Finally, The Revenge of The Women

Election season – otherwise known as the hunting season – will soon be upon us and already we see stirrings of activity.

VP Robredo has come up with her economic plan. The announcement was her reminder that she is alive and well at a time when speculation was swirling the President was not. The rumor  was unofficially debunked by the upload of a really bad attempt of a family photo and officially by a statement from Sen. Bong Go the President is up and about. So, for the time being, we are all good.

The RRD National Coalition for a Revolutionary Government was sufficiently concerned to invite leading members of the state security apparatus to discuss the matter over drinks.

With talks of the election comes speculation of the possible Opposition candidates for the presidency. For context here is what happened in 2016:

Presidential/VP Results  (Party) – % Vote:                 

Duterte (PDP-Laban)- 39.7 %/ Cayetano (Ind.) -14.2 %    

Roxas (Liberal) – 23.5 %/ Robredo (Liberal) – 35.1 %       

Poe (Ind) – 21.4 %/ Escudero (Ind) – 12.1 %

Binay (UNA)  –  12.0 %/ Honasan (UNA) – 1.9%

Defensor (PRP) – 3.4 %/ Marcos (Nationalista) – 34.6 %

     N.A.           /  Trillanes (Ind) – 2.1%

From the above only Grace Poe and Leni Robredo will arguably be left standing in 2022. Marcos has a re-election protest that could run out of time and with it likely his political ambitions. Mar is done after a failed presidential and senatorial attempt. Cayetano and Escudero will mine their future elsewhere. 

Grace and Leni are cut from the same mold. They are decent, intelligent, honest, hard working, socially and religiously conservative. They are ideologically in the middle of the spectrum with Leni marginally more left given her work with the poor. Grace is urban, married and raised in privilege. Leni is provincial, widowed and middle class. Politically Grace has the stronger brand, a legacy of her hugely popular parents, and a wider funding base (Ramon Ang is a huge backer as are the Makati corporates). Leni ran for the Liberal VP slot so her money was largely from the party’s war chest which by now is probably depleted. 

Leni is the more battle scarred and, probably, the mentally and emotionally tougher of the two. As the standard bearer for the Liberal Party and next in line to the throne, she has been excluded, insulted, ridiculed and intimidated by the Administration and its supporters. She has been trolled by bullies who like to pick on the unprotected. Leni has been left out to dry by her previous backers so she was easy pickings. She has been for the last five years literally on her own. That she has not been diminished by the pummeling is witness to her strength of character. She represents all that we would want in a human being of any gender, a role model for every Filipina in a misogynistic society that sees women as less than equal children of God.

Grace has led a more sheltered life, socially, economically and politically. She has enjoyed the umbrella of her father’s fans and financial backers as well as the shelter of the Senate. She has proven to be a responsible Senator, always prepared. She endured a grueling presidential campaign but benefitted from not being the object of attention in an essentially three party race where Mar was the lightning rod of the Duterte and Binay camps. Grace came off relatively unscathed.

Grace and Leni are both good people. The problem is they draw from the same political well. They both believe you do not steal because you can, that public service is a trust and not a bank account and that leadership comes from respect and not fear.

So the question is not who of the two ladies is the better candidate but who is the more electable should they both seek the presidency.

To win the highest office requires money, an organization, a brand, grit and, very important, an overwhelming desire to win. Grace and Leni were reluctant to enter politics but were driven by circumstances. Both were moved by a call to restore what had been taken away from them in one case by politics and in the other by the demise of a partner. FPJ  was cheated from his political destiny. Jesse was cheated from life by what was possibly a conspiracy.

Grace will draw advisers largely from the business world. Leni, a UP alumni in economics, will reach out partly to the academe and I imagine from remnants of the Liberal Party which may or may not work for her.

Leni garnered 14.4 million votes in 2016, Grace 9.1 million; but this should not be a measure of their electability. They ran for separate offices with differing dynamics. Considering her newness Grace accounted for herself well and could have possibly made it in a two person affair with Duterte. The Liberals saw it the other way, that Grace was the spoiler that deprived Mar of the presidency. The truth is the gap was too large and Duterte could just as well taken from Grace’s votes as could have Mar.

Since then Grace has remained dutiful but quiet in her role as Chair of the Senate Committee on Public Service. Probably at the advise of her political and financial handlers she has stayed under the radar never venturing to go off-piste where the uneven terrain could get her into trouble with the Palace.

Leni was an even bigger neophyte in national politics. She barely eked out a victory over Marcos even with the support of the incumbent Liberal machinery. She has since built up her CV in a very hostile environment and armored herself with a toughness that is second to none among political figures, male or female. Nonetheless she still lacks the killer instinct and readiness to instill fear that is critical in the blood sports that is politics. She is not the alpha female she needs to and probably never will be because that is not who she is. 

There will be many bumps and turns on the journey to 2022. There is the President’s health, COVID and its impact on the economy, the emergence of new or dormant players like Sen. Lacson. Grace or Leni could reinvent themselves over the next 20 months. Again, neither of them may actually run for President preferring to seek the safe haven of the Senate for what is almost an assured thing.

If the elections were today I would venture Grace is the more electable. She has the machinery of the last campaign, the funding , the brand of FPJ albeit diminishing with time, a base of supporters and a relatively clean political bill of health. 

Leni has the greater body of work with all  her years working with the poor. She has developed a toughness as an embattled VP. She  is arguably the more deserving of the position given everything that she has had to endure but fairness in politics is never a measure of success. She has a bright future in politics because she represents all that is worthy in public service.

Many hope the two ladies would coalesce so as not to split the vote. It could be Thelma and Louise riding their car over the cliff but I think not. Now if Sara would join the tandem it would be a proper hen party, Charlie’s Angels without Charlie. Together these women may finally fix what years of male domination and damage have done. I think the nation would welcome that, the revenge of the Filipina women.


Leni’s address to the nation was an exercise in restraint, clarity, decency and composure.

It was a plan for economic and health recovery – more stimulus, help to SMEs, agriculture, loan compassion, TTT – that while not novel nor complete, bears repeating. Not everybody will agree with the specifics but never mind: As they say put 10 economists together and you will get 11 prescriptions.

There was a call for unity and common purpose. Her speechwriters somewhat over worked the wording but it was good enough.

The Vice-Presidential address came after one of the most difficult periods of the Administration what with the widespread revelations on Philhealth, rumors about the President’s health, a virus that refuses to bend, an economy that refuses to straighten, bombings in Jolo, and a health secretary who single handedly will turn over this country to the Opposition. The timing was designed to make a point – that the VP is ready, willing and able to step up to her Constitutional responsibility – which did not amuse the Palace but again the Palace is not easily amused these days except by the RRD National Co-Ordinating Council For Something Or Another. Malacanang advised Leni not to rock a boat which is already listing. As a direct order from her Commander-in-Chief she might take heed.

Always one to fuel a fight, media headlined the VP’s speech as an attack on the President. In truth the speech did not meet the standard for a bludgeon.

Did the speech move the needle? I suspect not because it lacked a necessary element. It lacked anger and not just any kind of anger, it needed a pounding-on-the-table anger. That is what is required to raise the public temperature.

To rally a nation one must stoke an emotion. Change, real change that gets you to shout at the top of your lungs from the top of your roof, comes not from the mind, not from thoughtfulness, not from an economic program however robust. Quantum change comes from a feeling of being violated. It needs a punch in the gut, an expletive borne from frustration and despair, and her writers did not offer this.

Leni is quietly strong, courageous, honest, hard working, intelligent, caring, a proper lady and herein lies the issue. In the words of Michelle Obama, Leni goes high when her opponents go low. I am not sure that taking the high ground is enough to get political traction. Filipinos are desperate for hope, a promise that things will get better. They are looking for a leader with toughness and a killer instinct to do what it takes to get a job done. Absent a powerful legacy like a martyred husband or an enormously popular actor, is it possible for a Filipina to be elected President without being a female canine?

Mrs. Robredo arguably does not have the money nor the organization to successfully run in 2022 but who knows? At the rate our health officials are mismanaging COVID and the unfolding corruption the country could be handed to an Opposition candidate, almost any Opposition candidate, on a platter.

But Mrs. Robredo is not about the Presidency, she is about something bigger than that. She is about the dignity of the Filipina. She is a message to every mother and every daughter and the message is this: That you can lose the protection of your husband, be disrespected, ridiculed, insulted and physically and emotionally pummeled as far too many Filipinas are; but you can hold your head high, stand your ground and nurture your family with love. Mrs. Robredo is a tribute to every OFW that toils in foreign lands in abusive conditions so their offspring can have a life they never had. She stands for every Filipina who works in the fields, not better than a beast of burden, yet returns every evening to an often drunken husband, to feed and coach her children on the wonders of knowledge and the values of decency and respect. She represents the inner strength that lies in every Filipina and that legacy is bigger than the Presidency. Mrs. Robredo must remember that, for that alone she must not stand down.

Art. VII, Sec. 11 of the Constitution could deliver the Palace to Mrs. Robredo, if and when only time and the president’s health will tell. Like a reserve quarterback knowing she may never be allowed to play, all she can do is be ready. Here are a few suggestions:

One, dispense with yellow. Like it or not, the VP is seen as a vestige of the past Administration and all its connotations, right or wrong, of elitism, entitlement and predatory capitalism.

Two, work the grassroots and the young. Mine the Bernie Sanders brand of populism, fairness and economic equality. Build a movement around NGOs and volunteer youth.

Three, offer herself to her natural constituency, the mothers, wives and daughters of this nation. Reach out to the partners of military men especially those killed in combat with economic opportunities and education. If the Government has 19 ex-military in high places, have 200,000 spouses of soldiers as your shield.

Four, talk bottom up in economic policy, not top down. Trickle down economics like trickle down social amelioration works for the corrupt not the masses.

Five, give credit where credit is due be it in the current Administration. Wish the President well. Build bridges to the Cabinet secretaries. Work with Balik Probinsya, even if you are denied, using your NGO alliances to create sustainable jobs, decongest overcrowded, starving and unhealthy cities. The worse that can happen is some good will come of it.

Six, let people know, modestly, of the good you have done with the little you have been given.

Seven, stay in your lane. If you are to swerve, pick your spots. Like a good martini, shake rather than stir.

Eight, bring in new, really good people not recycled ghosts of the past.

Nine, take risks in measure. Talk tough if not dirty especially on corruption, be ready to fight it out in the trenches. Promise even stuff you cannot fulfill. The nice thing about politics is you do not actually have to deliver on commitments like solving drugs in six months or a virus-free Christmas or a cleansing of Philhealth in your political lifetime.

Ten, double down on key messages. Economic policy papers are well and good but corruption is what infuriates the people who count, the voters. Duterte ran on corruption, Mar on the economy, guess who won.

Lastly, instill fear, sharpen your claw. Do not get angry at your enemies but let them know you could get even.

In short, build an edge. That is what people want in a female leader, a lady who walks softly but carries a big stick. Think a kinder and gentler Miriam Santiago on steroids.

A Time For Sobriety

 “Something’s happening  and we don’t know what it is … ” – Bob Dylan

These happened in just one week:

Spokesperson Harry Roque announced the President is in “perpetual isolation”. Was this a Freudian slip or a prelude to an extended absence by his master?

A picture of the presidential family was immediately uploaded to media as proof of life, ostensibly by Sen. Bong Go. Skeptics quickly identified discrepancies suggesting the composite was hastily assembled and badly at that. Somebody panicked but why?

Social media was rife with stories of a private medical plane flying to and fro Davao and Singapore.

DFA Sec. Locsin broke down in tears on mention of the President’s name in his welcome remarks to returning OFWs from Lebanon. AS DFA head he would know of any foreign medical travel of the President.

The President kicked off his Aug. 19 IATF briefing with a defense of his right to travel at his expense. Who was asking?

The President intimated he would appoint an officer-in-charge in his absence and that person would not be the Vice-President.

PNP Head Gamboa announced he had been invited by the Duterte National Executive Co-Ordinating Committee to discuss a Revolutionary Government. The latter is a violation of the Constitution, the Revised Penal Code and the Anti-Terrorism Bill, yet the head of our security forces publicly gave it credence. It is akin to inviting our chief cop to discuss a robbery. Soon the NPA will be asking Gamboa over for cocktails. He and media are mistakenly giving subversives the exposure they want.

The Palace said it is freedom of expression but Rappler and ABS-CBN, presumably, are not.

DND Sec. Lorenzana received a similar invitation and immediately dismissed it as non-sense. I like the guy already.

The curfew was returned to 8 pm from 10 pm, a measure that is a peace and order as it is a health directive.

This collection of seemingly unrelated events is fueling speculation the President is not well and the public is not being informed. Mr. Duterte has in the past admitted to suffering from Buerger’s Disease (Blood nerves constricting in the arms and legs), Barrett’s Esophagus (Abnormality in the lining of the esophagus) and Myasthemia Gravis ( a long term neuro-muscular disease that can develop into a myasthenia crisis, a life threatening condition when muscles controlling breathing become too weak to function). There is now talk of cirrhosis, a late stage scarring of the liver which can be fatal. COVID would be dangerous with these co-morbidities.

Art. VII Sec. 11 and 12 of the Constitution sets the procedures in the event of a serious presidential illness. I post the provisions at the end of this page.

 In essence, the Constitution states the public must be advised of any serious illness of the President. A majority of the Cabinet will have to determine a President’s incapacity which it must convey to the Senate and the House. Congress then has roughly two weeks to affirm the incapacity by a vote of 2/3 of members voting separately. In the meantime the Vice-President assumes office. Failing the Congressional certification the President returns as head of state.

The constitutional barrier to an extraordinary presidential transition is high. A Cabinet, any Cabinet, is unlikely to declare a President’s incapacity until well into the medical condition. Historically insiders prop up their leader for as long as possible, witness the Gang of Four and Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro in Cuba, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

There are 23 Cabinet secretaries in varying clusters: There are 5 retired military in DND, DENR, DWSD, DILG, DICT ; 5 economic managers in DOF, NEDA, DBM, DTI and DOT; 4 professional civil servants in DepEd, CHED, CA and DIST; 3 lawyers in ES,  DOJ and DFA; 5 political appointees in AR, Energy, DOLE, DPWH and Transport; and 1 die-hard in DOH. A majority of the Cabinet is 12.

There is no clear Cabinet leader who would initiate a vote nor is there an evident coalescing of minds. Individually the secretaries will decide based on loyalty, oath of office, personal conscience, self preservation, desire for stability in Government, ideology or politics; not necessarily in that order of merit.

 The U.S. and China have an interest in any presidential change with the former perhaps having the greater sway. The U.S. would probably want to cut and cut clean while China would prefer the status quo, the murkier the better.

Should the Cabinet affirm the incapacity of the President, securing a 2/3 confirmation in Congress may be achievable in the Senate but less so in the House where politics and not conscience is the primary driver and where the Speaker is of one mind. There will be some crossing of the political divide for those realigning their future; but getting a super majority in a fortnight is difficult. For one there is no Opposition Whip to drive the vote.

So the most likely scenario in the event of a gravely ill President is a zombie state with minimal to non-existing leadership at the top and a a free for all at the bottom. This could lead to a bursting of the social dam from a populace straining at the leash. The military will have to come in to ensure stability.

It is a scenario bleak in the best of times but scary in the worst and we are in the worst. I need not describe the economic risks to businesses, jobs and the banking system of a prolonged vacuum in our national leadership.

“Apres moi, le deluge” (After me the deluge) is the famous quote of France’s Gen. De Gaulle as he warned of the perils of change. The Duterte supporters will echo the same. The good news is the Cabinet, by and large, is a collective of sober men and women who can be trusted I believe to do what is right in a crisis. There is no Macchiavelli, no Rasputin, no General Ver in the group. The key figure is Gen. Lorenzana who so far has shown himself to be a man of decency and good judgement. DOF Sec. Dominguez is another voice of reason. Together they and their clusters should command a majority of the votes in the Cabinet.

The Vice-President will have to be mindful of not appearing overly eager while acting with conviction when called upon to fill her Constitutional role. Any vacillation will encourage the President’s supporters to muddy the waters.

To the critics of the current Government I say be careful of what you wish for because you may not like the outcome. Let us instead wish Mr. Duterte well because that is the human thing to do and because staying the course until May 2022 with everybody in sane mind and healthy body is, in our times, the best case for our imperfect democracy. We cannot add a political tail wind to our health and economic storm.

Yet if it comes to an inevitable, God forbid, let us pray our non-elected and elected leaders will do what is proper and deliver our nation to its future in a seamless and orderly fashion.

( Article VII of the Constitution:

“Section 11. Whenever the President transmits to the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice-President as Acting President.

Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President of the Senate and to the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall reassume the powers and duties of his office. Meanwhile, should a majority of all the Members of the Cabinet transmit within five days to the President of the Senate and to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Congress shall decide the issue. For that purpose, the Congress shall convene, if it is not in session, within forty-eight hours, in accordance with its rules and without need of call.

If the Congress, within ten days after receipt of the last written declaration, or, if not in session, within twelve days after it is required to assemble, determines by a two-thirds vote of both Houses, voting separately, that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice-President shall act as President; otherwise, the President shall continue exercising the powers and duties of his office.

Section 12. In case of serious illness of the President, the public shall be informed of the state of his health. The members of the Cabinet in charge of national security and foreign relations and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, shall not be denied access to the President during such illness.”)

Running Amok

 The nation is on edge.

The news early this week, apparently false, that the President was flown to Singapore for urgent treatment threw people into consternation. 

After 6 months of lockdown and an economy that is on its knees Filipinos are jumpy. It did not help that Palace spokesperson Harry Roque announced the President was in “perpetual isolation”. It was either a Freudian slip or a poor attempt at cleverness and nonchalance. Roque, a former human rights lawyer turned publicist, is the same person who said he was “glad” the present joblessness rate is 47% and not 100%. We hope his levity does not represent the position of the Palace because 30 million unemployed workers are not amused.

To assuage the country, Sen. Bong Go reportedly uploaded proof of life. The nice picture of the President and his family having a simple meal in modest surroundings belied not only his disappearance but also his supposed wealth. Critics immediately pounced, citing signs of photoshopping of the President’s daughter and the really cute kid. Others asked why the Duterttes were not following health protocols for “perpetual isolation”.

The President reassured the country by appearing on national broadcast later in the evening. The clip was aired at 11 pm even as the wrist watch of the President showed 9.30. It must have been taped quietly a few hours earlier. Presidential broadcasts the world over are aired on prime time, ours is slipped in at close to midnight. Why the delayed telecast? The opaqueness lends itself unnecessarily to speculation and parallels with Chairman Mao swimming the Yangtze River at age 100. There is a sense we are being managed and it does not feel good.

In the broadcast the President defended his constitutional right to travel as a private citizen, berated “whites” for questioning his human rights record and confirmed he was ready to personally gun down drug addicts. Perhaps his advisers should tell him what is really on people’s minds.

They might tell him Filipinos are not dying of COVID but of starvation.

They might tell him 30 million workers are out of jobs.

They might tell him the economy tanked by 16.5%, one of the worst in the world.

They might tell him at least four million kids will miss school this year.

They might tell him doctors and nurses are not enemies of the state plotting a revolution but front liners risking their lives every day because the DOH has no plan.

They might tell him COVID cases continue to rise in record numbers.

They might tell him the IATF has run out of ideas.

They might tell him the country is out of cash for social amelioration (SAF) not because Treasury has no capacity for more but because corrupt officials have the capacity for more.

They might tell him corruption  has gone from a whiff to a conflagration.

They might tell him his Secretary of Health is searching for his soul instead of doing his job.

They might tell him Philhealth is a cess pool of criminals overseen by the very people he has installed.

They might tell him the run on our healthcare system has begun. Sen. Dick Gordon, Chair of the Philippine Red Cross, just announced it will no longer conduct tests for Philhealth members without prior payment. Philhealth owes the PRC P700 million. The hospitals could be next.

They might tell him we are in deeper than we think.

I write a modest column about the economy, politics and governance. The reader feedback and online viewership give me a small ear to the ground and this is what I hear. People are economically desperate and frightened by COVID but these are not what incenses them. What infuriates Filipinos is the magnitude and spread of corruption particularly when it feeds on the poor and helpless, when it directly takes food from the mouths of children and elderly in this period of crisis. The public accepts the virus and the economy are something the Government cannot control but corruption is something it can.

Filipinos do not understand why the President speaks and acts so forcefully against drug addicts and human rights advocates but only pays lip service to the billions that are being stolen from our national coffers with impunity.

He says he will “run amok at a whiff of corruption”. “Running amok” is defined as a state where someone emotionally charged indiscriminately attacks people. DILG Sec. Ano has placed “on preventive suspension” fifty-five lowly Barangay captains for SAF anomalies. The President instructed him to ensure this news be given public prominence. Pardon the really bad metaphor, but fifty-five scum offered as vestal virgins at the altar of national outrage, I respectfully submit, hardly qualifies as running amok.

Here is what I think does.

Classifying corruption and economic sabotage as acts of terror punishable without warrant or bail under the Anti-Terror bill.

Following the money all the way to the top and pushing the culprits over the cliff.

Waking members of the syndicates in the dead of night, putting a sack over their heads, and getting them to rat on their superiors in exchange for leniency. I know this works, I have seen it in movies.

Lining up the fat cats and treating them as you would drug addicts. You would be amazed what dragging corrupt Government officials through the streets and drawing and quartering them in a public square does to improve the culture of a bureaucracy. Human rights advocates might even be impressed.

The natives are getting restless. We can string some Filipinos all of the time with promises of a COVID free Christmas, an imminent Russian vaccine and a President going amok. We can string all Filipinos some of the time with the same. But we cannot string all Filipinos all of the time without their losing belief in Government.

And this is where I think we are.

Health Is Wealth

“Health is wealth” could well be Philhealth’s new credo.

The Senate hearings on Philhealth confirm what we already suspected: The agency is a criminal enterprise posing as universal health care. It is organized crime. It is a protection racket. It is a Ponzi scheme built on the monthly sweat of hard working Filipinos.

Interestingly, the Senate investigation was reportedly called by Senate President Vicente Sotto III and Sen. Panfilo Lacson and not by Sen. Bong Go even if he is the Chair of the Senate Health Committee. Delicadeza perhaps since Sen. Bong and DOH Sec. Duque are seat mates at the IATF presidential table.

Anecdotally, Sen. Bong requested for the Chairmanship of Health, arguably the most obscure Senate committee. As the alter ego of the President and third placer, he could have chosen a committee more visibly commensurate with his political promise and yet here he is at the center of the universe. As point guard for Team Duterte, Bong, an avid basketball fan, sees the political court better than more seasoned players. His Balik Probinsya is the most sensible vision for this country.

But we digress.

Philhealth was a conman’s dream until COVID came along. The virus resulted in a surge of medical claims which exposed the carcass left over by the plunderers. Philhealth is expected to lose P90 billion this year which should pretty much wipe out the agency’s equity of P97 billion in 2018. At the current hemorrhage Philhealth is projected to go bankrupt by 2022.

The Philhealth scam is the mother of all scams. It involves reimbursements for unnecessary and unprofessional procedures – many of which have scarred patients for life – padded claims, overpriced procurement, bribes, ghost members, and, if you listen to Sen. Zubiri, “discounts” for early collection of claims due. As if these were not enough, somebody decided the goose had to be fattened further and faster. So Philhealth advanced monies to favored hospitals under an Interim Reimbursement Mechanism (IRM) where up to P30 billion would be deposited against future claims. This grew the kitty for ‘the boys” but also further depleted the cash of Philhealth. So chosen hospitals get advance payments for still to be determined procedures while others are delayed millions of pesos for completed procedures. A major hospital is currently owed half a billion pesos by Philhealth, another some P250 million. 

The Inquirer reported of the hospitals with the largest IRMs two are in Davao and one in Manila: Southern Philippines Medical Center (P326 MM), UP Gen. Hospital Manila (P262 million) and Davao Regional Medical Center (P209 million). Dr. Leopoldo Jumalon Vega, former chief of Southern Medical, was recently appointed DOH Undersecretary. It appears the wagons are circling. Southern Medical has defended itself saying it has some 1,200 beds making it one of the largest facilities in the country. The Medical City group in Manila has 1,300 beds but did not make it anywhere near the top IRM list. Does one have to pay to play?

Philhealth President Morales recently rescinded IRMs which speaks for itself.

The plunder is not rocket science but otherwise works really well.

Senators decry the DOH Secretary and Chairman of Philhealth Franciso Duque has remained mum throughout the controversy. The silence is deafening. What’s with this man? He has the uncanny knack of being the wrong person at the wrong place at the wrong time. After almost 20 years in Philhealth either as CEO, Director or Chairman one would have thought an apology (“We are not perfect but we will do better’) or an acknowledgement (“Sometimes shit happens”) would have been in order but again we already knew the response. As Jesus said to Peter: “Before the rooster crows you will deny me three times”. The only difference is Peter wept after.

So what is next for Philhealth?

Here are some scenarios.

One, the agency continues as is until it runs out of money. It is re-capitalized, continues until again it runs out of money; it is re-capitalized… and so on and so forth. Philhealth is to the mafia, the spring of eternal youth.

Two, there could be a run on the enterprise. This happens in two ways: One, if members lose confidence in Philhealth’s ability to service their health bills they will stop paying up. They may decide to self insure instead, building a medical reserve against future health needs. Philhealth contributions are currently mandatory but Government can do little about it if there is a collective mutiny by the private sector.

At the same time claimants – hospitals, doctors and suppliers – will rush to collect on their long overdue receivables accelerating the cash drain. Worse, hospitals may refuse to treat patients without advance payment putting not only Philhealth members at risk but also bringing universal health care to a halt at a time when it is most needed.

Three, Philhealth is overhauled from the ground up. Philhealth II might be formed as a new legal entity with new management and new capital. In 1993 the Central Bank of the Philippines was in financial trouble. Its functions were reconstituted as the BSP under the New Central Bank Act. The parallels are not exact but the idea is. We need a new Philhealth without the baggage of the current one. 

The new Philhealth will assume the liabilities of the old but only after a thorough review of the claims. New capital will be injected to settle valid and long overdue payables to hospitals. The latter are currently suffering from the loss of lucrative elective procedures as resources are channelled to COVID cases. If our hospitals collapse because of financial mismanagement in Philhealth we will have patients dying in the corridors or at home, sending us into a health and economic tailspin.

Four, privatize Philhealth or follow the U.S. system and allow the private sector to compete with the agency. Citizens can then opt where to go. This model does not maximize the economies of scale in a single insurer: Insurance is premised on many healthy members subsidizing the few sick. We will lose that in a multi-party system but at the same time it forces players to be competitive in price and service. Canada, the U.K. and Scandinavia have a single Government insurer.

Five, return Philhealth to its roots. Public health used to be administered by the SSS and GSIS in a program called the Philippine Medical Care Commission. In 1995, Philhealth was established to consolidate the PMCC functions. One option is to have SSS and GSIS re-assume this role. It is messy, I do not suggest it, but it is there.

It  is difficult to replace health agencies in the middle of a pandemic. Things will be lost in transition. There are complicated counter party issues. So in the interim we may just have to rejigger Philhealth and see if that works. The key is not only to change the people at the top but to change the culture itself. The corruption is like a cancer that unless fully overcome will metastasize over time.

The President has said of COVID: “One day it will disappear”. He could have well been referring to our health care system. We are at the cusp of a collapse yet Government continues to kick the can down the road. 

George Lloyd Foster, a black man, died because a police officer put his knee on his throat even as he pleaded: “I can’t breathe”. The Philippines’ health system cannot breathe not because COVID has a knee on its throat but because the Philhealth mafia does.

The Perfect Heist

The grandest heist in our history is happening under our very eyes.

It is the perfect con: It is big, it is simple, it is scaleable, it is recurring, it is unaccountable, it can go unnoticed for years. It is taking candy from a baby.

Every Government has a milking cow. In the Marcos era it was the coconut levy and sugar industry funds, in others it was the privatization of Government controlled corporations, the NFA rice cartel. But all these pale by comparison with the latest scam in terms of size, audacity and disgrace. The new idea is to take food directly from the mouths of the poor.

I am referring to the raid on our health and social institutions. 

The 2020 budget for health and social services is P800 billion. This includes P173 billion for Universal Health Care, P109 billion for Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) and P37  billion for unconditional cash transfers. It totals some P5 trillion over 6 years of an Administration. It is a milking cow on steroids.

And the cow is getting fatter.

Under Bayanihan 1 Government has carved out from other departments an estimated  P400 billion for COVID related expenses. This brings funds under DOH and DSWD control to over one trillion pesos.

And fatter.

Congress under ARISE has passed legislation increasing spending by  P1.3 trillion largely for COVID. If implemented, in the two years leading to the 2022 election total funds under the discretion of the DOH and DSWD could increase to over two trillion pesos.

What does P2,000,000,000,000 look like? It is twelve zeros. It is 10% of our annual GDP. It is P100,000 for every household of five. It is 20 times what 18 million families were supposed to receive from 4Ps but never did. It is the amount of money your children will have to pay, with interest, for the rest of their lives. At P1,00 per vote it is 2 billion votes even if only 30 million are needed.

And fatter.

The public – and of course the politicians – want the DOH budget increased to whatever it takes to fight COVID.  It is politically the most popular fiscal initiative. The only person standing between a deficit tsunami and our fiscal home is DOF Sec. Dominguez for which he is being scoured by the pundits. Sonny knows it is only corrupt Government officials and their cabals who will see any of it. The victims of this standoff, unfortunately, are the poor whose social amelioration funds (SAFs) are now frozen.

The heist takes various forms.

There is the raid on social relief programs, the 4Ps and the unconditional cash transfers which this year reached some P400 billion. The LGUs are responsible for many of the distribution points. Millions of the intended recipients have still to receive the P5,000-8,000 promised them even as the Treasury says it has signed the checks.

Corruption in the social sector is chunky, it happens mainly in calamities. Corruption in the DOH is a regular occurrence, as much as P3 billion a week if you believe the head of the Philippine Anti-Corruption Commission.

Philhealth is the poster child of the malfeasance in the department. It is the Toys R’ Us of corruption.

There is the over pricing in procurement. Network switches that cost P62,000 are purchased for P320,000. Test kits bought at P8,150 were available at a fraction of the price. The President defended his Health Secretary Duque saying the kits were urgently required. The President recently asked this same person to organize the purchase of urgently required vaccines from Russia.

A Philhealth consultant, Thorrsson Keith, recently resigned from Philhealth testifying the agency’s ICT equipment was overpriced by P734 million. He said a “mafia” in Philhealth was involved in P15 billion of fraud over the years.

There is the padding for health care services. Stories of claims for unnecessary procedures for dialysis and ophthalmology amounting to P154 billion have been going around the medical community for years and continue unabated.

There are the thousands of ghost patients. Some 5,000 Philhealth members, average age 130, reportedly still claim benefits.

Sen. Ping Lacson reported that millions of funds earmarked for COVID patients have been diverted to “maternity and dialysis centers”. 

Sen. Zubiri disclosed a 10 bed hospital in Davao has  been receiving P18 million yearly for God knows what. 

There are the non-COVID deaths being passed as COVID so hospitals in collusion with Philhealth can hike their claims.

The Philhealth website cites its core values as integrity, innovation, service, and care. It does not mention lies, shame and corruption.

 Philhealth is chaired by DOH Sec. Francisco Duque (yes him again) with Brig. Gen. Ricardo Morales as CEO and Annel de Jesus as COO. The latter two were subpoenaed by the Senate to testify over the anomalies but their medical conditions suddenly prevent them from doing so. It is the medical equivalent of taking the Fifth Amendment against self incrimination.

 In the Philhealth 2018 annual report, its latest, Morales proudly wrote “he introduced  reforms to safeguard Philhealth funds against abusive policies. Philhealth remained to be the most trusted agency in the country based on multiple citations and independent surveys conducted during the year”. I hate to think what the other agencies look like.

In 2018 Philhealth had a capital of P97 billion, paid claims of P121 billion with P49 billion pending. It did not disclose how much of the P170 billion in claims was real and how many imaginary. Philhealth received contributions of P132.5 billion from the hard earned money of its 53.8 million members. Now they are told the agency could go bankrupt by 2022.

There has never been a cookie jar in our history so large and so ready for the pickings. So now you know why the head of the DOH is so critical.

Philhealth is the mother of all scams, bigger than anything in Customs, the BIR or the so called anomalies in our water concessions; yet it never made it to the presidential SONA. It is a cess pool, a personal and possibly political slush fund masquerading as universal health care. It is a vulture feeding on the carcass of the weak and the poor. And nobody is accountable.

Fifty five lowly Barangay captains have been put on “preventive suspension” for suspected malversation of millions of SAF pesos while 5,526 addicts were officially gunned down for a few ounces of shabu. It does not pay to be poor in this country.

The President announced he will “run amok at the whiff of corruption” in any Government office. Surely billions of pesos in over-pricing, padded claims and stolen cash must qualify as a whiff if not a smoke or a fire. It is economic sabotage of the highest order. It should be termed as terrorism punishable without warrant or bail under the Anti-Terror bill.

If nothing should come of the announced investigations, the raid on our social and health coffers will indeed be the perfect heist.

A Year Of Living Dangerously

I told you it was going to be ugly. I am sorry I was so optimistic.

The Q2 numbers just released showed GDP dropped 16.5% year on year. This beat the previous record of 10.7% in 1983 at the height of martial law. How we long for that time.

We now have (at least) 7.3 million unemployed representing 17% of the work force, at least 7,000 businesses officially closed, a hunger rate of 21%, a school un-enrollment rate of up to 85% in private and 25% in public schools, a public debt of some P10 trillion, a budget deficit of about 9% of GDP, a recession that is the worst in our region; but enough already. Suffice it to say that things are not well.

Acting NEDA Sec. Karl Chua commended Government for preventing the poor from slipping back to poverty (huh?), protecting 1.3 – 3.5 million people from being infected and saving 59,000 – 171,000 lives. His numerical preciseness is amazing for someone who predicted at one time we were in for a V-shaped recovery.

The Government spent P400 billion partly for 18 million poor but mostly for LGU officials. There is apparently some P200 billion still to be disbursed which makes governors, mayors and Barangay captains ever so happy.

The next 12 months will be the most important in our history. It will be a year of living dangerously. To the health and economic crisis we must now add the start of the 2022 elections. The latter will divert our leaders’ attention and national resources from preserving the Republic to preserving themselves and their successors. To the already complicated dynamic between lives and livelihoods we must now inject politics and everything dirty that comes with it, the fund raising from whatever source, the attention grabbing. If we think corruption is a problem today we have not seen anything yet. Every budgetary allocation from now on will have politicians’ hands all over it.

Is there anything we can do?

Well, we can pray.

Two, we could remain in harsh lockdown until a vaccine but by that time the vaccine will not be of much use nor, with the economy in shatters, could we afford it.

Three, we could stumble between opening and closing the country depending on the cases and our health care capacity which could buy us a little more time but not much. With this uncertainty, many businesses will finally throw in the towel.

Lastly, we could live with COVID. How is that supposed to work?

First, the Palace should mean business. It should clean house.

It should change the guard at the DOH and the IATF. Be it friendship, the brother’s friendship or some secret understanding between Duque and the President, the DOH Secretary has to go. From what we have seen in the last 5 months keeping the status quo will bring down 100 million Filipinos, the economy, the President’s legacy and the prospect of his succcessor in 2022. It will be the best way of handing government to the Opposition.

Second, on the economic front, we must go on a total war footing. The President should appoint Sonny Dominguez or GMA as the de facto economic czar either as Secretary of an upgraded NEDA (NEDA is the constitutional body tasked with running the economy) or as Chair of an Economic War Council (EWC) with similar powers of policy and enforcement as the IATF. Sonny will nominate his replacement at the DOF. As economic CEO, Sonny or GMA can then be bold, innovative and expansive the qualities we need to get us out of the hole. Right now Sonny is conflicted, he has to manage the finances which holds him back from going all in on the economy.

The EWC will have an 18 month mandate by which time we should have a vaccine. Its task is to pull the economy out of the ICU with every policy tool and budget at our disposal. Although technically independent, the BSP will be persuaded to adhere to the EWC. It is all hands on deck.

At the Palace level, the President could make some changes which will send a message of urgency and concern. As has been suggested by one Palace consultant, Sara could replace Medialdea as Executive Secretary. Alternatively she could be appointed to a newly created position of Presidential Crisis Manager in charge of everything that matters. She will be the President’s political alter ego. This will allow the President to cut back on his work schedule as he seems lately to be tired. He can then concentrate on the important effort of rallying the nation.

As daughter of the President Sara will bring the political capital missing in the other Presidential appointments. The stint could be for just over 12 months which will allow her to gain national name recognition and build her CV in preparation for any run for national office, even the highest.

Third, we finally put the Anti-Terror bill to some good use. Malacanang should classify corruption as an act of terrorism and haul in all the suspects in Philhealth, local government and anywhere else without bail. Get the lower ranking members, the weakest in the link to squeal on their superiors until we get to the master minds. We follow the money. If we can incarcerate those suspected of subversive political activity why not those involved with subversive economic activity? The latter are a bigger threat to the nation than the former. What is now a demonized legislation will be the most popular in our history.

The elections are due in some 20 months. The President will want to spend more time in arranging his succession. He cannot do this and run the country in a crisis. The organizational revamp should inject new energy into the war against COVID and focus on the urgent task of turning around the economy.

Nothing fancy, just four changes: Clean house at the DOH, put the economy on a war footing, strengthen the Palace back room and weaponize the Anti-Terrorist bill against corruption.

In periods of hardship people look for only one thing and that is hope and the genesis of hope is change. Let us reset the country with a new vision, a new plan and new hope.

The Gathering Clouds

Things are not looking well.

We are exhausted, hungry, confused and afraid. We are at a loss of what next to do.

After some 5 months into COVID, we thought we were on our way. We were assured as early as the weekend that the worse was over, only to be told 48 hours later in the dead of night that we needed to re-confine ourselves. The recall was not on the strength of new data or what our health agency told us – you would think they would know – but on the basis of a petition from  health care workers and medical societies calling for “a time out” because the epidemic is now out of hand.

The situation was, for want of a better word, strange at various levels. One, it took a signature campaign from the front-liners to tell us of what we sensed but did not know for certain, that we have the symptoms. Is that not the job of the IATF with all its experts, reach and predictive models? It appears the health agency has become a platform to spin and manage our expectations rather than to monitor, plan, communicate and execute a viable health plan.

The President continues to have faith in the IATF leadership against the calls from all segments of society, medical, business, media, the public and privately within the Cabinet, for change. He said Duque did not import the virus, was facing an unprecedented crisis and was working hard. We do not say, necessarily, Duque is corrupt or incompetent or territorial or out of his depth; but he is the face of everything that has not gone well. He is the symbol of our collective failure and sometimes symbols have to go. That is the nature of public service, the notion of accountability. It would be a sign the President is listening as he says he does, if he were to let the man leave.

It is not a measure of Duque if he were to fall on his sword. It is what honorable men do, to give of themselves irrevocably, once they have become the distraction in a fight that needs all moving as one. He serves at the pleasure of the people more than he does at that of the President. The Philhealth scandal of which he is Chairman is yet another instance of what he needs to do. It is time to cut and cut clean.

The President took the HCWs’ petition as an affront on himself. For the first time he unveiled the R word, revolution, challenging the front-liners to mount a rebellion against the Government even if none of this was said or alluded to. Doctors and nurses calling for national upheaval, men in white with their surgical instruments against men in green with their tanks and semi-automatics? Is this what the thinking has come to?

 The President  is ready to take them on in a counter revolution. His supporters piled in, demonizing the very people who barely a week prior had been cited in the SONA for their courage and their care. Many doctors are so concerned they now immediately take their scrubs off after duty for fear of being identified as medical professionals and attacked as such. 

We are now like black widow spiders eating our own. It is binary, us against them. No criticism is constructive. Any adverse commentary however well meaning is an act of terrorism punishable under the new statute.

Strange, because the public is largely supportive of the two week furlough from GCQ  particularly if it means a reset for the HCWs. Admittedly, the announcement was clumsy. We  awoke on Monday morning with the new protocol leaving us 24 hours to adjust to the shutdown in public transportation and work schedules. There was some panic buying. Government must understand society, business and the economy do not turn on a dime.

The nation is approaching a dangerous phase in its journey. After months of fear, economic hardship and uncertainty as to the future of ourselves and our children, we have hit a wall. The Government is now, if you hear the President, officially out of money. The President said social relief will soon be exhausted. Our HCWs are tired, now under attack for voicing their tiredness.

The Government has promised the HCWs more money, P10,000 for showing up, P100,000 for healthcare, life insurance of P1,000,000; accommodations and transport. But for many money is not the measure of their worth, it is the Hippocratic oath, the call to service and care for the sick that drove them to their profession. Like all of us they want respect and understanding so, of all times, for them to be publicly termed as enemies of the state and charlatans may just be a line too far. That would be when the shit hits the fan. The President has called for a conscription of reservists and the redeployment of medically educated (if not necessarily trained) police personnel to boost and replenish the health ranks.

The economy has been hit badly, by how much we should know when the Q2 numbers come out this Thursday. We are unsure of the impact to re-emerging businesses of the return to MECQ, from the stoppage of public transportation, the drop-off in demand and consumer fear. 

The hunger rate is 20.9% as of July, the COVID reproduction rate is over 1 and the three Ts of testing, tracing and treatment is too expensive, too arduous and too long.

Our number of infections will soon surpass Indonesia’s with a population over 2.5 times ours; for the highest in the region.

Educational institutions are reporting a fall out in enrollment of up to 85% in some private schools and 25% in public entities.

Is this what the end game looks like?

For the first time since COVID – and I am so very sad to say this – I witnessed on the night of the announcement a Government that is tired and at the limit seemingly of its tethers. It does not understand why things are not working despite everything it has thrown at COVID. It is confused why we are where we are while our neighbors have long resumed their journey to normalcy.

The President has called for all Filipinos to come together in unity and common purpose. But this means stopping the divisiveness. We are all ready to snap but if we are to gather we cannot lash out at everything, the “pasaways” who do not social distance because they cannot, the terrorists, media, the oligarchs, the telcos, the United States, and now regrettably our front liners. We cannot add politics to the already complicated dynamic of health versus the economy.

It means understanding that HCWs who publicly voice their plight do so because that is the only way they will be heard. The President asked why they did not write him a note. They did, reportedly as early as April but it was blocked by the cordon sanitaire that surrounds him with sweet little nothings. Perhaps they should have called the Palace hotline (8888) and talked to a machine.

It means publicly restraining the President’s supporters especially those with an official megaphone from lynching anybody with a contrarian view.

It means making Government officials accountable, friend or foe.

It means due process and not publicly shaming businesses and their owners who are far from perfect.

The President’s critics say the Administration needs to divide in order to survive, that there is a deep state which we are unaware of. I know nothing of that sort. But I do feel the rumble of gathering clouds, the sense, I am afraid, that we are in trouble.


Andre Gide once wrote that the anticipation of an event is more gratifying than the event itself. 

So it was with the SONA.

We did not expect a Gettysberg address nor Roosevelt’s assurance at the height of the Depression (“There is nothing to fear but fear itself”); but after four months of suppressed movement, physical hardship and bottled emotions, the nation envisioned a Presidential address that would feed the body, raise the heart and assuage the soul. We were disappointed.

The President acknowledged the courage and care of our front-liners which was nice.  Churchill’s words in the Battle of Britain come to mind: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed to so few by so many”.

However the printed word that followed was a yawn even to the President who was visibly irked by its length and banality. The script was a compendium of the token nods to education, agriculture, SMEs and OFWs – the fodder of all SONAs – and legislation (Continuing Professional Development Act, Advanced Nursing Education Act, National Disease Management Act, Rural Agricultural & Fisheries Development Financing Act, Internet Transactions Act) that are probably important at some level but hardly met the standard for an address that was supposed to answer the existential question of all Filipinos in this time of crisis: “Boss, when is the next meal?”.

SONAs are many things: They are a report card on the nation, a laundry list of Administration accomplishments, a public pat on the back to individual Government officials, a call to arms, a reiteration of the national vision, and a road map to progress.

This year’s SONA checked out some if not all the boxes. 

The grade on the report card was not clear. This is understandable given the nation was clouded by COVID. Let us just say passing and leave it at that, mainly on the strength of the early lockdown.

A SONA is the one Oscar-like occasion for Government officials to strut their stuff. Cabinet secretaries spare no lobbying to insert their achievements, real or visceral, in the basket of national accomplishments. They await with bated breath for the President to recognize their persona on national television. This year there were few such acknowledgments not even to the IATF and Mssrs. Duque and Nograles for all the good work they have supposedly done.

The exception was Sen. Bong Go who was formally noted in name and in visuals with the President. The President clearly loves him like a son and, if one listens to the chatter, heir apparent, vice Sara.

The President sounded a call to arms but not against China, the natural target, but against the oligarchs and those of another race. More on that later.

The Palace had signaled the SONA would lay out the map to health and economic recovery. Here is where it got tricky. After four months of an early, wise and courageous decision to lock down the country, we have achieved the seemingly unachievable, to flatten the economy without flattening the epidemic. This is an unacceptable outcome so the speech writers did what one does in such circumstances, avoid the matter altogether. There was little reference to progress, or not, on the health front other than state “we will fight COVID with the same fervor as we fought drugs”. The President admitted drugs are again on the rise.

On the economic side the President highlighted our good credit standing. He struggled a little with Moody’s Baa2 rating which was fine since it probably went over most Filipinos’ heads anyway. He listed the various legislation needed to launch the economy (see above). He noted, correctly, the Balik Probinsya of Bong Go needed to be “institutionalized”. He talked about BBB, PPP and other capitalized letters that escape me. Otherwise, that was pretty much it.

Oh, he did mention that 92 million Filipinos had benefitted from the cash transfer program which was a surprise to the 92 million who saw little of it and to the handful of LGU officials who saw most of it.

The President warned that “opening up the economy to pre-Covid days is not an option until a vaccine is available”. It is now all about the letter V, the V-shaped recovery and the vaccine.

What the SONA lacked in economic and health substance, it made up in political drama. SONAS are not, by and large, designed to be a political rally nor an occasion to gun down on national television one’s enemies. The audience includes the diplomatic corps and their political correctness. Political appropriateness, however, is not a quality cherished by the President which is what makes him so endearing to his base.

The President bookended his speech with an attack on Sen. Franklin Drilon who apparently had challenged Duterte’s definition of oligarchy. For the record Webster defines oligarchy as “Government by the few, especially despotic power exercised by a small and privileged group for corrupt or selfish purposes”.

Oligarchies are a favorite theme of the President: He alluded to them in the outset of his Administration, more recently in a speech to soldiers in Jolo and now in the SONA. He is proud to have dismantled oligarchs citing the Lopezes of ABS-CBN. The latter now have the sole distinction of being taken down in both martial law and non-martial law.

After demonizing them (for which he subsequently apologized) he redemonized the Ayalas insinuating their wealth is the product of Spanish friars’ benevolence and not the sweat of their brow. There was a hint of race in his allusion to “insulares”.  

It is unclear what set the President off on this warpath. He said he just wanted the telcos to be ready by Christmas so he could “call Jesus in Bethlehem” which is fair enough. Others say this is a strategy out of the Trump playbook, to raise the hackles of the under privileged when things are not going well – and things are not going well either here or in the U.S. America just reported a 32% drop in GDP even as COVID cases continue to rise. We should expect the same. Trump has identified China as the bogeyman, Duterte the oligarchs. To the complicated dynamics between health and the economy we must now add politics.

Income inequality and whether it is the outcome of unbridled democracy, raw capitalism, a feudal society, the unholy alliance between business and politics, corruption, family dynasties, bad economic actors or all of the above; is an important conversation that needs to take place in this country. The President is correct in citing big business for its lack of a social conscience. The question is whether singling out a family or two, drawing the race card between “indios” and “insulares”, or unfolding a class divide; is the solution. It is bad for local and foreign investments at a time when we need all the help we can get. Foreign chambers of commerce report the Philippines is not a favored destination for suppliers relocating out of China (Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia are).

The President called for unity in these troubled times.

The SONA was an occasion to raise the hopes of a nation drowning in fear and economic hardship. Instead the 2020 SONA will be remembered only as the day the telcos, the water companies, a television station and their owners were attacked for their insensitivities and service. The poor and unemployed were praying for more but for the time being this is all they will get.