The Philippines’ struggle with COVID-19 under the Duterte administration

From March 15 to May 31, the Philippines endured the longest community quarantine in the world in an effort to contain a COVID-19 outbreak.

This was longer than the 76-day lockdown in Wuhan, China where the global pandemic originated. Yet despite the lockdown, there have been no signs of declining infection rates in the country.

With more cases rising and the economy under peril after lifting the community quarantine, President Rodrigo Duterte is managing the crisis in a militaristic fashion that seems to do more harm than good for the country. 

President Rodrigo Duterte2

President Rodrigo Duterte

The Duterte administration initially responded by grossly underestimating the seriousness of the virus. While countries in Asia quickly declared travel restrictions, Duterte belatedly ordered a travel ban for passengers coming from China, a day after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the Philippines. 

A full month passed before his government officially declared the country in a “State of Public Health Emergency” after the number of confirmed COVID 19 patients breached the 100 mark. The Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) was implemented on March 15 amidst serious negligence and lack of preparation on the part of the government.

As basic tools to fight the pandemic, there were limited testing kits for suspected cases and inadequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical front liners. 

Instead of responding to the crisis as a matter of public health and safety, Duterte resorted to a militaristic approach during the nationwide quarantine. Proof of this is his designation of a panel of current and ex-generals to manage the pandemic and to distribute aid, instead of assigning health experts in the top command.

On March 24, Duterte gained special emergency powers granted by the Philippine Congress, which allowed him to gain more authority to implement public rules and reallocate funds in the 2020 national budget. The National Union of People’s Lawyers in the Philippines regarded his emergency powers as unnecessary and will likely be subjected to abuse. It went as far as saying that such extreme measures may be “a rehearsal for martial law."

Under Duterte’s watch, the government arrested thousands of mostly poor Filipinos violating the quarantine rules. With no available sources of income and without any savings, the poor had to depend on government relief aid. And because the distribution of food and financial support were delayed or were not enough to feed a household during the quarantine, residents of impoverished communities protested on the streets and were arrested.

To quell future demonstrations, Duterte went on television and instructed the military and police that "if people become unruly and they fight you and your lives are endangered, shoot them dead!"

With the easing of the community quarantines after more than two months, the country has yet to show signs of improvement in its fight against the pandemic.

As more people are allowed to go to work, daily infection rates surged with limited mass testing. Instead of using the lockdown to buy time for the public healthcare system to recuperate, it almost reached its breaking point with hospitals operating at their fullest capacities, medical workers overstretched, and personal protective equipment and ventilators remaining scarce.

The government also has to grapple with a worsening economy brought about by high unemployment, bankrupted businesses, and decreased foreign investments.

Given the dire situation, Filipinos are expressing their growing impatience and complaints online against the Duterte administration’s crisis management.

While large public demonstrations are difficult to mount, there are few small-scale protests among poor Filipinos desperate for survival. But with the signing of the widely opposed Anti-Terrorism bill last July 3, Duterte may be further emboldened to implement his authoritarian rule to silence protests and criticisms.

The new law allows for terrorism suspects to be detained without a warrant, prolongs the amount of time they can be detained without being charged in court, and removes a requirement for the police to present suspects before a judge.

Human rights groups and civil society organizations believe that the new law provides police and military forces authority to arrest activists, journalists, and netizens by simply accusing them of being involved in terrorist activities.

They consider the law as Duterte’s “green light for the systematic targeting” against not only his political enemies, but also ordinary Filipinos.

The passage of the law is suspiciously timed to quash growing criticisms against Duterte’s (mis)handling of the health and the economic crisis plaguing the country.

As mounting problems continue nationwide, Duterte’s legacy is expected to suffer irreparable damages.

Before the pandemic and the lockdown, he enjoyed widespread popularity among the majority of Filipinos who approve of his strong-man rule and “authentic” down-to-earth persona. With growing public dissatisfaction, Filipinos may regard Duterte as the biggest let-down who “overpromised” to implement positive change in the country (as per his famous campaign slogan) but eventually “under delivered.”

While he may be able to survive the remaining two years in office with his single six-year term, Duterte will have a hard time rallying Filipinos behind him for support. Instead of easing the overall burden that the virus unleashed in the country, his administration’s heavy-handed approach and harshly coercive means further aggravates the suffering of the people he was supposed to protect. 

- Asia Media Centre