Pandemic fear, strict health protocols trump tradition at Duterte’s 5th SONA

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte

By Samuel P. Medenilla

PRESIDENT Duterte’s fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA) will be unlike any other. The much anticipated annual event is already a risky event for the President as is, but for this year, it was made more dangerous amid the ongoing novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic.

The disease, which is primarily spread through exposure to the small droplets from an afflicted person’s cough, has already infected thousands of people in Metro Manila.

Faced with such an invisible and ever present threat to their principal, the Presidential Security Group (PSG) together with the Office of the President (OP) prepared plans for two possible scenarios for President Duterte’s fifth SONA on Monday.

The first will involve the President still holding his SONA at the Batasang Pambansa Complex in Quezon City, following tradition, but with stricter measures. The first restriction is on the number of people: from the usual 500 who jampack the Batasan on SONA Day, the total number will be limited to 50—half from the Executive Department, meaning, Duterte and just select Cabinet members; and 13 from the House, and 12 senators.

The opening of the session and the SONA will be available via Zoom for other lawmakers who are not at the scene.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his 4th State of the Nation Address at the 18th Congress at the House of Representatives in Quezon city, Monday July 22, 2019.  AP Photo/Aaron Favila

Internal arrangement

Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said gone are the usual arrangement wherein the guests will personally witness and react with their usual cheers and applause to the President, when he delivers his speech live.

Instead, he said the President will be delivering his delivering his SONA in a chamber that will not be filled by the legislators, officials and dignitaries that usually attend this function.

The House of Representatives will also be implementing strict screening protocols for participants of the event, which includes requiring everyone at the scene to accomplish a health declaration form and undergoing temperature checks before they are allowed entry at the Batasang Pambansa.

Those with temperature of 37.5 degree or higher will not be allowed entry in the venue and will be sent to quarantine tents.

Upon entry into the venue, the guests will be required to wear face masks and face shields when they enter the session hall. Physical distancing of two meters will also be enforced.

The Batasang Pambansa Complex will also undergo intensive disinfection prior to the event especially after some of the personnel in the facility tested positive for Covid-19 a few days before.

On the actual day, the entire venue will be place under lockdown and will be secured by the Quezon City Police District and fire marshall.

Limited guests

Also unlike in previous SONAs, only 50 guests will be allowed at the Batasan

“It [guests] will not go beyond 50. This will include representatives of the Palace and will also be shared by the [representatives] from Senate and Congress,” Andanar said in a radio interview last Friday.

Aside from the said guests and personnel of the PSG, no other people will be allowed inside the Batasang Pambansa. The restriction also barred the media from covering the event.

Only the Presidential Broadcast Staff-Radio Television Malacañang (PBS-RTVM), which will be inside the venue to cover the SONA, will live feed the event through People’s Television Network (PTV), Presidential Communications Operations Office and RTVM Facebook pages and RTVM YouTube channel.

All the of the 50 guests were required to be tested using the reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) process on July 26, 2020 or the eve of SONA, to make sure they are free from Covid-19.

Second option: Malacanang

The tests results of the guests will determine if the second option of PSG and OP for the SONA will kick in.

“If there is a large number of positives [results] or if there is any positive with the swab test of the guests, the Office of the President together with the PSG may implement option B, which will be done in Malacañang,” Andanar said.

Under the said scenario, Andanar noted, there will be fewer guests attending due to the smaller venue.

“Of course, this will still include the Senate President, Speaker of the House, the President and the Executive Secretary and some select congressmen and senators. So it will be fewer compared to the Batasang Pambansa,” Andanar said.

The health and screening protocols to be implemented in the Batasang Pambansa are already in place in Malacañang.

The speech

But while the PSG and OP will do anything to ensure Duterte remains Covid-free, the President’s SONA speech will most certainly be “consumed” by the virus.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque earlier said the speech will, innevitably, focus on the government’s comprehensive road map to for the country’s economic recovery plan for Covid-19.

But since it is a SONA after all, Nograles said the President might also discuss his priority legislation for the last two years of his administration.

For his part, Andanar said Duterte might also touch his other priorities such as his drive against corruption, illegal drugs, and poverty alleviation as what he did in his previous SONAs.

The said officials admitted they have yet to see the final speech of the President, when they issued the said statements last week.

House, Senate restrictions

Besides the Palace measures to protest the President from Covid-19, the leadership of the House and the Senate have also traken extraordinary steps to ensure the virus is not transmitted during the SONA Day and the chambers’ respective opening sessions on Monday morning.

After all, both the Senate and House have had their share of infections since March, with each chamber reporting even deaths of a couple of employees. Three senators were also infected.

Invoking “health and safety protocols,” the Senate banned media coverage of the opening rites of the 2nd regular session of the 18th Congress on Monday morning, which takes place six hours before the SONA.

“In accordance with the health and safety protocols mandated by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID), media are not allowed inside the premises of the Senate of the Philippines on Monday, July 27, 2020,” a media advisory sent to Senate reporters stated.

It said photographers and cameramen of the Public Relations and Information Bureau will “cover the plenary proceedings and email to media situationer photos and video clips ofthe event.”

Indeed, the limited coverage and guest list, not to mention the absence of the glittery trappings of SONA, mean no red carpet or “best gown” competition, among other things lacking this year. But when people have battled fear of disease and dying the past 120 days, who cares about all that?

Image credits: Presidential Photographers Division


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