VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte errs on COVID-19 response timeline, pandemic history

President Rodrigo Duterte made two inaccurate claims on the government’s coronavirus disease (COVID-19) response and the world’s history of past pandemics.


In a late-night televised briefing on June 30, the president said:

“Nobody but nobody dito sa mundong ito (in this world) was really or were prepared for [COVID-19]. Iyang (This) pandemic[,] it comes about once in a century…[H]indi natin akalain na (We did not think that) in two days’ time after the warning was given by the WHO na (that) it is a virulent, fast-moving microbe and we were — we were all advised to take precautions.

Duterte added:

“Me, here, I immediately convened the IATF. Right there and then we organized ourselves into a body, a working body, to deal with the problem. Walang — wala tayong preparation na ganito (We did not have any preparation [for this]).”

Source: Presidential Communications Operations Office, Talk to the People of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), June 30, 2020, watch from 2:03 to 3:37


Pandemics do not occur just once every century.

While the Spanish flu outbreak, which Duterte and other officials have referred to in previous speeches, happened in 1918 — more than 100 years prior to the onset of COVID-19 — there had been at least five pandemics in between.

In 1957, the H2N2 virus emerged in East Asia and triggered a pandemic (later known as the “Asian flu”), causing an estimated 1.1 million deaths worldwide. In 1968, the H3N2 virus, first noted in the United States, killed an estimated 1 million. Then, “after early outbreaks in North America” in 2009, the H1N1pdm09 virus or “swine flu” killed about 151,700 to 575,400 people globally in its first year of circulation.

The Spanish flu pandemic, also known as the 1918 influenza, affected about 500 million people and had an estimated death toll of at least 40 million. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Cimatu falsely claims PH was an American Commonwealth during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic; VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte is wrong; Spanish flu outbreak did not precede WWI)

The world has also continuously dealt with cholera, its “longest running” pandemic since 1961, and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) since the first cases of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) were reported in 1981.

A pandemic is defined as the “worldwide spread of a new disease,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

On May 26, 2014, then President Benigno Aquino III issued Executive Order No. 168, establishing the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID). The inter-sectoral body was mandated to:

“…establish preparedness and ensure efficient government response to assess, monitor, contain, control, and prevent the spread of any potential epidemic in the Philippines.”

An epidemic refers to an “increase, often sudden, in the number of cases of a disease above what is normally expected in that population in that area,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Duterte is not the only official to have falsely claimed that pandemics come only once every century. On April 22, acting Secretary Karl Kendrick Chua of the National Economic and Development Authority also erred in saying a pandemic, like COVID-19, is a “once in a century problem.”

Duterte’s claim that he immediately convened the IATF-EID two days after WHO issued a warning is also inaccurate.

WHO first warned the public of the novel coronavirus (eventually officially labeled as SARS-CoV-2) on Jan. 4. In a tweet, WHO then said:

“#China has reported to WHO a cluster of #pneumonia cases —with no deaths— in Wuhan, Hubei Province. Investigations are underway to identify the cause of this illness.”

The next day, WHO issued its first disease outbreak news report. At that time, the agency said there was still “limited information to determine the overall risk” of the outbreak in Wuhan. The report went on to advise “against the application of any travel or trade restrictions on the current information available…”

The global health agency later announced on Jan. 9 that Chinese authorities have “made a preliminary determination of a novel (or new) coronavirus” as the cause of the cluster of pneumonia cases.

The IATF-EID first convened for the novel coronavirus threat on Jan. 28, 24 days after WHO’s first public warning. By then, there were 4,537 confirmed cases of infection and 106 recorded deaths globally, most of which were in mainland China and none yet in the Philippines. (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte repeats false claim that PH was ‘first’ to impose COVID lockdown in Asia)

WHO designated the novel coronavirus threat as a public health emergency of international concern two days later, on Jan. 30, the same day the country recorded its first confirmed case.

Duterte initially downplayed the COVID-19 threat, saying in a Feb. 3 press briefing that the virus will “die a natural death even without a vaccine.” (See VERA FILES FACT CHECK: Duterte says he’s been warning of ‘deadly’ COVID-19 from the beginning. Not quite.)

Editor’s note: This fact check was produced by a student from the University of the Philippines Diliman who is doing her internship with VERA Files.



Presidential Communications Operations Office, Talk to the People of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), June 30, 2020

RTVMalacanang, Meeting with the IATF-EID and Talk to the People on COVID-19 5/25/2020, May 25, 2020

RTVMalacanang, Kumusta Po Mahal Kong Kababayan? | Meeting on COVID-19 Concerns and Talk to the People on COVID-19, June 22, 2020

Other pandemics

World Health Organization, What is a pandemic?, Feb. 24, 2010

Official Gazette, Executive Order No. 168, s. 2014, May 26, 2014

U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Lesson 1: Introduction to Epidemiology, Accessed July 7, 2020

FactRakers, Coronavirus pandemic is not a ‘once-in-a-century problem,’ April 24, 2020

Presidential Communications Operations Office, Public Briefing #LagingHandaPH hosted by Presidential Communications Operations Office Secretary Martin Andanar and PCOO Undersecretary Rocky Ignacio, April 22, 2020

World Health Organization, Timeline of WHO’s response to COVID-19, June 29, 2020

World Health Organization, #China has reported to WHO a cluster of #pneumonia cases —with no deaths— in Wuhan, Hubei Province [Flag of China]. Investigations are underway to identify the cause of this illness., Jan. 4, 2020

World Health Organization, Pneumonia of unknown cause – China, Jan. 5, 2020

World Health Organization, WHO Statement regarding cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China, Jan. 9, 2020

Department of Health, Advisory No. 1 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Health Event, Jan. 29, 2020

World Health Organization, WHO Director-General’s statement on IHR Emergency Committee on Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), Jan. 30, 2020



(Guided by the code of principles of the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter, VERA Files tracks the false claims, flip-flops, misleading statements of public officials and figures, and debunks them with factual evidence. Find out more about this initiative and our methodology.)