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A 100 Days of the Philippines’ COVID-19 Crisis and Duterte

Gio Tingson (26 June 2020)

Like watching the never-ending seasons of The Walking Dead, president Duterte has once again extended community quarantine. I first heard the term “new normal” in 2010 when Bagyong Ondoy (Typhoon Ketsana) hit Metro Manila. What was once a concept communicated by disaster experts, day by day, becomes a global reality. This pandemic is unprecedented; it has affected our economy, our rights, our way of life. In doing so, it has exposed much about the fundamental challenges the regimes present; the political communities we belong to; and, for many, the weaknesses of the authorities who govern us.

Foreign and global economies have been hit hard because of this pandemic. For exam-ple, the United States federal government released a $3 trillion stimulus in just 3 months as a response to COVID-19. The IMF projects a negative growth of the world’s economy at -3% in 2020, three months into this global lockdown. In comparison, during the 2008 global financial crisis, the US then spent $6 trillion in a span of 6 years in around 3 major stimulus packages. That year, IMF’s global growth prediction was only -1%.

In the Philippines, The DBCC projects the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to contract by 2.0 to 3.4 percent in 2020. I remember during the 2008 financial crisis, my father had to opt for early retirement as their company was downsizing globally. To date, the Philip-pines’ unemployment rate rose to 17.7% from 5.3% in January, accounting to 7.3 million un-employed Filipinos in the labor force as of April 2020.

A crisis of this scale has been used and abused by leaders to cling to power. Following next generation heads of state, El Salvador’s then-celebrated millennial populist president Nayib Bukele has implemented one of the most aggressive strategies to contain COVID-19. Like the Philippines, he ordered a national quarantine in early March. When his country’s leg-islature met to override his veto of a bill that would repatriate citizens stuck abroad, a deputy of his coughed and minutes later, he tweeted that his epidemiological team “had detected a signif-icant suspicion of COVID-19” in the chamber and that it should be shut down. This caused pan-ic prompting lawmakers to leave the assembly and thus losing quorum. President Bukele has a 90% opinion poll approval in handling the pandemic despite use of brute force and human rights violations.

Is this opinion the same for President Duterte? A look at the recent Social Weather Sta-tion survey, while being mindful of its new methodology (as of writing, we are in the 12th bul-letin release of this cycle), there are similarities. The SWS hunger report during Community Quarantine is indicative or can be interpreted that most Filipinos see the government as a major provider of their most basic need – food. This is without nuance to well performing Local Chief Executives. So, to my mind, the president might still get the approval of many in handling this crisis, in contrast to the bubble in one’s online wall and some facts on the ground.

More than domestic affairs, this pandemic has also exposed the underpinnings of the world order. The Chinese Communist Party propaganda machine has declared victory over COVID-19 and has been showing goodwill and support to its partners and nations affected by the crisis- take Italy and the Philippines as examples. Yet, as the country seeks to further estab-lish its global stature, it continues to curtail the rights of the people in Hong Kong, manages to clash with India in its physical borders, and persists to build structures in the West Philippine Sea, violating international law.

But with COVID-19 originating from Wuhan, there has been a push back. Vietnamese distrust of China paved the way for a successful COVID-19 strategy by banning flights from the country early on. South Korea’s Samsung has decided to pull-out of China and the Japanese government gives incentives for its businesses to relocate into the domestic market.

On the Western hemisphere, we see the US unraveling domestically. This pandemic, alongside a trade war, and the recent release of top 20 Chinese firms it says is military con-trolled, might be headed into what a political analyst shared as a “Thucydides Trap.” When a great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result.

As pointed out by the international community, the Trump administration has been pull-ing out of its international commitments. Recent reports show how China’s stature is growing along with its contributions in the United Nations. It now pays 12% of the UN budget compared to 1% in 2000. Its diplomats head four of the UN’s 15 specialized agencies while America only has one.

The Economist cautions, “if other countries do not act, the system will come to reflect China’s expansive views of national sovereignty and resistance to intervention, even in the face of gross human-rights violations.” As many await the results of the US elections, Xi Jinping’s political calculations are more crucial than ever because a simple misstep could also force a heavier hand from the United States in the regions the Chinese demonstrations its presence as the pandemic happens.

Feeling the major rebalancing efforts shaking the globe, some say not all shaking is bad. Shaking lets us know if we have strong foundations, it brings about what the essentials really are and who are important to us. That is why the Rodrigo Duterte-Xi Jin Ping relations will be put to a test. Will China proportionately respond as how President Duterte has given his heart and soul to Xi?

Okay, so where do we situate ourselves on this spectrum of success and failure in han-dling the COVID-19 crisis?

In the Philippines, the Duterte administration boasts of implementing an early lockdown on major parts of the country including the nation’s capital. But a lockdown is not an end-all-be-all approach; it is only a temporary solution, to buy time in adapting and responding to the pandemic. In 100 days of lockdown, the government continued to prove to its people its unpre-paredness, shortsightedness, and incompetence in dealing with a crisis.

No mass testing was done. Flights from China, at the time the epicenter of the pandem-ic, were not suspended early on. Hospitals were not equipped to deal with the increasing num-ber of COVID cases; instead, they deployed military to establish sequential lockdowns and use their military equipment – like helicopters for “surveillance” and dropping leaflets – instead of health interventions as a priority. Transportation and mobility of people were not restructured to adapt to the challenges brought about by the pandemic; instead, we were told to walk kilo-meters just to get to work. The government’s Balik-Probinsya program which aimed to decon-gest Metro Manila inevitably led to an increase in community transmissions and positive cases. The government put business interest to open the economy over people’s lives and quarantine restrictions were lifted without considering that to fix the economy, we must prepare and fix health conditions first. To top it all off, the blame was placed on its citizens when in fact they basically tried to wait this pandemic out, hoping things would get better, not offering any real and comprehensive action plans.  To ordinary citizens left to fend for themselves, this is sur-vival of the fittest at its finest.

Even amid the pandemic and all their mishaps, Duterte has maintained his subservience to China. Duterte insists that if a vaccine is developed by China, the Philippines has better ac-cess to it than other countries. During his late-night fireside telecasts addressing the public on the government’s COVID-19 response, he would end by giving China sweet nothings. And while our country continues to fight for its claim over the West Philippine Sea, the head of the Armed Forces of the Philippines personally wrote to the Chinese ambassador requesting for a Chinese medicine he was given as treatment when COVID hit him. Talk about a compromised head of the military while soldiers are at the frontlines defending our territory against the Chi-nese government.

To date, the longest lockdown of over 100 days has produced 38,511 cases of COVID-19. Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque called this a win when it did not surpass University of the Philippines’ projection of 40,000 by the end of June. As the government celebrates, un-mistakably, it is COVID-19 that won over the Filipino people. We find ourselves on the side of failure and incompetence on the spectrum of global response to this pandemic.

I cite the three obvious observations on this matter:

First: the approach to this pandemic is classic Duterte. Just as he did with his declara-tion on the war on drugs, his policy approach to the COVID-19 pandemic is textbook law and order (Oplan Tokhang as they call it), instead of looking at the pandemic as a public health problem requiring a major public health response.

The government’s crisis team created to respond to COVID-related matters is mainly composed of current and former military officials. In Cebu, one of the country’s major cities affected by COVID-19, the intervention of the President is to assign a former military general as a liaison and deploy police and military battalions in the areas. It paints a picture that bullets will kill the virus. This emphasis on law and order manifests in a lack of actual health-oriented actions. 100 plus days in lockdown and the public cry for mass testing continue to fall on deaf ears. Government claims that the country’s testing capacity is close to 60,000, but actual tests conducted per day is at a 15,000-16,000 only.

This law and order approach is far from just. Like Duterte’s war on drugs, the law on community quarantine has been applied selectively. In the war on drugs, the poor have been the police’s target instead of the drug lords and kingpins. In this pandemic, poor public transporta-tion drivers and street beggars are subject to criminal cases and put in prison. On the other hand, if government officials, allies or even the head of the regional police (whose job is to en-sure that quarantine and social distancing protocols are followed by its citizens) violate set pro-tocols. “Compassion and kindness” were words used by heads in place of prosecution of of-fenses.

In truth, just like the war on drugs, the approach of this government to the pandemic has left the poor, the vulnerable and sick behind. Just look at the thousands of stranded Overseas Filipino Workers where some had to live under bridges waiting for transportation to bring them home, or the workers who had to walk for several hours just to get to work, or ordinary citizens who have died without knowing their test results while VIPs have gotten theirs, even expedited simply because they can.

Second: the atmosphere of fear and intimidation is Duterte’s key ingredient. We see how propaganda and lies have been creating a shift in what is “true” and what is “right” with online trolling, misinformation, fake news, and the silencing of journalists and ordinary citi-zens by fear and intimidation.

ABS-CBN, a major media outlet said to be critical of the president was shut down, in the peak of a deadly pandemic where millions of Filipinos rely heavily on the network’s news coverage for information and updates. While the quo warranto petition was dropped against them, the desired effect of closure was attained, and congress will finish the job. On the other hand, Rappler journalist Maria Ressa was convicted of cyber libel, a law that was not yet passed during the time of the online article’s publication. She is forced to pay more bail than Imelda Marcos who was convicted of graft and corruption in 2018. This is without saying we must be wary of corporate and political interest in media. Caught on camera, you see a Speaker of the House of Representatives bragging about buying media interviews and giving set ques-tions.

Ordinary citizens expressing dissent online are censored and intimated with criminal cases against their right to free speech. A teacher posted his frustration against the president and was jailed and filed a case of inciting to sedition; fortunately, the court decided to quash the case. We also read reports of a simple salesman who posted the words (in his dialect): “We know the pattern. Go (president’s aid and now senator) will try to make a scripted request to crazy Digong. Digong (president) is stupid. Digong is crazy.” He was arrested by the police for his alleged “libelous” social media comments and was accused of being in violation of the Cy-bercrime Prevention Act of 2012.

Worst of all, during this pandemic, the government has managed to prioritize an Anti-Terrorism Bill which curtails free speech, detains suspects without the proper warrant for long periods and gives extra powers without check to police and military.

I remember Chomsky: “Look, part of the whole technique of disempowering people is to make sure that the real agents of change fall out of history and are never recognized in the cul-ture for what they are. So it's necessary to distort history and make it look as if Great Men did everything - that's part of how you teach people they can't do anything, they're helpless, they just have to wait for some Great Man to come along and do it for them… Now, the popular per-ception certainly is that violence is greater today – but that's mostly propaganda: that is just a part of the whole effort to make people frightened, so that they'll abandon their rights.”

Lastly: until there is no political alternative, democratic spaces will continue to shrink. To study this point, I share Samuel Huntington’s thoughts that economic conditions create the possibility for democracy while political leadership makes democracy real.

Our economic conditions now are dismal. As I mentioned, unemployment was reported at 7.3 million in April. As the Labor Department (DOLE) belied the projection of the Philippine Statistics Authority saying unemployment is only 69,000, labor groups project it to be at 12 million. Where in South Korea, their stimulus packages set a condition that employers should not retrench or redundate its workforce, in the Philippines, DOLE effectively released an issu-ance allowing employers to renegotiate wages below minimum wage.

In a surprising move, the BSP cut the benchmark interest rate by 50 points to an all-time low of 2.25%, citing the benign inflation environment. Economists had expected the BSP to keep rates steady this month. Foreign portfolio investments yielded a net outflow of $1 billion in May, higher than the $749.84 million net outflow a year ago. That brings a total net outflow of $3.1 billion in the first five months compared to $685 million net outflow recorded in the same period last year. The Bureau of the Treasury has upsized its debt auction for July to P205 billion from the P170 billion program in June, after the offerings had been consistently over-subscribed since April.

Government has also been securing loans from foreign banks. The China-led Asian In-frastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) approved a $750 million loan, while the Asian Develop-ment Bank (ADB) approved a $1.5 billion counterpart loan for the Philippines’ $2.25 billion COVID-19 active response and expenditure support (CARES) program. An additional P436.9 billion is still pending from foreign lenders to augment funds under the Duterte administra-tion’s four-pillar socioeconomic strategy against COVID-19.

Still, income distribution remains inequitable and we must be wary of how deep this crisis can exacerbate the problem. On top of the already blatant inequality in the Philippines, we can expect the wealth gap to further widen. When there is economic growth, businesses will grow with it. But because of slow economic growth, only the established, competitive compa-nies survive; this too will be a survival of the fittest. We will see consolidations of major com-panies and crony capitalism, while the less competitive, the start-ups, the SMEs will have a hard time surviving and is at the brink of being eased out of the market. Effectively, wealth will be concentrated to fewer people. Of course, if you work for those more competitive companies, the crony capitalists, you will gain the wages, but how about the ones unemployed – all 12 mil-lion of them?

Without a doubt, government is having a hard time balancing its budget with misplaced priorities. Washington-based Institute of International Finance said the Philippines was among the emerging markets that would experience "deep recessions" this year, as the public health crisis is far from over. But these economic conditions still grant us the opportunity to change the inherent economic structures that cause this economic crisis in the first place – a possibility for democracy, as Huntington said.

But the essence of this third point is on making that democracy real. Is there a strong political opposition who can lead the fight against against Duterte and his allies? People ask if there would even be elections in the Philippines in 2022, considering Duterte’s track record of ignoring democratic processes. While my fervent answer as an idealist of democracy is ‘yes’, I believe I can also say ‘yes’ pragmatically. If there is no strong opposition against this regime to fight in the next elections, it’s an easy win for the administration. So, if I were in the Duterte camp, I’d push to conduct elections as a show of a fresh mandate – it’s sure win anyway.  Only until Filipinos find those unifying leaders will our democratic spaces and our country be safe for ordinary citizens.

To end, let me go back to Chomsky, who says, “Given the state of the popular move-ments we have today, we’d probably have a fascist takeover — with everybody agreeing to it, because that would be the only method for survival that anyone could think of….So, you don’t wait for the disasters to happen, first you have to create the groundwork. You need to plant the seeds of something right now, so that whatever opportunities happen to arise…people are in a position that they can do something constructive about it.” “You can’t look yourself in the mir-ror if you don’t do it.”

Democracy comes in waves. I pray that the wave of democracy goes back to the shores of the Philippines.

We must muster all we have to contest the Duterte regime. If we have challenged his desired social order before, we are most definitely called to continue now. We need to protect truthtellers, ensure that our institutions report and give the facts and real numbers. Our task now is to identify strong political leaders or an opposition we can rally around to fight and bol-ster a campaign against the current regime. Only until we find these leaders will our democratic spaces, our country be safe for ordinary citizens.

The government claims that we have had the best response to the COVID crisis in Asia. But the facts do not lie, we are definitely at the bottom. What is so blatantly clear is that the Philippine government wasted the most precious commodity in a crisis: time. But as the pan-demic awakens the global community of the undercurrents, we don’t have any time to waste. In our language, “gising na, pero hindi pa bumabangon;” we must rise and resist

Gio Tingson is lawyer and former Chairperson of the National Youth Commission. Tingson also served as the former Vice Chairperson of Akbayan Partylist.