Questions and concerns were raised when President Rodrigo Duterte in a televised meeting with the Inter-Agency Task Force on Monday night assigned Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu to oversee the COVID-19 response in Cebu City.
Cimatu, a retired military general, was tasked to look into and make recommendations on how the government will proceed in addressing the rising cases in the city which could be the new “hotspot” of the country.
He will head an “adjunct” agency to the Inter-Agency Task Force of Emerging Infectious Diseases in the city and “exercise” its powers.
“All he has to do, not for permission, but to advise Manila, here, that these things are being done, these things are not yet done, these things must be done,” Duterte said in the meeting.
“I must have the picture of how grave the situation is or the situations are,” he added.
The chief executive also asked Cimatu to establish an emergency operations center in Cebu City to support local officials in looking at the health situation in the area.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque explained that Duterte had assigned Cimatu since “he is someone who President Duterte turns to when he wants something done.”
In a separate interview, Roque said that the abilities and experiences of military officials were being used to arrive at a supposed public health solution and not a military-related solution.
Cebu City was reverted to the stricter enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) on June 16 due to the rising COVID-19 cases while Metro Manila and other regions remained under general community quarantine.
As of June 21, the Department of Health reported that it is the top city with active cases at 3,471. Quezon City and the City of Manila came next, respectively.
Focus on health-oriented solutions
After his new designation, Cimatu’s name entered the local Twitter’s top trending list on Tuesday morning, where some Filipino expressed their concerns about his role in overseeing the COVID-19 response despite his non-medical background.
A Twitter user said that the government could send epidemiologists, virologists, and doctors instead, given that the post is meant to address a public health crisis.
Another online user asked what the role of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources — Cimatu’s agency — is in health matters.
Ang hirap talagang ireconcile ang mga moves ni Presidente, ano? Now he's assigning Cimatu to check the covid situation in Cebu. Ano namang kinalaman ng DENR sa health crisis?
— Domsmindaro #JunkTerrorBill (@dominicmindaro) June 23, 2020
Another Filipino likewise commented: “Solusyong DENR, Solusyong Militar, are we running out of health experts?”
A Twitter user claimed that while Cimatu is a “good leader,” Duterte should’ve let Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire “take over” Cebu City’s COVID-19 response.
“SEND VERGEIRE INSTEAD! She’s a capable doctor! Mayghad!” she exclaimed.
Cimatu is the latest former military officer to be assigned in the national government’s COVID-19 efforts.
Some of them who are currently in IATF are Secretary Carlito Galvez, who is the chief implementer of the National Task Force (NTF) on COVID-19, and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who is NTF’s chairperson.
Cimatu is known for leading the Boracay inter-agency task force that was in charged of the island rehabilitation since May 2018. The world-famous island previously underwent a six-month rehabilitation period following concerns on environmental degradation.
The Boracay task force’s validity was recently extended until May 2021.
This was not the first time that some members of the local online community had asked for the government to beef up its health-oriented efforts in fighting COVID-19 in Cebu City.
Last week, when the city was reverted to ECQ, some Twitter users appealed for the government to focus on empowering the health sector, which includes mass testing, expansion of health facilities and boosting information drives about the prevention of the disease.
The calls came after Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, in a televised IATF meeting with Duterte aired on June 15, said that he would send in more police personnel to Cebu City as it reverted to ECQ status following the surge of cases.
Criticisms against the DILG chief were renewed on Monday when he placed the blame on the rise of COVID-19 cases to Filipinos despite the supposed gaps of the government in terms of addressing the pandemic.