[COLUMN] Put more czars on the job

MY favorite anecdote about “improving operations efficiency” is that one about the kid who overheard his engineer father tell his assistants to “put more men on the job” in order to fast-track an infrastructure project.

The kid, being an only child, also wanted his parents to give him a baby brother. When his father replied that it would take a while to do so, the kid suggested, “Why not put more men on the job?”

While I realize that the subject is no joking matter, the fact that the Philippines has lagged behind the other ASEAN nations in acquiring COVID-19 vaccines reminds me of that anecdote – because it appears that President Rodrigo Duterte’s solution to the problem is, in effect, to put more officials on the job.

Duterte has appointed five “czars” to deal with the coronavirus crisis. No kidding!
Last July 13, 2020 – over half a year ago – the Philippine Daily Inquirer ran this headline: “Palace names ‘PH anti-covid czars’”.

The news item read: “MANILA, Philippines — Five months since the Philippines recorded its first coronavirus case, Malacañang on Monday introduced the country’s anti-coronavirus czars who would spearhead the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

At that time, Duterte designated four senior officials to address specific aspects of the anti-pandemic effort: Public Works Secretary Mark Villar as “Chief Location Czar,” to take charge of “overseeing the country’s quarantine facilities;” Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong as “Chief Tracing Czar;” to handle contact tracing; Vince Dizon, president of the Bases Conversion Authority as ”Testing Czar;” and Health Undersecretary Leopoldo Vega as “Treatment Czar.”

Then, in November last year, Duterte added a fifth czar: retired Philippine Army General and Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, Carlito Galvez, as “Vaccine Czar,” apparently in anticipation of the availability of COVID-19 vaccines.

Don’t be surprised if Duterte adds a sixth Czar – an Inoculation Implementation Czar – to guarantee the efficient conduct of the vaccination process.

You see, this January, Manila City Mayor Isko Domagoso organized what the media described as a “mock inoculation” exercise, with the mayor – who prefers to be called Yorme – simulating a vaccination. It was a dress rehearsal of sorts, in preparation for the arrival of the first shipment of the vaccine.

President Duterte will probably want to carry the title of Czar-in-Chief, unless he decides to give his presidential wannabe daughter, Sara Duterte, the title of Czarina (no truth to the rumor that the title could be conferred on presidential spokesman Harry Roque).

Using the title of “czar” is one way of giving due importance to the various “critical aspects” of solving the coronavirus crisis (not to mention the need to rationalize the extra emoluments, as well as the new budgets for personnel, office quarters, equipment and official vehicles).

But why use the title, “Czar”? Why not a Chinese title like Kabisi, since the Duterte government reportedly prefers to acquire the Chinese-made vaccine, Sinovac? Does this suggest a secret Russian leaning on the part of the president? (Didn’t we always wonder why Duterte’s language has been loaded with such expressions as Putin-Ina?)

At any rate, with their functions delineated and their titles properly conferred, one would expect the czars to get to work and deliver results.

Wellll…. they have – in a way. After all, it’s hard work batting out press releases on their important appointments.

Besides, there are important preliminary steps to be taken. We can only guess what these are (accuracy not guaranteed).

First of all, there is the all-important oath taking ceremony to be officiated by the president himself, and then a solemn induction of all key personnel and staffers – the undersecretaries, assistant secretaries and the secretaries of the assistant secretaries, as well as the department supervisors, section heads, and the confidential assistants of each of the czars.

With that done, the Pandemic Czars would be ready to get some serious work done.

Right?

That’s exactly what the czars may be expected to do. But first, to ensure optimal coordination and to avoid duplication of key areas of accountability and responsibility, the czars must first hold a Coordination and Integration Summit (in the Philippines, a meeting of important high-ranking officials is always called a “Summit”).

But prior to the summit, the czars and their retinue need to go on an Overseas Observacation and Tourientation Trip to critical coronavirus areas, like New York, Los Angeles, London, Brazil and South Africa. This is in order to learn “Best Practices” in combating the pandemic.

Thus, when the czars stage the Summit, each one will be armed with a Comprehensive COVID-19 Battle Plan. Naturally, each czar has to hire foreign consultants and experts to help formulate the strategies.

Needless to say, the individual strategy documents have to be presented to the president – but only after seeking the imprimatur of the Secretary of Health who, in turn, must get the approval of the Speaker of the House and the Senate President, with the endorsement of the House Committee on COVID-19 and its equivalent in the Senate – of course, after thorough study and analysis by the respective Sub-Committees on Testing, Isolation, Contact Tracing, Treatment and Vaccine Procurement (assuming only five czars, but then, there is the possibility of an Inoculation Implementation Czar, remember?).

I guess these critical preparatory steps must be taken to ensure the effective and efficient execution of the anti-pandemic campaign – and understandably, these steps take time, which explains why up to now the Philippines has not brought in the vaccines. But better to be safe than sorry, di ba?

What we cannot understand is why the Presidential Security Command couldn’t wait a year or two for the entire process to be consummated.

We understand that the PSG went ahead and smuggled its own supply of vaccines from China. Last we heard, smuggling is illegal. but that doesn’t bother Duterte because of the need to protect the president. Indeed, it would have been more dangerous for the president’s security force to be the main reason for his health insecurity.

Duterte’s special envoy to China, columnist Ramon Tulfo, recently admitted having been inoculated with a smuggled vaccine which he got from an unspecified source. But he himself had not participated in the smuggling. In fact, Tulfo wants to bring in the vaccines legally by becoming a Philippine distributor. He sees no conflict of interest in this. After all, as the late Senate President Jose Avelino aptly put it, “What are we in power for?”
In this regard, there are VIP Vaccinations for powerful and influential folks who are more entitled to survive the virus than the average Pinoy.

Thus, Mang Juan, Aling Maria, Karyas and Kikay have to wait for the vaccines to become available for them in a year or two – that is, if they have the money to pay for the antidotes.

There are other issues swirling around the Philippines’ determined effort to fight, conquer, eliminate and irrevocably vanquish the virus. Too many to cover in one column.

Hopefully, COVID-19 will eventually be overcome. But there is a virus that may continue to gnaw at the guts of the poor people of the Philippines.

Last February 25, the country observed the elimination of one such virus – but the virus has mutated in many ways.

It may take more than five, six or even a dozen czars to eliminate that virus. In fact, before that happens, the Filipino people may develop “herd immunity” – which is another way of saying, “If you can’t beat the virus, then be a virus yourself!”

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The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.

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gregmacabenta@gmail.com

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