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We keep on hearing some people say critics should pipe down and just help the government manage the coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19 epidemic. Well… a group of young professionals who offered their help were ignored by the DOH.

It is almost as if DOH has something to hide if outside experts are allowed in their turf. That was the experience of a group of UP professors who wanted to help DOH manage their data reporting, which was pretty bad and still is.

I was talking with a young idealistic professional who was in the same Ateneo batch as my son. He was part of a group of highly trained young experts who were Chevening scholars and graduates of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

He recalled that in the first few days of March, a friend from the UP College of Public Health sounded off an invitation to help out.

“Immediately, our LKY School batchmates came together to ask how we could help. By week’s end, we’d managed to draft in other experts, policy wonks, and creatives—all volunteers—to support the Philippine Health Communications Advocacy Network (PHCAN).

“By mid-March, the group provided inputs to DOH. We wanted to know how to better support DOH.”

Crisis communications is one big failure of DOH. There has been a multiplicity of messages (at times, conflicting) coming from multiplicity of sources, leading to confusion, finger pointing, and blaming among government offices, e.g. the MMDA- “declared” curfew was later clarified by a DILG official.

Confusion has led to an erosion in the public’s confidence in government and the credibility of its efforts. This was about the time I was urging Greg Garcia to take over the comms responsibility because it was pretty bad. The only real comms expert I can see on their side is Greg.

How bad was it? Pretty bad! Messages have been, many times, not thought through.

In the hours leading up to the president’s press conference of March 12, unverified drafts of the resolution approved and adopted by the President were leaked and widely circulated (on social media and instant messaging channels) causing mild panic.

Worse, the main consequence of the resolution—“enhanced community quarantine”—was not well explained and had to be clarified the day after by different officials.

Then again, any communications veteran will tell you that while strategic communications can help in managing crises, it cannot help in addressing a crisis in leadership. That, I think, is the core problem.

But Duterte refused to fix it beyond bringing in the generals and Vince Dizon. According to presidential spokesman Harry Roque, Duterte is sticking with Health Secretary Francisco Duque because his brother is a close friend of the President.

Unfortunately, this Government does not seem to want any help even if it is having difficulty managing and navigating through this crisis. Worse, we are seeing that some of proposed solutions that make sense are being sidelined in favor of commercial offers.

Case in point: the private sector solution for a tracing app that is being offered to DICT (MultiSys) which, according to former DICT Usec Eliseo Rio, has not been tested, will not serve the purpose of tracing potential patients and has serious privacy issues.  

Sayang. There was an outpouring of support from concerned professionals but they were spurned. These young people wanted to help perhaps to salvage their future and this country’s. Our country’s geriatric leadership (my generation) has simply made a colossal mess but refuses to acknowledge it.

In the meantime, it is heartbreaking to see our country languishing in these dire straits, when we have easy access to so much expertise and resources from among our young professionals.

As my son’s batchmate puts it, “I know so many people who are willing to set aside their misgivings about and objections to this Government, just for the sake of helping out. Unfortunately, there’s so much distrust that there really is no room to respond to their challenge of ‘tumulong na lang kasi kayo.’

“People are willing to help gratis et amore, but the help does not really appear to be welcome. It really is very frustrating. At the start, we managed to pull in and pool various experts—and a united medical profession. We had all these leading practitioners who were the same ones developing the protocols and guidelines.

“We managed to convince people from the advertising industry and creatives (to set aside their gripes) and just help out. A former Creative Director of Publicis and another advertising industry veteran were willing to bring in their respective teams, all gratis. But after two meetings with DOH, it became obvious that DOH really had no clue on what to do; they didn’t know how to let other people in.

“And I think that’s been the biggest management mistake of this Government: they’ve been in ‘war’ mode for so long that they remain so distrustful of people who just want to help.”

Here are these people who normally would be paid big bucks for this kind of work—and ready to work for free just to help government get things done. But please get it done.

They concluded that “if only this Government were willing to declare a truce, tama na muna ang pamumulitika, and let other people help and pitch in, we should be able to move to a better spot in our fight against COVID-19.”

The Covid fight is a national emergency that requires a broad-based coalition of experts leading the response. Defending bureaucratic turf has no place at this time.

We are lucky we have a lot of brainpower among our young professionals. It is criminal not to use them. Hindi puedeng ayaw magpatulong lalo na at hindi naman nila kaya.

Dr Tony Leachon, a consultant of NTF who was fired for criticizing the DOH, summarized our needs best: “You have to bring out the best and the brightest to help you. You need to have metrics of success so the country can see in a transparent manner if we are doing it right.”

Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is bchanco@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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