MANILA, Philippines — Disagreements with how the Duterte administration is handling the coronavirus pandemic prompted Dr. Anthony Leachon to quit his post as adviser on Wednesday, joining a number of top officials who left the government over a much-criticized strategy in confronting the outbreak.
“I left due to my differences with DOH (Department of Health) policies e.g. lack of sense of urgency, problems in COVID-19 data management, and transparency in communication process,” Leachon said in an online exchange with Philstar.com.
“I have to align with my true north,” he added.
Leachon’s departure came days after he went public to say that the interagency task force on emerging infectious diseases (IATF), the policymaking body during the pandemic chaired by Duque, was “losing focus” on how to stop the spread of the virus which so far has infected 27,000 nationwide.
That apparently did not sit well with some of his colleagues. In an interview with CNN Philippines shortly after he announced his departure on Facebook, Leachon said he thought he was “asked to resign” after he criticized IATF’s management of the disease.
"Dr. Leachon's preemptive releases of some information prior to official announcement jeopardized the communication efforts of the IATF and NTF and caused unwarranted misundestanding between two entities that shoul be working together," said Carlito Galvez Jr., chief implementer at the National Task Force on COVID-19, in a statement responding to Leachon's resignation.
"He has been cautioned but remained deaf to collegial advice. Constructive criticism among colleagues is most welcome to assure improvement, but this should have been done internally to maintain unity of effort," he added.
Health Secretary Francisco Duque III has not responded to request for comment as of this posting.
As it is, the embattled Duque has been on hot water since March when the government belatedly took seriously the threat of the coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, which was initially downplayed with refusal to put up all-encompassing travel restrictions in January and February.
The problems, and criticisms against Duque and IATF, have since shifted from the lack of testing capabilities, insufficient personal protective equipment for health workers, and an apparent overreliance on lockdowns to control the outbreak. To date, the government is still struggling to meet its target 30,000 tests a day, although 1.32 million PPEs were already distributed to hospitals nationwide.
But Duque’s and DOH’s shortcomings appears to have not escaped the Ombudsman’s eye. Just hours before Leachon’s announcement, Ombudsman Samuel Martires said he created two teams to probe alleged DOH’s lapses, including delays in PPE procurement, rising deaths and infections of health workers, inaction in the release of compensation to infected workers, and delayed reporting COVID-19 cases.
Duque, who has enjoyed the backing of President Duterte despite criticisms, said he welcomes the investigation.
For his part, Galvez said while transparency on COVID-19 response is a "primary objective," decisions must be first set firmly before announcements are made "to derive the best decision that will serve the common good."
Leachon was not the first official who quit his job during the pandemic due to differences with the government’s approach to the lingering health crisis.
Last April, Ernesto Pernia abandoned his position as secretary of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) due to personal reasons “and partly to differences in development philosophy” with the economic managers.
While he did not go into specifics, Pernia’s resignation was highly attributed to his preference to reopen the economy from stringent lockdowns sooner than most of his colleagues would have wanted.
Earlier this month, President Duterte also suddenly accepted a once-thought shelved resignation of Eliseo Rio Jr. from the Department of Information and Communications Technology. Surprised by the president’s decision, Rio later said he was “eased out” of DICT for raising privacy concerns over the government’s decision to tap StaySafe, a privately-developed app for its contact tracing efforts.
Pernia was immediately replaced by Karl Kendrick Chua, formerly a finance undersecretary, at the NEDA. Rio, meanwhile, was succeeded by singer RJ Jacinto at the DICT.
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