With the coronavirus spreading across the globe, three interrelated issues have challenged President Duterte’s administration. First, the Philippines has had one of the worst Covid-19 outbreaks in Asia, with almost 450,000 cases and 8,700 deaths. Second, the country faces the second-worst economic contraction in Southeast Asia, with the Asian Development Bank forecast of a 7.3% contraction for the Philippine economy in 2020. Third, Duterte’s unsettling response to the crises has eroded the nation’s social fabric.
Duterte’s administration has not offered a comprehensive public health strategy to combat the spread of Covid-19. Instead, the government has enforced and relied on one of Asia’s strictest movement lockdowns, known as the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ). The ECQ has been lifted and re-implemented with corresponding rises in new daily coronavirus cases over the last several months.
Compliance with the ECQ has been ordered for all citizens with the exception of frontline professionals. Enforcement has entailed curfews, harsh penalties for violations, and a growing number of an already-struggling population descending further into poverty. The Philippines had been grappling with rising inequality even before the pandemic. With a fifth of its population of 92 million living on or below the poverty line, the government’s coronavirus measures have not been enough to prevent mass evictions, unemployment, and food insecurity. Although most countries have implemented some form of quarantine, travel restriction, or lockdown policy since January, the Philippine government’s response has been one centered around the control of people rather than of the virus.
Netizen activists in the Philippines and around the world this year have frequently used the hashtag, #OustDuterte in reference to a speech he made in April. Calling for the ‘killing’ of anyone violating Covid-19 lockdown restrictions, Duterte noted, “I’ll send you to the grave . . . don’t test the government.”
The militarized response to coronavirus is also apparent in who leads the Philippine National Action Plan – three former military generals acting in a civilian capacity. Critics have characterized the response, likening it to “undeclared martial law,” reminiscent of the former President Marcos’ authoritarian regime four decades ago.
Mr. Duterte is no stranger to authoritarian tactics, and his government’s response to the coronavirus is no exception. Harsh lockdowns have complemented the administration’s appeal to a climate of fear. In a September press conference, Duterte warned drug dealers, declaring “If it’s drugs, you shoot and kill. That’s the arrangement,” in reference to the ongoing “War on Drugs” campaign set forth by Mr. Duterte in his electoral run and throughout his presidency. Between April and July of this year (2020), police killed 50% more people than they had in the previous four-month period.
Since Duterte came to power in June 2016, more than 8,000 people have been killed as a result of the campaign, as confirmed by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). However, activists and human rights groups claim this number to be only a third of actual deaths, as numbers reported by the PDEA only cover deaths in police anti-drug operations.
The death toll from the drug war cast a grim outlook, but these developments are not new. The politically inflamed rhetoric targeting dealers, users, and anyone involved in narcotics have scapegoated many people who do not even have basic treatment or rehabilitation access. Moreover, many extra-judicial killings have not solely targeted those involved with narcotics – they have also included journalists, lawyers, activists, and environmentalists.
Although the average number of new Covid-19 cases in the Philippines has decreased by roughly 80% since its peak in August, there is concern regarding the country’s current testing levels and supply of personal protective equipment. In mid-October, the Philippine Red Cross suspended most of its Covid-19 operations after the organization was not paid on time by the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation, the country’s state health insurer. The transactional response of ineptitude was given days later when President Duterte noted that his government would pay the 931 million pesos (US $19.25 million) it owed the Red Cross. It is evident that blundering efforts to provide public health resources along with strict lockdown measures have been an effective strategy to allow Duterte’s government more operating space to flex state capacity while limiting any form of demonstrated unrest.
However, the most intriguing aspect of the government’s response is the incredibly high approval rating of President Duterte’s handling of the pandemic. Although metrics are likely inflated due to reliable support from his home island of Mindanao, Duterte’s job approval rating among citizens is over 90%. The Elections Commission (COMELEC) has been exploring alternatives for voting with the upcoming presidential elections in 2022, including voting-by-mail and reducing voters’ numbers within single precincts to allow for social distancing.
However, some Duterte loyalists – notably Pampanga Representative Mikey Arroyo – have questioned whether the election to be postponed, largely due to the ongoing spread of Covid-19. Harry Roque, Duterte’s media spokesperson, released a statement in response to Arroyo’s comments, noting: “The holding of elections is a public service that the government must ensure to deliver. The idea to postpone the 2022 elections, if and when it happens, presents constitutional challenges.”
Although Duterte may be pushing the Philippines to political extremes, he is not alone. Other world leaders have used similar tactics of fearmongering and demagogic behavior to challenge democratic institutions and norms. Some instances also entail regimes leveraging the Covid-19 pandemic response to promote their political and ideological interests, with the case of the Philippines bearing no exception. Thus, it will be essential to understand how developments in the coronavirus response influence the trajectory of Mr. Duterte’s actions, policies, and rhetoric. The erosion of an already-fragile set of democratic norms in the Philippines has been exacerbated by the country’s dual public health and economic crises, and will likely continue to hamper efforts in restoring the quality of Philippine democracy moving forward.