COVID-19 pandemic: A test of great leadership
Fresh from a good start in 2019, Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong started 2020 with a promise that he will sustain or even heighten the momentum he gained in the first six months of his administration.
He even considered 2020 a pivotal year in his administration for it is the year where projects as outlined in his 15-point agenda will be implemented full swing.
In a speech delivered on the first working day of 2020, Magalong said he and his team will also devote their time in firming up programs that he envisions to continuously be implemented even beyond his term.
“With competence and strong leadership, we are now prepared to execute strategic solutions and programs to make things happen in 2020 and succeeding years,” the mayor said in his New Year message.
“To make Baguio better, there will be no let-up in pushing for change in the way we do our assigned tasks,” he said.
As Magalong was delivering on his promises, different parts of the world have been alerted about a mysterious disease that was first detected in China and was fast spreading in said country.
Little did Magalong know that in a few weeks, the low-key general who once was thrust into the spotlight for leading in the investigation into the Mamasapano clash in 2015 will be on centerstage again, this time not as a general, but an elected chief executive with whom the people entrusted to steer Baguio into a new direction.
Moving in advance
In early February, questions surfaced on whether the mayor will order a suspension or proceed with the holding of the Panagbenga Festival – one of the biggest crowd-drawing events in the country.
With little known information about the mysterious virus, then called “novel coronavirus,” experts in the medical field informed the public to avoid large crowds in order to prevent the spread of the disease.
Weighing his options, Magalong at first cancelled the opening parade of the Panagbenga but in the days that followed, he announced he is calling off the festival altogether as proactive measure against the spread of the novel coronavirus.
In March, President Rodrigo Duterte declared a lockdown in the National Capital Region only but subsequently declared Luzon under strict confinement.
Just like other local government units in the country, local chief executives, along with the Philippine National Police, local health offices, and the barangay officials were tasked to implement the lockdown order.
Baguio immediately complied with the directive. Unlike other LGUs that encountered problems with citizens who at first, refused to comply with the lockdown, the city stood out among the few that were able to adhere to the national directive.
Apart from the general guidelines issued by the national government, Magalong and his team developed methods that will regulate movement of the public at the same time allowing them access to basic and essential necessities such as medicine, medical consult, and food.
Market schedules, organizing pedestrian traffic, color coding, transportation schedules, curfew, liquor ban, border checkpoints, restricted movement of senior citizens and minors were among the regulations imposed by the city government to minimize movement.
In anticipation of the fact that there will soon be Covid-19 cases in Baguio, he agreed to the reopening of the former Sto. Niño Jesus Hospital as isolation facility. Thereafter, he negotiated with the management of the Baguio Teachers’ Camp and owners of hotels and dormitories as reserve isolation areas.
Along with restrictions was his enhancement of the contact tracing method of the CHSO. Applying his years of training in intelligence gathering, Magalong said the contact tracing team should be composed not just of medical personnel but also of policemen who are especially trained on cognitive interviewing to reach as much people who may have come in contact with Covid-19 cases.
Disiplina Muna ambassador
Baguio residents’ dutifully following community quarantine regulations has helped propel Magalong into the national consciousness.
He was soon tapped to become the Disiplina Muna ambassador of the Department of the Interior and Local Government-Cordillera.
With the enhancement of contact tracing methods coupled with the use of data analytics, President Rodrigo Duterte has appointed Magalong as the country’s contact tracing czar.
The city’s contact tracing data analytics strategy also caught the attention of the World Health Organization prompting its country representative to promote the Baguio data analytics to other local government units.
Magalong may have gained popularity on a nationwide scale but back home, some decisions he made have not been entirely accepted. The recent one involved the regulated entry of La Trinidad, Itogon, Tuba, Tublay, and Sablan residents.
He was widely criticized for this move with many claiming this will not help decrease Covid-19 infections in the city. Magalong did not budge and even extended the border regulation, this time with full conformity of the mayors of nearby towns.
A staunch believer of science and technology, Magalong also welcomed proposals of different companies to introduce or promote their products or services in Baguio as supplement to the city’s Covid-19 response. Among these are use of artificial intelligence to detect respiratory infections, and robots to be used in disinfection.
These technologies have hardly been used by the city government. The City Health Services Office maintains that the RT-PCR remain the gold standard in the detection of the SARS-CoV2, while disinfection is still being conducted by personnel of the city, not by robots.
Aiming to make Baguio a “smart city,” Magalong also espoused going cashless starting at the market as well as in public transportation, but this too remains unpopular as majority of transactions still use cash.
The mayor continues to pursue other aspects of the smart city such as setup of central command center, integrated communication platform, video management system, computer-aided dispatch, Geographical Information System and big data analytics.
At the beginning of the year, Magalong said his target will increase revenues to P300 million to improve the city’s financial standing.
But because of the Covid-19 health crisis, this target has not been realized. For 2021, the budget is only at P1,904,482,458 or a 15 percent decrease from the 2020 budget.
Magalong also pursued plans to redevelop the market where SM Prime Holdings was awarded the original proponent status, signaling the beginning of negotiations for the area’s rehabilitation.
This too, have been widely criticized with allegations that he tended to favor big capitalists but the mayor, who promised to bring a “breath of fresh air,” stays undaunted stressing he will stand up even to unpopular decisions confident that he will be vindicated in the end.