CEBU CITY, Philippines – Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the year 2020 still left remarkably interesting stories and personalities in the Cebuano community.
Always present in Cebu’s news stories were vocal politicians, tough-talking law enforcers, insightful experts, soft-spoken church leaders, and all sources whose positions, both in government and in the private sector, would put them on the headlines.
But there were also those whose roles deeply impacted the lives of every Cebuano in ways which were rarely, or never have been, documented.
In this edition of CDN Digital’s Faces of Cebu, we take a look back on the people who made it to Cebu’s headlines as well as the notable events surrounding them.
When the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak hit Cebu, all eyes were not only focused on local officials and the measures they made in response to the infection.
The year 2020, the public paid special attention to Cebuano workers battling the pandemic at the frontlines – their struggles, stories of hope, and achievements made in line with their duties.
They were, after all, considered modern-day heroes for risking their lives to help others.
Dr. Mary Jean Loreche
She was first introduced to the press as the chief pathologist for the Department of Health in Central Visayas (DOH-7) when the Project Balik Buhay (PBB) was rolled out.
But Dr. Mary Jean Loreche’s role would eventually expand from giving daily updates on PBB’s progress to being the spokesperson of DOH-7.
As spokesperson, she would later on dish out not only daily COVID-19 updates such as the flattening of the epidemic curve in Cebu City last September but also suggestions to local government units (LGUs) and members of the private sector on how to respond effectively towards the outbreak.
Among the most notable recommendations Loreche released included discouraging organizers of Sinulog Festival to conduct full-blown festivities that would draw large crowds.
The Sinulog Foundation Inc. (SFI), for their part, complied with DOH-7’s suggestions by not allowing physical audience during the festival’s major events such as the Ritual Showdown.
DENR Sec. Roy Cimatu
When Cebu City experienced a second round of lockdown last June, the national government stepped in to evaluate and intervene in the city’s responses towards COVID-19. President Rodrigo Duterte would appoint Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu to oversee all of them.
But later on, the Cabinet member would also be visiting other parts of the island – particularly the town of Alcoy where the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) sourced the crushed dolomite for the controversial white-sand project of the Manila Bay Rehabilitation.
Barely 24 hours since he arrived in Cebu City, Cimatu, a retired military general, rolled out his first measure – to scrap all quarantine passes (Qpasses), effectively mandating all residents to stay inside their houses.
He also led the formation of the Visayas’ Inter-Agency Task Force for Management Emerging Infectious Disease (IATF), in which another retired army officer, Mel Feliciano, was made as deputy.
Cimatu’s role in controlling the COVID-19 in Cebu City during his first few days was often characterized by increased police visibility, and the presence of the military in the streets – a move that generated mixed reactions from the public.
Several groups expressed concerns and disappointment over the ‘militarization’ of the city’s COVID response while others attributed this as one of the biggest factors that led to the flattening of the curve.
Nevertheless, the Malacañang lauded Cimatu’s and Feliciano’s leadership in helping Cebu City in its battle against the pandemic, and that they would then be transferred to other areas where a spike of cases is noted to take action there.
In September, Cimatu went back to Cebu and this time – to the southeastern town of Alcoy where he personally met representatives from Philippine Mining Services Corporation (PMSC), and ordered them to temporarily cease their operations as DENR conducted an investigation on the firm’s environmental impact.
PMSC is the largest processor and exporter of dolomite rocks. Alcoy, a fifth-class municipality, holds the largest deposit of dolomite in the entire Visayas area.
Atty. Renan Augustus Oliva
A change of leadership is a regular occurrence among national government agencies such as the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI).
Lawyer Renan Oliva, the former director of NBI’s satellite office in Bohol, was ordered to go back to Cebu City and lead the Central Visayas office of NBI last August.
Just weeks after his appointment was made official, Oliva and his team of special investigators filed complaints before the Office of the Ombudsman, accusing a hospital here and officers from the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) of doing fraudulent activities.
They presented to the public their findings that alleged executives from Perpetual Succour Hospital and PhilHealth conniving to siphon funds from the state-ran firm by taking advantage of the updated COVID-19 reimbursement packages.
Both Perpetual Succour Hospital and PhilHealth – Central Visayas denied the accusations hurled against them.
This development also brought to light earlier allegations raised by Cebu Governor Gwendolyn Garcia that unscrupulous individuals will claim to have COVID-19 in order to get higher reimbursements – an example of an ‘upcase’, a fraudulent practice notorious in the healthcare industry.
NBI-7 was among the first agencies in the country to file such complaints, following controversies of corruption linked to PhilHealth.
A one-star review for Plantation Bay Resort and Spa written by Cebu-based photographer Mai Pages made headlines in December.
Pages, a mother of a child with special needs, reported experiencing discrimination from the resort staff and management which prompted Manny Gonzalez, one of the establishment’s ‘resident stakeholders’, to issue a lengthy response that went on lecturing the former about autism.
Gonzalez’ reply received the ire of netizens, groups promoting the welfare for special children, and notable figures such as ANC anchor and host, Karen Davila.
It did not take long for screenshots of the now-deleted comment from Gonzales to circulate rapidly online.
The incident also prompted national government agencies, including the Department of Tourism (DOT), Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), to conduct an investigation.
Gonzalez eventually made a public apology, and ‘resigned’ as a resident stakeholder of the resort.
Atty. Harry Roque
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque’s visit to Bantayan Island in northern Cebu last November started out uneventful.
He was among the special guests invited for the three-day Suroy-Suroy in Bantayan Island that aimed on promoting the destination’s tourism industry.
But when photos and videos of the Malacañang official speaking in front of a huge crowd that neglected physical distancing in Madridejos’ Kota Park went viral, he was once again the subject of criticisms from the public.
Roque also faced an almost similar backlash when he visited an aquamarine park in Subic and ‘swam with dolphins’ in July while most parts of the country are still under quarantine restrictions.
Roque said the incident in Bantayan Island was ‘a lesson learned’ for him. The Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) also launched its own probe on the incident.
Berta, whose real name is Roberto Plando Jr., became an internet sensation after Cebuanos took notice of his fluency in speaking English and most especially, his hugot and punchlines about love.
Eventually, Berta would make waves online again and this time – it was filled with hope and humanity. Berta is now making progress on his road to recovery.
Local groups here decided to help Berta get off the streets. He was brought to a facility called SafeHaven Cebu for his rehabilitation.
Stories about Berta’s new chapter in life sparked hope and inspiration among netizens, and he would eventually become the face of hope among Cebuanos.