchase of facemasks and face shields at prices that they described as extremely overpriced. Senators Franklin Drilon and Imee Marcos said the purchases made by the DOH, through the Department of Budget and Management’s Procurement Department, was at P27.72 per mask and P120 per face shield when a DOH memorandum pegged the price at from P2 to P4 per mask and from P26 to P50 per face shield. Drilon said the discrepancy cost the government as much P1.1 billion in losses.
Amid all these allegations that would have prompted other leaders to order an investigation, President Duterte chose to castigate the COA for “flogging” government officials and ordered government agencies to ignore the audit reports, forgetting the fact that the COA is the constitutionally mandated government watchdog to ensure transparency and accountability in government, two factors needed to curb corruption that Duterte vowed to eradicate.
A few days later, Duterte suggested that the COA should “reconfigure” its audit report by immediately making it clear that “no corruption” was involved. It is not the duty of COA, however, to determine whether or not an action constitutes corruption. The COA issues red-flag warnings based on facts and careful analysis, but it is up to the Ombudsman to determine whether or not the concerned officials should be prosecuted for corruption.
Despite taking flak for his scolding of the COA, Duterte said even if Duque offered to resign, he would not accept it because “he did nothing wrong.” It was the nth time the President came to the defense of Duque.
Later, in another remark, the President said emphatically that he would stand behind Duque “even if it brings him down.” That’s a familiar line from a leader who has consistently used the “martyr effect” many times in the past.
Going back to the three promises made by Duterte on the issues of drugs, China and corruption that led 16 million Filipinos to believe change was forthcoming, we’ll have to ask once again: “Where is the change?”