Proofs of life
You have to be in middle age or older now to remember how Ferdinand Marcos seemed to be at death’s door practically every other day in the early 1980s, only for him to expire three years after being kicked out of the country. So it’s proving to be with the current President: Since at least October two years ago, it’s been the Autumn of the Patriarch, a season so long, it may prove to be the whole of the second half of his term of office. It’s proven to be a continuing concern, with its own kind of public ritual: Rumors become rife enough to provoke official statements of hale and heartiness on the part of the President; the statements then come to be taken as proof something is wrong; signs of life are then required, and Sen. Bong Go provides pictures of the President, with some sort of time stamp, such as a fresh issue of a newspaper; and then the President makes some sort of late night appearance to literally or figuratively give everyone asking how he is the finger.
One online commenter remarked that the latest incident marked the start of a death watch. I wonder if we didn’t see, instead, a kind of national Stockholm Syndrome playing out, in which a captive land finds itself unhealthily attached to its captor. In either case, something else has changed. Events are now beginning with speculation, not online in social media, but where the real discussions now take place, that is, in chat apps (in greater safety and privacy than on the internet), that the President had been airlifted to Singapore; followed by official denials, then eventually, a photograph of the President at his Davao home, followed by a preliminary video shared by Go and, finally, a message full of the usual.
I disagree: It marks something that serves to fundamentally disrupt the social media and news landscape created over the last decade. In recent years, news gatherers and news makers have figured out how to see if, and where, discussions are taking place, to understand, report, and yes, influence, public opinion. But now, the element of surprise has shifted back to the public and not the opinion makers. News begins out of sight, in private, now. That the news, by the time it erupts, is often adversely related to the administration is the proof of where public sentiment lies, because it is beyond the reach of the official (and unofficial but affiliated) organs of public (dis)information.
Then again, since the moment the President had his Emperor Has No Clothes moment — when he had to make a concession to the combined opinion of the medical community to officially, at least, tighten quarantine rules for the first half of this month, which has been officially lifted as of today — he retains enough residual shock and awe to force even his critics to wonder if the country isn’t actually on auto-
pilot, despite showing every sign it is. So the foreign affairs secretary bursting into tears, the presidential spokesperson announcing the President was in “perpetual isolation,” and the Senator-Majordomo posting a picture of the President surrounded by his nearest and dearest, including a baby, the most unisolated isolation imaginable — all these have been taken, not as signs of a discombobulated administration, but instead as proofs of some sort of cunning plan.
To what? Distract the public — yet yesterday was full of news of more of the same, which was, a country that now has the dubious distinction of having the most COVID-19 cases in the region; and a contact-tracing czar as busy defending the national police top brass to which he once belonged from accusations of feasting in his own city, as he is coming up with reasons local governments have been unable to do effective contact tracing. Reasons, incidentally, that can be laid at the doorstep of the national administration that made him contact-tracing czar.
We have gone through half a month spent killing whatever economic recovery was being experienced, and by so doing, killing any chance the medical community can ever demand from government, again, a return to stricter quarantine measures. There had been medical professionals, at the time that their community came together to read the government the riot act, who warned it would be for nothing if testing and contact tracing weren’t massively ramped up. The ramping up has been announced, just when the rules are being relaxed, repeating the practice from this whole pandemic: Government closes things down, and raises the ante on itself by proclaiming higher targets in testing and tracing every time it consistently fails to meet its previous targets.