In recent years, the term “gaslighting” has taken on political meaning with its increased use by US media practitioners in reference to President Donald Trump’s habitual lying to the American public.

In the Philippines, as in the United States, people are being gaslit by their own commander-in-chief.

Gaslighting, according to psychologists, describes abusive behavior, specifically when the abuser manipulates information in such a way as to make a victim doubt their memories and question their perception of reality.

The term originated in a 1938 British play entitled “Gas Light” and entered American popular culture through a US film adaptation. The 1944 movie, “Gaslight” features an abusive husband who leads his wife to believe she’s seeing things and hearing voices. Throughout the movie, the husband tells his wife that these are all in her head.

Psychologists agree that this term can refer to techniques used by dictators, cult leaders, and narcissists to manipulate public opinion. In the 1980s, they had used this term to describe how women were socialized to self-doubt and exploitation amid their longing to preserve unhealthy relationships.

Perhaps, there is no better proof of gaslighting in the Philippines than President Rodrigo Duterte’s fourth State of the Nation Address (Sona).

As critics have pointed out, the most disappointing thing about the Sona is the President’s failure to lay out a clear, comprehensive plan for responding to covid-19. Given how dire the situation is, he should have given us more than highlights of the government’s past efforts and motherhood statements promising that his department secretaries will “look into” issues.

The continued rise in the number of covid-19 patients seemed lost on the President. The President seems to pin all hope of managing the pandemic on a vaccine that is still under development. In contrast, other nations have mitigated the spread of the virus and are slowly returning to pre-covid economic conditions even without a vaccine.

Many of these countries, such as Taiwan, New Zealand, and Germany are led by women like Vice-President Ma. Leonor Robredo who in her post-Sona speech included pandemic response recommendations from experts in the medical community.

After the Philippine College of Physicians called for reversion to a stricter community quarantine to prevent the collapse of our health systems, trade secretary Ramon Lopez passed the buck to hospitals saying they should have allocated the mandated number of beds for covid-19 cases. Sen. Cynthia Villar, administration ally, said health workers should just do their jobs better.

This is gaslighting. Worse, our leaders are gaslighting healthcare workers, people who have been taking care of us since this pandemic began.

From who else could they have learned it but our gaslighter-in-chief who in one breath calls for unity and cooperation and justifies his vendetta against ABS-CBN; who blames the pandemic on citizens’ lack of discipline but habitually eschews science?

The administration asserts that it wants people to continue to earn a living. Can they really say this when during our first round of quarantines they failed to aid many workers and when they continue, even now, to keep our jeepney drivers from making a living?

Can they say they care for workers when they have yet to legislate to end contractualization, one of Duterte’s most notable campaign platforms?

Duterte’s admission of his administration’s lapses and his calls for unity fall flat amid continued attacks on dissenters, our free press, and, ultimately, our people. For all his posturing as a crisis manager-cum-jet-ski-riding-action-star, Duterte has failed to tackle this public health crisis appropriately; he has failed to defend us from this pandemic.

In his speech, he repeatedly stated that “no nation was spared from the virus,” but as other countries have shown, outbreaks could be minimized by taking simple, commonsensical steps like banning flights from covid-19 hotspots such as China, something which the President refused to do due to his friendliness toward that country. Duterte will wage war on everything: drugs, viruses, the press before he stands up to China where, in his own words, he is “inutil”.

Our gaslighter-in-chief is good at manufacturing crises, not addressing real ones. In one fell swoop, he “rehabilitated” Boracay but left locals out of work for months. He “saved” Marawi but failed to rehabilitate it in the aftermath of a terror attack and so its residents continue to be displaced. Four years ago, drugs were our biggest problem. Until recently, while we were already besieged by covid-19, communists, he said, were our biggest problem. Meanwhile, China, which encroaches our shores and attacks our fishermen is a benevolent ally.

For government officials, though they have the resources to tackle this problem and most of us do not, we are just as responsible for the ongoing pandemic as they are. By continuing to insist on militaristic interventions instead of providing aid and correct information, they problematize our “lack of discipline”, not their failure to provide incentives for us to stay home.

Being gaslit is distressing and exhausting. I, among other women know from our experiences of victim-blaming, tone-policing, and other forms of gaslighting. When this happens, we shouldn’t simply make nice with our abusers. We call them out and we hold them accountable. But to do that, we have to be able to sort out the lies from the truth.

And while that may be difficult to do in the context of intimate relationships, we might be able to make headway with our gaslighter-in-chief, given how obvious the lies are at this point. For one, gasoline is not and never will be a disinfectant. Notwithstanding its impotence against pandemics, however, gasoline is flammable—and left unchecked, Duterte may just set fire to us all.