EXPLAINER: IATF doesn’t explain science on longer quarantine and 7th-day test. Duterte order to Cebu means Capitol flunks Duque ‘critique’

·6 min read

THE order of President Rodrigo Duterte -- relayed through Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque Monday, June 14 -- is supposed to end the squabble between the central government and one local government unit, Cebu Province, over health protocol for Filipino returnees from abroad. The president has ruled: end of discussion. There are loose ends, however, which need sorting out.

WHERE THEY DISAGREE. The dispute has been over the quarantine and testing of Filipinos arriving on international flights, particularly at the Mactan-Cebu International Airport. Both the IATF and Cebu Capitol require 14-day quarantine and testing but they differ on:

[a] Period of facility-based isolation -- Under IATF fiat, seven days, reduced from the original 10 days. Capitol orders, by Provincial Board ordinance, only three days if found negative. The rest of the 14-day full quarantine is served at the returnee’s home.

[b] The time of testing -- IATF wants the test done on the seventh day; Capitol on day one or day of arrival.

CAPITOL ARGUMENT. The Province, through Governor Gwen Garcia and those supporting the stand of the Province — from the island’s mayors to senators — explains the matter of financial burden and hassle on the Filipino residents and overseas workers coming home. Why require them to stay in hotels, spend more money from personal fund (for residents) and government purse (for OFWs) longer than necessary for everyone’s health? Why prolong the reunion of returnees with their families?

As to the concern over infection, Capitol says the quarantine is still 14 days but the home stay is longer and the tests are done, even twice: when the returnee arrives and seven days later at home. Capitol’s second test is an after-thought, in an amendment of the PB ordinance, enforceable by the town or city of the returnee.

IATF CHOOSES SILENCE. The national task force against Covid -- whose face is IATF-MEID (Inter-Agency Task Force for Management of Emerging Diseases) or IATF for short — has not answered Capitol’s argument, at least not publicly.

That seems to be the posture of IATF from the beginning. President Duterte early on said the local governments must follow national policy coming from IATF, which he approves as commander-in-chief and over-all chairman. IATF word is the law. For a good reason: The government must not quarrel among themselves during a major crisis.

So the conversation has mostly been one-sided. The governor and her allies are doing much of the talking while the national leaders are keeping quiet — but responding where they can inflict greater force and harm. IATF diverted international flights for Cebu to Manila. twice, but stuck to the longer though reduced facility-based quarantine.

LGU ORDINANCE VS IATF GUIDELINE. It can be more than arrogance of power, this IATF stance of not bothering even to explain its protocol that has been beaten up during the past few days.

To the task force, it’s sensible policy: central government cannot be fighting, at least in public, a component or instrument of the same government.

Yet public needs to understand why the LGU, the unit of government closest to the people, is standing up for its own procedure. It wants to know which to follow and the consequences of its local leaders who stand and speak out.

The public — not just the officials and employees of the national government assigned in Cebu — is made to choose between IATF policy and province-ordained protocol.

LAWS SUPPORT CAPITOL. IATF is supposed to need laws to support its actions. The Bayanihan to Heal as One Act included in its provisions the fiat that national policy on the pandemic shall be followed. But the first Bayanihan law had long expired and Bayanihan Two (assuming it contains the same limiting provision on LGUs) still has to be extended by Congress. As to the Local Government Code, the secretary of health’s authority to direct health policies during a pandemic shall not exceed six months.

Governor Gwen cited the LGC’s limit but not the Bayanihan law’s loss of force.

Still, even assuming that all the laws support Capitol moves, the president exercises vast powers -- express, implied and imagined — as the leader of the nation and commander-in-chief of the country. The very emergency whose protocol they quarrel about would seem to justify extending or bending of powers. At least, no one has yet gone to the ombudsman or the court to complain or seek relief over any excess or abuse of power.

A local government, pitted against the central government, is no match. Local officials know that, as well as the poll-certified popularity of the president, which would make dissent a high risk. The president supervises and controls LGUs and has one podium much more influential than all the priests’ pulpits combined. The reason LGU chiefs often preface their opposing view with, “We support the president’s policies.”

The local leader is not without a powerful card up the sleeve. The governor dangled more than once what votes-and-assets-rich Cebu can offer. Remember what the Province generously gave national candidates in 2016, which it can be stingy about in 2022?

THE SCIENCE OF IT. Well, President Duterte has spoken. Dutertes’s order to Cebu Province, announced by Roque, indicated the president heeded the opinion of DOH chief Francisco Duque III. Duque was instructed, after Duterte’s May 31 meeting with Cebu officials, to “critique” the locally-modified guideline.

The IATF didn’t explain the science behind the national protocol. Neither did the president via Roque. The science behind the regulation would’ve helped Cebuanos understand the decision, that it may not be motivated by “spending greed of imperial Manila.”

Many Cebuanos do not know that studies abroad show “residual risk of infection after 10 days of quarantine” and an additional 50 percent more cases are diagnosed on the seventh day, when the returned may have already exposed his entire family to the virus.

The timing matters, according to one study which IATF apparently adopted, cited among others by Manila Times columnist Marit Cabugon in a June 14, 2021 column. That is science but it’s not taken up in the conversation, not by IATF, which has kept mum, not by Capitol. which has focused on the economics of it.

Concern over cost and emotional burden must be weighed against public safety, the risk of infection or public. But who weighs that? IATF led by the “over-all chairman,” the president.

The president has spoken. An LGU can only plead its case, even if it does so loudly, with some heat or anger, for the benefit of its constituents.