The COVID-19 pandemic is probably the greatest shock of the century. To slow down the spread of the virus, the only options were to restrict movement and pause economic activities. In the Philippines, the wearing of face masks and face shields and social distancing was strictly enforced, and provinces and cities were put under lockdown. However, despite all these measures, the Philippines still ranked second in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with the highest number of COVID-19 cases, next to Indonesia. As of 30 April 2021, there are a total of 1,037,460 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Philippines with more than 70,000 active cases and more than 17,000 deaths.
Pandemic response of the Philippine government
The government created the Inter-Agency Taskforce on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID), the primary policy-making and executive body for COVID-19, and where former generals turned cabinet members hold key positions. In one of his columns, Makabenta (2020) identified the IATF-EID, as “the oddest task force to combat the pandemic, a squad full of soldiers without a single epidemiologist.”
Further, Republic Act 11469, also known as the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, was enacted by Congress which granted President Duterte emergency powers on 24 March 2020. The law required the government to provide emergency subsidies to 18 million low-income households, re-appropriate and realign the national budget for 2020, direct local government units to follow national government guidelines, and direct the operations of privately owned hospitals and health facilities to combat COVID-19, among other things. RA 11469 expired in June 2020 and was subsequently followed by the enactment of RA 11494 or Bayanihan to Recover as One Act which provided President Duterte the same emergency powers.
The imposed lockdowns were notably more severe in areas with high population density, such as urban poor areas (Hapal 2021). Their condition was made worse by the government’s slow and inefficient allocation of the Social Amelioration Program (SAP). Amidst the slow and effective distribution of subsidies, it became clear that the government’s response was primarily based on containment and law enforcement strategies. The police started arresting people during the pandemic. For instance, the so-called “San Roque 21,” residents of Sitio San Roque, Quezon City, who gathered alongside Epifanio Delos Santos Avenue (EDSA) on 01 April 2020, after hearing that relief goods will be distributed, were among those detained.
Punishment was applied to those who broke the rules. To ensure that order was upheld and that all health procedures were enforced, the government heavily relied on the police and the military. Some commentators and academics have characterized the government’s response as “draconian,” “militarized,” or “police-centric” (Maru, 2020) and these actions were all part of the government’s “battle” against COVID-19.
As testing and contact tracing remains limited, the Philippines’ public health system is ill-equipped to effectively combat the virus’s spread, at least from a healthcare standpoint. In fact, the current ratio of hospital beds is at 0.9 per 1,000 population, combining both private and government facilities (OECD, 2018). In the Asia-Pacific region, the average hospital beds per population among low and middle-income countries is 1.8, while 2.8 for high-income countries. In ASEAN, the Philippines ranks 9th out of 10, only ahead of Cambodia.
Other concerns on the (mis)handling of the pandemic
The administration seemingly took the pandemic as an opportunity to enact the Anti-Terrorism Act in July 2020 even certifying it as “urgent”. Simply put, the legislation has the potential to criminalize anyone working to solve the root causes of inequality, speak out for human rights, and protect democracy within the country’s vast civil society networks (Sajor, 2020). Its broad definition of “terrorism” allows draconian interpretations by the government to silence any criticism or dissent. Section 9 of the Act states that “inciting terrorism” can be committed “by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, banners, or other representations of the same”, and it is punishable by 12 years in prison.
Further, the rejection for franchise renewal of ABS-CBN, a major broadcasting company in the country, in July 2020 made outbursts from the public. As a result, those in the far-flung communities had limited access to news and information since ABS-CBN is the only broadcasting company that has regional networks. In November 2020, the onslaught of Super Typhoon Rolly and Typhoon Ulysses both left trails of destruction and affected millions of people in eight regions and hundreds of thousands of which remain displaced. According to Vice President Leni Robredo in one interview, the residents in Cagayan were “blindsided” because there was no proper information to warn the residents.
Hence, out of all Southeast Asians, Filipinos are most disapproving of their government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The findings are part of a survey report, “The State of Southeast Asia: 2021,” which involved responses of 1,032 respondents from all 10 ASEAN countries, through an online survey conducted from November 2020 to January 2021. The survey found that 17.9% of Filipinos “strongly disapprove” of the Duterte government’s pandemic response – the highest strong disapproval rating among Southeast Asian countries.
The current administration has securitized COVID-19 by portraying the pandemic as a “battle”– a struggle for the nation’s survival. This kind of framing was used to explain the government’s harsh response to stop the virus from spreading. The majority of this was accomplished by using and expanding the state’s law enforcement. However, the Philippines still lagged behind its neighboring countries and it seems like the DOH has only been doing statistics. There seemed to be no plan at all in terms of mitigating the virus. The healthcare system is in code red due to the increasing number of COVID-19 positive patients after more than a year in lockdown.
This government is marred by an authoritarian streak concerned with filling the prisons with those against its all types of “war”, bold corruption, and silencing of media. In their book “How Democracies Die?”, Levitsky and Ziblatt (2018) have identified four (4) key indicators of an authoritarian behavior: (1) rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game; (2) denial of the legitimacy of political opponents; (3) toleration or encouragement of violence; (4) readiness to curtail civil liberties, including media. If Filipinos will be using the same kind of indicators in evaluating this administration, then definitely, it would pass to have an eroding democracy. Thus, the current system cannot be overcome by the same mechanism that caused it. Rather, it necessitates a radical rethinking and restructuring of how to organize the Philippines’ culture and economy. Progressives from various sectors must come together to envision and fight for a society that values individual and collective rights, participatory democracy in all facets of life, social justice, gender justice, and ecological justice.
Photo: “Military officials secure quarantine checkpoints, Manila” by ILO in Asia and the Pacific is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0