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Ombudsman Probes Philippine Health Department’s COVID-19 Response

Aie Balagtas See and Froilan Gallardo
Manila and Cagayan de Oro, Philippines
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Health-care workers at a hospital in Manila wear full protective gear to guard against the coronavirus, April 28, 2020.
Health-care workers at a hospital in Manila wear full protective gear to guard against the coronavirus, April 28, 2020.
Basilio Sepe/BenarNews

The Philippines’ top graft investigator ordered a probe Wednesday into the health secretary and other officials at the health department over alleged irregularities in the purchasing of protective gear and COVID-19 test kits.

The investigation into Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and the others is linked to a delay in the Department of Health’s purchase of personal protective equipment (PPEs) for medical workers on the frontlines of the country’s battle against the coronavirus outbreak, Ombudsman Samuel Martires said.

He is also investigating reports about an anomalous purchase of 100,000 test kits, when the agency could have instead acquired kits locally developed by the University of the Philippines at a cheaper price, Martires said in a statement.

“I directed the creation of two more investigating teams who will jointly investigate alleged irregularities and anomalies committed by DOH [Department of Health] officials and employees, including Health Sec. Francisco Duque, in relation to the response of the DOH during the pandemic,” the ombudsman said.

The ombudsman, who has the power to file criminal and administrative charges, said he also wanted to find out why scores of health workers had died and thousands had been infected with coronavirus while responding to the crisis, and why the distribution of financial aid to them and their families was delayed.

The rate of Filipino health workers dying while responding to the coronavirus crisis is among the worst in the world, with at least 30 doctors and health workers reported to have died of the virus as of May, according to the Philippine Medical Association. One hospital in Manila was shut for weeks after most of its staff had tested positive for the virus.

Task-force advisor sacked

Martires’ announcement came the same day that a prominent doctor, who had openly criticized alleged lapses by the health department in its response to the pandemic, was sacked from his position as special adviser to the National Task Force on COVID-19.

Anthony Leachon said he was forced to resign from the task force after he pointed out shortcomings in the government’s COVID-19 action plan.

“I left due to my differences with DOH policies [such as a] lack of sense of urgency, problems in COVID data management, transparency in the communication process and poor execution of plans,” Leachon told BenarNews.

In a series of tweets over the weekend, Leachon, whose job was to help the task force formulate recommendations for the Duterte administration, said the Department of Health had “lost focus in everything.”

The manner by which COVID-19 data was reported, he added in a subsequent television interview, was causing confusion instead of helping address the problem.

“It’s a sad day as we anticipate the IATF recommendations on Monday to [President Rodrigo Duterte]. Forgive me, I think the lead agency has lost focus in everything. Risk communication, priorities , data management, and execution of all plans,” Leachon said, referring to the Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19.

Carlito G. Galvez Jr., chief implementer of the National Task Force on COVID-19 (NTF), said it had to let Dr. Leachon go because the NTF and the Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19 “are collegial bodies that have to work in synch with each other.”

“Dr. Leachon’s preemptive releases of some information prior to official announcement and adaption jeopardized the communication efforts of the IATF and NTF and caused unwarranted misunderstanding between two entities that should be working together. He has been cautioned but remained deaf to collegial advice,” Galvez said in a statement.

The presidential palace said it would respect the ombudsman’s decision to investigate Duque and other officials at the health department “over alleged irregularities in the COVID-19 response.”

“The Ombudsman, as we all know, is an independent constitutional body; thus, we will let the process run its course as we enjoin Secretary Duque and the entire DOH bureaucracy to cooperate with the investigation and respect the orders of the OMB [Office of the Ombudsman],” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said in a statement.

For its part, the Department of Health said it would cooperate with the investigation, but insisted it had been transparent in its procurement transactions.

“The Department of Health welcomes the investigation and will comply with all the directives of the Office of the Ombudsman,” the agency said in a statement, adding it would ensure “transparency” at all times during the probe.

The DOH said it had even issued checks paying for benefits for the 32 health workers who had died, as well as to 19 others who had recovered from the virus, and that it had complied with orders from President Duterte to speed up the purchase of PPEs and testing kits.

The DOH also denied allegations that it had been remiss in its duties of properly reporting coronavirus cases to the public.

On Wednesday, the department confirmed 457 new cases of the coronavirus and five more deaths among people who had tested positive for it, bringing the national tally to 27,238 cases and 457 deaths.

Southern cases

Meanwhile, in the southern province of Lanao del Sur, the number of cases has continued to rise, jumping to 30 at the weekend in the highest spike since more than a thousand residents started returning home in the first week of June.

Zia Alonto Adiong, spokesman of the local inter-agency task force, said the figure included nine residents who had already been tested prior to the wave of returnees.

“As of Saturday, we have 30 active cases including the nine patients reported last weekend,” Adiong said.

About 80 other residents are in quarantine and under observation in Marawi city. They were among more than thousand that arrived in four batches since the first week of June under the government’s program to bring back people to the provinces from Manila.

Richel V. Umel contributed to this report from Iligan City, Philippines.

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