Clockwise from left: Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, Heath Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire, National Task Force head Carlito Galvez Jr., Palace spokesman Salvador Panelo, President Rodrigo Duterte, and Communications Secretary Martin Andanar.

By Felipe F. Salvosa II

If the Covid-19 response is a “war” against an “invisible enemy,” then one of the Duterte government’s strategies is the almost round-the-clock bombardment of broadcast and online channels with briefings by a platoon of spokespersons.

It’s a practically a network program lineup: from the morning show all the way to the late, late show.

At 9:30 a.m. it’s Karlo Nograles, the secretary to the Cabinet who’s also the spokesman of the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, the body in-charge of the Covid-19 response. The former lawmaker reads IATF directives and smoothly translates himself into Filipino, to be better understood.

Then there’s the “Laging Handa Network Briefing” by Martin Andanar, the communications secretary, who gets to reprise his previous role as a TV and radio broadcaster but with the advantage that the mainstream does not have — unparalleled access to the country’s ambassadors and consuls overseas and national and local officials.

Not to be outdone, Malacañang spokesman Salvador Panelo checks in at lunchtime, either to clarify or rationalize the president’s muddled speech or give hot takes on the issues of the day.

In the afternoons it’s the calm voice and composure of Maria Rosario Vergeire, undersecretary of the Department of Health, whose job is to give updates on cases of Covid-19 infections, deaths and recoveries, and information on how to avoid catching the virus.

Retired general Carlito Galvez Jr., “chief implementer” of the Covid-19 response and head of the “National Task Force” under the “Interagency Task Force,” has begun regular “end-of-day” briefings to give updates on quarantine measures, such as the conversion of public and private buildings into temporary hospitals or isolation facilities.

That’s not all. When President Rodrigo Duterte’s up for it, or would like to get back at critics, there would be a late-night presidential address to the nation where he would make (to be fair) important announcements, but not before meandering into unrelated topics. He’s no Lee Hsien Loong or Queen Elizabeth II, whose televised addresses are few and far between but have calmed their respective publics.

Close to midnight on Monday, when Duterte announced that the government was “inclined” to extend the enhanced community quarantine over Luzon up to April 30 (which Nograles had to confirm the following morning), side topics and asides included how he would ponder on the nation’s fate in between trips to the bedside loo, his late father’s malaria infection, no longer praying to the saints, and the antics of the pretend-president Elly Velez Pamatong.

We haven’t even mentioned the Facebook Live sessions of elected officials like House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and the social-media savvy mayor of Manila, Isko Moreno, whose newscast-quality graphics top those of Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York.

While they don’t necessarily contradict each other, there is a lot of overlap in the livestreamed government briefings, and they have been effective in crowding out and bypassing the news media, some of which have been temporarily sidelined by the quarantine and reduced to airing broadcasts of state-run People’s Television.

The media are in fact at the mercy even of Vergeire and Nograles, who give the most organized virtual briefings but address only questions sent prior, and do not take follow-ups. “Ito lang po ang kaya nating sagutin ngayong araw. Ang iba n’yo pong katanugan ay ating sasagutin sa susunod na virtual presser,” is Vergeire’s signature closing line.

The contrast with the communications strategy of Duterte idol Donald Trump is striking. In the White House, there’s only one coronavirus task force briefing, and the spotlight is on public health experts Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx. Sometimes Trump gets to shoot down reporters’ questions, but at least they’re allowed in the briefing room on a rotating basis, subject to physical distancing. In Malacañang, the briefing room is off-limits.

“Absolutely unwarranted,” a veteran public relations expert said of the multiple pressers. The government’s lockdown slogan is “We Heal as One.” But they don’t “speak as one.” (