On April 23, 2020, the office of Senator Imee Marcos issued a press release commemorating the 39th anniversary of the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM) and to highlight Senate Bill (SB) 1407, her bill that is supposed to expand RITM. The press release was posted on the senator’s Facebook page and the Senate website. The Manila Bulletin, GMA News, and Remate reported on it. The Facebook post, as of this writing, has received over 3,900 reactions and 500 shares.
SB 1407, filed by the senator on March 9, 2020, is entitled “An Act Expanding the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, and for Other Purposes.” It was also meant to portray her and her late father as the only politicians who have shown support for RITM, though looking through the bills she filed when she was in the House of Representatives from 1998 to 2004 via the House’s website, this was the first bill she ever filed specifically about RITM. The press release states in part:
“The long neglect of RITM dates back more than 30 years ago when the Cory administration started treating it like a leper, just because it was built by my father, then President Ferdinand Edralin Marcos, through Executive Order No. 674 in 1981,” Marcos said.
“The technical cooperation with the Japanese government that helped build and equip the RITM as the country’s prime biomedical research center was pushed aside, erasing its importance in the public mind, and squandering the momentum which could have benefitted us today,” Marcos added.
Marcos has filed Senate Bill 1407 to rescue what is arguably the DOH’s most neglected agency from its decrepit state, increase its qualified personnel and their salaries, expand its presence to key population centers outside Metro Manila, and revive its ability to effectively handle the magnitude of future pandemics.
“The RITM’s mother agency, the Department of Health (DOH), has failed to learn the lessons of history,” Marcos said, citing the slew of pandemics that have already hit the country: acute immunodefficiency syndrome (AIDS), severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), the Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV), and now the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
These are lies. The statement “Built. . .through Executive Order No. 674 in 1981” is inaccurate, as the RITM was already under construction well before the order was issued by President Marcos. As we have discussed in a previous article, RITM was heavily dependent on money from the Japanese government for its capital and equipment outlay, and would not have functioned well during the Marcos regime with government funding alone.
In 1985, the original five-year RITM Technical Cooperation Project (TCP) between the Japanese and Philippine governments was scheduled to conclude. In October 1985, the project was extended up to early 1988. The Corazon Aquino administration did not pre-terminate the agreement. In fact, even if the TCP ended in 1988, according to RITM’s annual report for that year, the Institute received “a grant-in-aid from the Japanese government for the improvement and expansion of the institute,” which entailed “a training center and a dormitory facility, construction of which commenced in April 1988.”
Looking at the Philippine government appropriations for RITM from 1983 to 1987 is also instructive. Based on the 1983 General Appropriations Act, in 1983, RITM was given PHP 8,635,000. Based on the 1984 RITM annual report, the institute received PHP 6,655,000 from the national government; and in 1985, based on the RITM annual report for that year, PHP 9,503,656. On the other hand, the 1986 RITM annual report states that throughout 1986, the allotment for RITM was PHP 14,473,000 (a PHP 4.9 million increase). In 1987, based on the budget enacted by Corazon Aquino via Executive Order No. 87, RITM received PHP 14,641,000—over PHP 5 million more than it received during the last full year that Marcos was president.
What was jettisoned from RITM after the EDSA Revolution was a foundation called the Research Foundation for Tropical Medicine, Inc. or RFTM, which was established on November 5, 1984. As noted by Ricardo Manapat in his book Some are Smarter than Others, RFTM’s incorporators included “Ambassador Eduardo Cojuangco, businessman Lucio Tan, [and] Presidential Legal Adviser Manuel Lazaro, all of whom were close associates of Marcos.” On April 24, 1985, Marcos retroactively authorized the RFTM to conduct a “national fund campaign” from December 16, 1984 to December 15, 1985 via Proclamation No. 2416. He called on “all citizens and residents of the country” to “assist in the endeavor by giving generously of their means and to actively support the campaign,” and called upon all government agencies “to donate generously from their funds to the Foundation.” The financial statement in the 1985 RITM annual report did not indicate the amounts the foundation received, if any, as a result of this donation drive.
RFTM was superseded by the New Tropical Medicine Foundation, Inc. in 1987, which fulfilled RFTM’s grant reception and administration functions.
Instead of being treated as a “leper,” RITM in fact continued to thrive under the Corazon Aquino administration. This was the time when RITM’s Office of Public Information and Research Dissemination—to help make RITM’s findings more publicly accessible—and the Tropical Medicine Research Center (TMRC) were established. According to Dr. Mediadora Saniel, former director of RITM, in the institute’s 1990 annual report, that year was RITM’s “most productive year,” getting “the largest total research funding the Institute has ever obtained in any single year.” Among the grants received by RITM was a five-year grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health for the TMRC.
The 1992 RITM Research and Training Division report opens with the line, “Research and Training activities conducted by the different study groups of the Division were both greater in scale and more diverse than in previous years.” The 1992 RITM annual report also shows that the institute, through the New Tropical Medicine Foundation, Inc., continued to receive millions in research funding, including considerable amounts from the Japanese government.
To highlight RITM’s 25th anniversary, Dr. Fe Esperanza J. Espino, in a 2006 article in the Philippine Star, enumerated the pioneering and robust research that the institute had undertaken on acute respiratory infections (ARI), dengue, diarrheal diseases, Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)/AIDS, leprosy, malaria, rabies, schistosomiasis, tuberculosis, and viral hepatitis.
A book celebrating RITM’s thirtieth anniversary was released in 2011. Its pages show a highly active and accomplished research institution, at the forefront of the country’s battles against diseases such as tuberculosis, rabies, and AIDS, receiving institutional awards from the Philippine government and the World Health Organization between 1997 and 2011. The book also gives a glimpse of how ably RITM faced the SARS and H1N1 pandemics during the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration.
A side note: the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, from whom we have been hearing from almost daily, was first established by then President Benigno Aquino III via Executive Order No. 168 in 2014 to prepare for and deal with various infectious diseases, including other coronavirus-caused conditions such as SARS and MERS.
Senator Marcos’s use of the words “neglected” and “decrepit” to describe RITM is inaccurate. The 2011 thirtieth anniversary book shows RITM as a well-equipped research institution, with its own vaccine production facilities. As an expression of the government’s confidence in RITM, in 2012 it received the biggest increase in its annual budget, from PHP 148,215,000 the previous year, to PHP 236,408,000, a 63 percent increase.
In 2014, RITM, with Japanese funding, commenced a project to construct a new Biological Safety Laboratory Level 3, capable of processing, detecting, and storing highly lethal viruses such as the Ebola Virus. In June 2018, the laboratory was certified as compliant with World Health Organization standards. It was inaugurated in August 2018. In 2019, it was reported that a Japanese company was going to give RITM advanced equipment for tuberculosis diagnosis. In the same year, RITM’s parasitology department received the Newton Prize Award for a project that, according to RITM’s press release, “resulted in a novel approach to improve malaria surveillance for elimination of the disease.” Finally, in 2017, RITM was ISO 9001:2015 certified—one of the first government organizations given such certification, according to RITM’s press release. The Provincial Government of Ilocos Norte was given the same certification during the same year; Imee Marcos has repeatedly cited this as evidence of how progressive Ilocos Norte became during her tenure as the province’s governor.
In short, Imee Marcos’s claim that the current difficulties of RITM are due to decades of neglect is not only disinformation, it also downplays the numerous achievements of RITM and its dedicated staff over the years and the support it has continued to receive both from the Philippine government and foreign funding agencies even after the Marcoses were ousted from power. Moreover, her claims about RITM in the face of COVID-19 is passing the blame of perceived mishandling of the crisis by the current government to the so-called “yellows” while glorifying her father’s regime—a tactic taken straight out of the Marcos propaganda playbook.
Indeed, this sudden interest in RITM seems to be mostly linked to another classic propaganda strategy—brandish your name, be a savior, especially during a crisis. Just like what her parents did with Kadiwa and nutribun. Unfortunately, Senator Imee Marcos was missing in action during the marathon special session of Congress that led to the passage of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act. According to news reports, she was in home quarantine after it was confirmed that Senator Miguel Zubiri had tested positive for COVID-19. Nevertheless, she was reported to have submitted her proposed amendments to the COVID-19 emergency bill that was tackled on the Senate floor.
In a series of Facebook videos, she said that she had kept herself busy revising three bills. SB 1416, an amendment to Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act, specifically to contemplate COVID-19, may be superfluous because the law already gives the Epidemiology Bureau of the Department of Health the power to list “notifiable diseases and health events of public health concern.” The other two bills, SB 1414 and 1415, are related to funding economic and social distress alleviation efforts and coronavirus detection, treatment, and control activities. The short title of her SB 1414 is “Pag-ASA: Alaga, Sustento, at Angat sa Panahon ng COVID-19 Crisis,” which, according to a post on her Facebook page dated March 23, 2020, is a proposed PHP 750 billion COVID-19 “emergency response and recovery package.” These are the three bills in between SB 1413 and SB 1418, the Senate’s versions of the Bayanihan to Heal as One bills. Senator Marcos’s bills were not consolidated with the bill that eventually became the COVID-19 national emergency law, which already allows the president to realign certain funds precisely to mitigate the effects of the current pandemic. As of this writing, a search of these bills via the website of the Senate yields a “not found” result.
Nevertheless, her Facebook and Twitter posts regarding her activities under quarantine have garnered thousands of reactions and shares—hardly unusual for her page, which has over 1.2 million followers. Her page has posted digital posters describing where she wants her proposed Pag-ASA funds to go, but without clarifying that these are merely proposals, leading to inquiries from several of the page’s followers regarding availment of what they think is a form of amelioration fund.
Outside of this social media community, a press release from her office regarding her Pag-ASA bill has been published in several news outlets. She has also talked about the bill herself in radio interviews. In her cross-platform media blitz regarding her efforts to help address the current crisis, she has either explicitly stated that she does not think it is necessary to give the president emergency powers, or, by emphasizing her Pag-ASA bill, is implying that the power of the purse cannot be ceded to the president. With the passage of the Bayanihan Act, she has been roundly rebuffed by her colleagues in the senate and by those in the executive branch.
She has since filed another COVID-19-related bill: SB 1427, which seeks to amend the Bayanihan Act to explicitly designate members of the media as frontliners, granting them a form of hazard pay. Again, this seems superfluous, as the Bayanihan Act already gives the president the power to grant such allowances.
Indeed, if her SB 1414 andSB 1415 were the ones tackled on the Senate floor, Senator Marcos may have had the chance to make the claim that she single-handedly drew up the financial plan to save the country from possible economic and social collapse. If her other COVID-related bills are enacted, she can claim to have been an advocate of particular frontliners. She could have had a ready response to the trending question, “Ano’ng ambag mo?” Instead, she is left to claim falsified past glory and alternative plans as her main contribution. Perhaps, besides the donations that she has been making here and there, she and the rest of her family can give, with no conditions, their fabled wealth to help beat the viral menace?