It has been a year since COVID-19 shocked the world. Known as a zoonotic disease, COVID-19 is believed to be originated from animals or products from animal origins, transmitted to humans. This is a result of unsustainable practices of humans such as deforestation, species collecting and trafficking, which ends up in animal markets.
COVID-19 did not only affect the health of the world’s population, but also countries’ economic stability and security. It has also shown the competency and ability of countries in addressing this global health crisis, how their strategies have brought them on their current situation today, a year after the pandemic happened. Countries such as New Zealand and Vietnam have been excellent when it comes to pandemic handling. They had improved their public health system – enhanced contact tracing, lockdowns with strategy, and listening to health professionals – , proper communication strategy, and accepted the fact that COVID-19 exists and is not a myth.
COVID-19 in the Philippines
A few weeks ago, the Philippines marked its anniversary on the first reported COVID-19 case as well as its lockdown. But a year after, it’s like the country has experienced a deja vu as cases keep on increasing despite the development of vaccines and other preventive measures. It is only the Philippines who has the longest lockdown but has no positive outcome from it. A year of COVID-19 in the country, it has already crippled its economy. According to Asian Development Bank, the Philippines economy is forecast to contract by 7.3% in 2020 amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic before growth returns to 6.5% in 2021, provided if the virus is contained, but as witnessed, as the first quarter of 2021 has passed, the virus remains and is not controlled.
In relation to the economy, a great loss of employment has resulted due to long lockdowns which affects the operations of businesses especially the ones on the manufacturing, food, and travel industry. A total of 10.9 million Filipinos have lost their jobs, including the ones in the transportation sector – which ends up begging on streets to put food on their mouth – as they were one of the most affected and have only limited aid from their local and the national government.
Education has also suffered in the country. To avoid contracting the virus, face to face classes are suspended and has adapted the remote learning strategy. Last year, it has been recorded that a total of 2 million students were not able to enroll in schools as their focus is adapting to the situation of the virus, and for this school year, the number of students who dropped out increased to 4 million, coming from private and public schools. This has also affected the operations of schools which leads to its closure. We also need to consider the areas with limited access to transportation and internet connectivity – where the current education system clings to – as they are having a hard time managing the education of their students as well as in preventing the virus.
What was also threatened is the conservation efforts due to the continuous wave of environmental issues. With the addition of COVID-19 as a global pandemic, the existing and underrated issues such as climate change and species extinction were pushed back. As we focus on preventing the virus, we tend to go back to using single use materials from medical and hazardous waste to food take outs and deliveries emerged to prevent people from going out, but has produced a bigger problem in waste disposal and pollution. And as stated above, COVID-19 happened due to unsustainable practices of people to the wildlife species.
A Threat to Democracy?
The Philippines government’s response to address the pandemic is somewhat far from New Zealand and Vietnam. Task force heads against COVID-19 were dominated by retired members of the armed forces – who lack medical and health knowledge – instead of medical professionals. Despite receiving criticisms on deploying military personnel on COVID-19 response, President Duterte defended them stating that it doesn’t need to be health and medical experts to address the pandemic, and even compared it to dealing with business transactions and not a matter of science. Places during the lockdown were packed with military and police forces instead of healthcare workers that managed the quarantine measures.
The lockdown and inability to conduct social mobilization has also been used as an opportunity to focus on other concerns rather than the COVID-19 response. Weeks after the strict lockdown, the House of Representatives has ordered the shutdown of one of the biggest broadcasting stations in the country, ABS-CBN – which was also closed down during the Marcos dictatorship. Its closure has affected not only the media industry and its employees but also the information dissemination with regards to the pandemic and other current events – such as typhoon monitoring – amidst the pandemic, portions of the country suffered from the disasters brought by these typhoons, with the absence of the regional channels of ABS-CBN, people located on far flung areas were left in the dark as to what will happen as the typhoon approaches.
In relation to communications and information, another priority of the Duterte administration during the pandemic is the passing of Anti-Terror Law which gives freedom to the government to tag a critic or an ordinary citizen as a terrorist and can easily arrest them without a warrant. This has threatened the freedom of expression and speech of every citizen – gave them the right to red-tag activists and people who are providing their views against the government. Disinformation, although already existing for years, has been spreading widely today, with absence of proper fact checking, such articles and fake news are distributed and being spread – one of these is the emerging issue about the drug called Ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment, wherein some politicians approves the use of it without a concrete evidence that it cures the virus.
Through these actions of the Duterte administration, it clearly shows that there is a possibility of democratic erosion from deprivation of proper public health and pandemic response to affecting the media communication system and freedom of speech – which all drills down to violation of human rights. These incidents have provided concrete evidence to further support the indicators of a nation leading to an authoritarian government presented by Levitsky and Ziblatt’s (2018) Fateful Alliance. With the current Philippine constitution being ignored by the current administration, it has been rejecting the democratic rules of the country. Passing of the Anti-Terror Law shows the reduction of rights in speaking and providing opinion as this may become a subject of arrest – this has created fear to some which will have a tendency to further silenced the woke ones. And lastly, even before the existence of COVID-19, with the continuous War on Drugs related deaths, the toleration and support on violence.
Can we assume that democracy in the Philippines is on the rocks? Evidence is shown and happens on obvious representations that if this continues, democracy may fully erode. Dahl (1972) has stated the importance of the response of the public and its preferences for the government to continue. But what is happening in the country is the other way around, the people are not the one who shapes the country, it is the current administration who did. And what strengthens the administration’s agenda is the COVID-19 pandemic, this may have shocked the whole world and affected everything, but in the Philippines, this has been used as a strategy to silence, limit, and ignore the rights of every Filipino.
Does the COVID-19 pandemic trigger (and also used as a strategy) the government to come up with such an agenda? Is it accidental? Will democracy further erode if the pandemic is still not contained?
Photo: COVID-19: Philippines – Workers and residents from Rizal line up in the checkpoint along Marcos Highway at the border between Rizal and Marikina, March 18, 2020 by Veejay Villafranca/Asian Development Bank
Anne Jeaneth Casalme
Hi Jonna! Great article and very relevant. I agree how the Duterte administration ahs found new ways to undermine democracy in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Besides deploying military personnel to take over the control of the spread of the virus, the situation poses unique challenges to the democracy of the Philippines in many other ways. From our readings, autocrats have been legitimizing policies in order to silence dissent of the administration’s strong opponents through repression of media freedoms and using scapegoats to avoid responsibilities from the failures of their government. States are making facts debatable and it slowly leads to the slow death of democracy. The Philippines has been succumbed in spreading disinformation across social media platforms in order to allegedly accuse journalists and human rights activists. And on top of that is the continuous spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and the proliferation of military response as the only viable solution to contain the virus. In other words, the Philippine democracy is in a much worse situation because of the pandemic. The administration has been effectively taking advantage of the situation to advance its authoritarian practices, intimidate the opposition and assume accountability from the massive cases of human rights abuses.