President Rodrigo Duterte vowed on July 26 to shepherd the Philippines out of the Covid-19 pandemic in his last year in office, outlining plans to pull the economy out of a deep recession and keep the coronavirus at bay.
“Back when I decided to answer your call to run for higher office, never did I imagine that my presidency would not only be judged on how I made good on my promises to fight drugs, criminality and corruption but how well I led my nation during the global pandemic,” he said in his sixth and last State of the Nation Address.
Elected president in 2016, Duterte will step down in June 2022.
He said the pandemic rolled back economic gains made in the first three years of his term.
He singled out those gains, saying the Philippines had its lowest debt-to-growth ratio since 1986, tallied its highest revenue since 1997, and chalked up its highest credit rating in history. Poverty and joblessness rates were at their lowest, he added.
“But mine is not to rue or to second guess what might have been, but to bear and respond with urgency to the impact of unforeseen events as they unfold,” he said.
Duterte defended his government’s response to the pandemic, insisting that lives were saved.
With close to 1.6 million cases and over 27,000 dead from Covid-19, the Philippines has earned the dubious distinction of being the second-worst hit country in Southeast Asia despite a rotation of sweeping, hard lockdowns and tough quarantine restrictions.
Health officials are now scrambling to contain the spread of the highly infectious Delta variant, which data experts warn could be fuelling a spike in cases in Metro Manila.
Duterte said the government was ramping up its vaccine rollout, with supplies already locked in that could cover more than half the population of some 109 million by year’s end.
“We can’t continue living in the shadow of this potent enemy, especially now that science and medicine have proved that it’s possible to live with, if not entirely defeat, this virus,” he said.
He said that he was not inclined to fall back into rolling lockdowns “lest our economy bleeds to the point of irreversible damage”.
But if the Delta variant leads to the same deadly, crippling surge now plaguing Indonesia and Malaysia, he said, “you have to go back to lockdowns”.
“If something wrong happens, I’ll have to be strict, just like in the early days,” he said.
Planning for the long haul, Duterte asked Congress to pass legislation that would create the Philippine version of a Centres for Disease Prevention and Control, as well as a research institute that could develop its own Covid-19 vaccines.
Duterte also looked back at his five years in office, which he said had “truly been challenging and humbling”.
He conceded that he fell short on delivering on his promises to rid the Philippines of the drug menace and to end corruption.
“When I assumed the presidency five years ago, dominant in my mind were dreams and visions of a better life for all Filipinos. I saw them as reachable … Today as I approach the end of my term, I have less visions but more remembrances,” he said.
Still, he elaborated on key reforms and changes he made, even though most proved unpopular.
“I cajoled, I shoved, I pushed, and I tangled with men of wealth and influence who were oblivious to the anguish and pleas of the weak and impoverished,” he said.
He cited his efforts to push back against communist insurgents and Muslim militants, the roads, highways, bridges and airport terminals completed during his term, and laws that made tertiary education in public institutions free and provided health care to all Filipinos.
Duterte also took pride in his foreign policy.
“Gone are the days when the Philippines decides and acts in the shadows of great powers,” he said.
He said he did confront China with the Philippines’ victory before an international tribunal that rejected Beijing’s claims to nearly all of the South China Sea.
“I said in September of last year, the arbitral award is now part of international law and beyond compromise and beyond the reach of governments to dilute, diminish or abandon,” he said.
But he said he had gone as far as he could go without provoking China into a war.
“What can I do with a document that does not bind China because they were never a part of the arbitration?” he said.
THE STRAITS TIMES (SINGAPORE)/ASIA NEWS NETWORK