The Philippines government looks to its brutal military and police rather than its health and public services for its response to the corona virus.
On 30 January 2020 the world’s first death from COVID-19 outside of China occurred in the Philippines. The death of a Chinese woman in a hospital in Manila was quickly followed by that of her male travelling companion two days later. Unlike many other countries the Philippines had not stopped direct flights from China. The two visitors carrying the virus had visited three cities.
The Philippines is a country which ought to be geared up for responding to public health emergencies. In the last few years there have been successive outbreaks of dengue, measles and a resurgence of polio. Yet the country’s capacity has been run down rather than built up. President Duterte cut the country’s health budget for 2020 by 10 billion pesos ($197m). The Philippines has one of the lowest doctor to population ratios in the region.
At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak there was not a single testing kit in the Philippines. It was not to be until mid-April that the government was able to conduct testing on any scale, but even now this testing is severely restricted and almost non-existent in the provinces (although wealthy politicians have managed to access tests for themselves and family members). Such restricted testing makes meaningful tracking of the virus, or accurate data gathering virtually impossible.
Nor did the government equip itself with personal protective equipment. Social media in the first weeks of the outbreak showed nurses wearing bin liners and motorcycle helmets. The Philippines has now one of the highest percentages of total COVID 19 fatalities among health care workers in the world.
As the virus spread quickly around Manila and into the rest of the Philippines, the first reaction of the President took many people by surprise. He claimed the government was on top of “the idiot virus” and in any case Filipinos had naturally strong anti-bodies which would defend them against the virus. His spokesperson Salvador Panelo claimed the virus could be fended off with bananas and salt water.
A few days later, as more Filipinos began dying and with no coherent health strategy in place Duterte turned to his military. On 12 March, the president imposed a severe lockdown over Metro Manila, one of the most densely populated areas on earth containing 12 million people. Lock downs on other urban centres followed.
Duterte gave himself emergency powers which human rights organisations say amount to a declaration of martial law. According to the prominent human rights organisation Karapatan, “He is using this public health crisis as an excuse to railroad through draconian measures, and deploy more military and police personnel in communities. He is implementing martial law without declaring it.”
In the Philippines, the military and the police are not forces which are geared to a civil assistance role. Since 2016 they have been deployed in the government’s murderous “war against drugs”, condemned by the UN and dubbed by Amnesty International as a “war against the poor” which is responsible for an estimated 30,000 extra-judicial killings.
The military have shown the same disregard for the poor and the powerless in enforcing the lockdown. The curfew immediately cut off hundreds of thousands of people from any source of income. Promised government aid has only reached a tiny proportion of these. Soon cardboard signs began to appear in communities protesting that “starvation is killing us, not the virus”. Police demolished a squatter settlement in Sampaloc in Manila, making 1,000 residents homeless and de facto curfew breakers. In San Roque, in the north of Metro Manila hunger forced residents out onto the street in protest against the lack of promised food aid. Twenty-one people were arrested and crammed into police cells.
So-called curfew breakers in Paranaque district were forced to sit for hours in the midday sun, with pictures of their ordeal posted on the local official’s (baranguay captain) face book. On March 20, in the Santa Cruz district, five youths were locked inside a dog cage. There are numerous accounts, including video footage, of police severely beating people for not wearing face masks and others being force fed siling labuyo, a ferociously hot variety of chilli. On April 5 in Pandacaqui, Pampanga three gay men were forced to kiss each other and perform a “sexy dance” while it was live streamed on social media.
On 1 April, President Duterte said in a televised address that he had ordered police, military and local officials to shoot dead people who protested or questioned government measures during the imposition of community quarantine in response to the pandemic. Four days later a 63 year old farmer was shot dead in Agusan Del Norte for refusing to wear a face mask. Another man in Bulucan was shot dead for going through a quarantine check point. On 21 April Winston Ragus, despite pleas from bystanders, a retired resident of Quezon City, was shot dead on the spot by soldiers who claim he was violating the lockdown.
Face by such a punitive but desperately inept response by the government, Filipinos have started to take the situation into their own hands organising citizen-led relief operations, information campaigns and donation appeals, and are launching hundreds of community driven initiatives. They call it the Citizen’s Urgent Response to End COVID19 (CURE COVID).
However, the Government labels such activism as “communist”. Recently police arrested 10 teachers and relief workers from CURE COVID for organising a community kitchen in Marikina City. Fourteen residents in Quezon City from a youth relief initiative Tulong Kabataan, were arrested also for organising a community kitchen
In a country where journalism is already a dangerous profession, the government is cracking down on any independent reporting on its COVID-19 response. Its emergency measures included the threat of a two month’s prison sentence or a $20,000 fine for “individuals or groups found to be creating or spreading false information regarding the C19 crisis”. The National Union of the Journalists of the Philippines says that “this makes the government the arbiter of what is true or false.”
The Government has gone to bizarre lengths to silence one Filipino migrant working in Taiwan who had posted criticisms on social media, trying to get the Taiwanese Government to deport her. To their credit the Taiwanese government refused.
On 12 April, Philippine Senator Bong Go told the media that he had body bags ready for “drug addicts or peddlers of fake news.” This was in response to a question from a TV reporter who asked about rumours that hospitals had run out of body bags, and that the government had asked hospitals not to report COVID-19 deaths.
On 5 May the government closed down ABS CBN the country’s largest TV station by refusing to renew its franchise. The TV station has consistently highlighted human rights abuses by the government and has criticised its failings in the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Butch Olando, Director of Amnesty International Philippines Section, “Ordering ABS-CBN to stop its operations is an outrageous attack on media freedom. It is especially reckless as the country deals with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Filipino people need accurate information from independent sources. The government must act immediately to keep ABS-CBN on air and cease all attempts to curtail media freedom.”
On the same day at around 9.00pm Rex Cornelio Pepino, a journalist whose radio programme in Cebu had investigated local corruption and illegal mining was shot dead by two masked gunmen on a motorcycle.
Henry Jackson, freelance journalist