Health Secretary Francisco Duque III walked the streets of Manila, carrying a wooden stick to remind residents last March to observe proper physical distancing.

Not exactly the kind of priority the Philippine health chief was expected to focus on, while hospital beds were getting filled and the health care system was in danger of being overwhelmed due to a second surge in Covid-19 cases, driven in large part, by new and more infectious variants.

Former health secretary Esperanza Cabral said problems with the country’s pandemic response “comes down to leadership and governance.”

Cabral said Duque should spend more time on examining working conditions in hospitals during the pandemic, and check on critically ill Covid-19 patients, instead of resorting to last month’s press event in Manila.

“You hardly see him, actually, and when you see him, you see him in inanities like he will go with a meter stick to find out whether the physical distancing rule is being complied with. Hindi ganun yun,” she said on Christian Esguerra’s Facts First podcast.

As of Monday, the Philippines had at least 143,726 active cases, the most in Southeast Asia, while still struggling to meet the daily target of 100,000 tests and efficiently trace those who came in close contact with infected individuals.

President Rodrigo Duterte himself should take the pandemic more seriously, said Cabral, who cited his remarks describing the health crisis as “a small thing in our lives.” “I actually don’t know why he takes this situation on a very cavalier way,” she said.

“Hindi yan maliit e. It has brought our economy down to its knees. It has exposed the weakness of our healthcare system that has been under-invested in, under-funded for the longest time, (and) not given the proper priority.”

The Philippine economy shrank by 9.5 percent in 2020, its worst since World War 2, with businesses shutting down and forcing massive unemployment.

As of January this year, around 4 million Filipinos were out of work.

Last month, Duterte rejected the idea of government freeing manufacturers of liability over adverse effects that might result from Covid-19 vaccines made available here.

But in February, he signed a bill, which included a no-fault clause for vaccine makers.

“Hindi nakakatuwa yan. Hindi ako natutuwa dyan na hindi on the ball ang presidente all the time,” said Cabral.