By Neil Jerome Morales and Karen Lema
MANILA (Reuters) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte defended his tough approach to fighting the coronavirus on Monday amid a surge in cases, touting its effectiveness in an annual address that critics said revealed little about plans to resuscitate a battered economy.
While Duterte urged Congress to approve a 140 billion pesos ($2.85 billion) stimulus package, he devoted much of his speech to attacking opponents, reviving the death penalty and defending a bloody war on drugs.
Duterte said imposing one of the world’s strictest lockdowns may have hurt the economy but it had prevented 1.3 million to 3.5 million infections, and countries that had opened up too soon like the United States were suffering.
“To me, even if the numbers were much lower, it would still be and would have been worth the sacrifice we made,” he said.
He stood by his decision not to let schools reopen until a vaccine was available, which he initially thought could be by September.
As countries race to secure vaccines, Duterte said he last week asked Chinese President Xi Jinping for help should Beijing make a breakthrough with a COVID-19 vaccine.
“I made a plea to President Xi if they have the vaccine can they allow us to be one of the first … so that we can normalise as fast as possible,” he said.
Though the Philippines waited 11 weeks before starting to ease restrictions on June 1, cases have since quadrupled with 82,040 infections and deaths more than doubling to 1,945.
Duterte acknowledged “difficulties” with testing capacity.
Though he repeatedly stressed in a speech lasting more than 100 minutes the importance of saving lives, Duterte also called for the death penalty to be re-imposed and promised no let-up in a war on drugs that has killed thousands of people.
“I will really kill you, that is a commitment,” he said, warning drug dealers.
Opposition lawmakers and investors were hoping Duterte would reveal plans on how to restore millions of jobs and mitigate economic damages from the pandemic, but said he barely touched on pressing issues.
“The anticipated roadmap meandered into the roadside of trite generalities and an invocation that the people should trust its government,” Congressman Edcel Lagman said, adding Duterte’s planned stimulus was “stingy”.
Duterte also defended his policy of not pressing China to abide by Philippines’ 2016 international arbitration award on the South China Sea, saying it risked a backlash.
“We cannot go to war,” he added.
(Writing by Martin Petty and Karen Lema, editing by Ed Osmond)