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The Philippines’ Pandemic Response: A Tragedy of Errors

The Duterte administration’s COVID-19 response marries incompetence with militarism.

By Michael Beltran for
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The Philippines’ Pandemic Response: A Tragedy of Errors

In this May 11, 2020, photo provided by the Malacanang Presidential Photographers Division, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, wearing a mask, talks to cabinet officials during a meeting at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila, Philippines.

Credit: Ace Morandante/Malacanang Presidential Photographers Division via AP)\

The Philippine government has been boasting that as early as March 16, they had the gumption to implement a lockdown in major cities and provinces in response to the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic. However, Manila’s overall response to the pandemic has been fraught with incompetence and rife with terror. 

The implementation of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) came on the heels of serious negligence — namely, the authorities failing to keep up with the preventive measures of neighboring countries and grossly underestimating the virus. What’s worse, instead of easing the overall burden that the virus unleashed on the country, it seems the last resort lockdown itself added to a plethora of problems without adequately addressing the primary crisis at hand: ensuring public health and safety.

Strict compliance with the ECQ is ordered for all citizens, with the exception of frontline professionals, until at least May 15. That has meant curfews, harsh penalties for being outside, and an impoverished population descending into hunger. 

The global crisis is first and foremost a public health issue, but Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has faced the coronavirus pandemic in a decidedly militaristic fashion. Since the lockdown went into effect, he has peddled the narrative of pasaways or “undisciplined” citizens as responsible for the ensuing problems. He has also brought up unsubstantiated activities of guerrilla groups as threats to government aid efforts without conceding any missteps in his management. On top of deploying thousands of police and soldiers throughout the archipelago to enforce the ECQ, Duterte has on two occasions threatened the public with all-out martial law. There have been moments of abject incompetence from those in power around the world, but using the pandemic as a reason for increasingly flexing authoritarian muscles spells danger for the Philippines post-lockdown.

China and Allies First

While Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Hong Kong took the early initiative on travel restrictions and emergency measures, the Philippines was noticeably late to follow suit. Duterte ordered a travel ban only for passengers coming from Wuhan, China specifically on January 31, a day after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the Philippines. A few days later, the ban was expanded to the entirety of China, with the delay, as affirmed by Department of Health (DOH) chief Francisco Duque, attributed to a reluctance to upset relations with China.

Downplaying the hysteria as Filipinos scrambled for protective, medical, and sanitation equipment, Duterte attempted to allay fears in early February, saying there was “nothing really to be scared of.” 

Meanwhile, there was a noticeable rapid decline in supplies of items like face masks. On the day the first case was confirmed in the Philippines, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo clarified that the government wouldn’t be distributing masks to vulnerable populations as it had none to give out. But a few days earlier, government leaders were touting Philippine generosity in aiding China with a donation of masks worth $1.4 million that were shipped to Wuhan. 

A full month passed before Duterte officially declared the country in a “State of Public Health Emergency” on March 9, five days before the number of confirmed COVID 19 patients breached the 100 mark. A week later, the government announced its initial emergency response package to the virus, totaling $535 million. With hospitals reportedly lacking in personal protective equipment (PPE), the financial stimulus came with disheartening details that half of the amount was intended for boosting the tourism industry and only 11.4 percent was aimed toward the acquisition of testing kits and other materials to curb the virus. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has urged the mass production and use of testing kits as a basic necessity in combating the pandemic, yet even the DOH on March 20 felt that there was “no need for mass testing yet,” a reminder of how they sorely misread the situation. 

Doctor Josh San Pedro, a co-convener of the Coalition of People’s Right to Health (CPRH), explained to The Diplomat that “health authorities may have been complacent, as it was only in mid-March that significant improvements were made to testing capacity, despite locally-made kits being ready as early as February. With a slashed budget for disease surveillance and epidemiology for 2020, contact tracing was increasingly difficult in Metro Manila for example, one of the world’s most densely populated cities.”

More infuriating for the public was the fact that the department confessed, two days later, to giving preferential treatment and testing to 34 unnamed public officials and their families. The president of PDP-Laban (Partido Demokratiko Pilipino–Lakas ng Bayan), Duterte’s party, Senator Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III, was among the legislators who tested positive for COVID-19. He subsequently drew flak for violating quarantine protocols to visit his pregnant wife in the hospital, putting all the medical staff at risk. The incident has warranted no probe nor sanction from the authorities.

It wasn’t until April 14 that the DOH commenced mass testing to rectify their earlier errors, but some critics say present efforts are still gravely insufficient. San Pedro adds, “Despite being endowed with tens of thousands of test kits in donations we failed to meet the target of 8,000 tests per day at the end of April. Guidelines for ‘expansion’ of testing were only released on April 16. Majority of testing centers are still in Metro Manila, while only six are located in the provinces. Much is still needed in expanding testing throughout the archipelago, such as increasing testing and quarantine centers to minimize backlogs.”

Even with the DOH announcing that the country is starting to “flatten the curve,” coupled with a new target of 30,000 tests per day by the end of May, there is still some doubt as to whether this is achievable. As of writing, only 0.1 percent of the population has been tested. After analyzing government data, mathematics professor Lex Muga hopes that the target can be achieved but explained that “community transmission has not stopped. When we can see that the number of cases are decreasing daily is when we can assume the curve is flattening. But there are conditions, such as mass testing. DOH data is based on those who are confirmed positive with the virus but it has thousands of backlogs which we don’t yet know the results.”

Since the start of the pandemic, China has maintained a favorable position in the Duterte administration’s eyes. Even with ECQ measures still in place in early May, the government allowed for large-scale gambling with the re-opening of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations or POGOs, which have a significant Chinese workforce and capital.

Public officials are currently mulling the extension of the lockdown until June 15, which indicates that the country isn’t on the verge of managing the pandemic, contrary to DOH pronouncements. 

However, Dr. Julie Caguiat, also of CPRH, mentioned that there should be a better roadmap to attaining this with “mass testing not only for those with symptoms. But we should be testing for all, not only by priority. Hopefully, there can be random testing in areas that may have bigger concentrations of people.” Caguiat also noted that testing operations should be free (some cost around $60), with clear procedures on contact tracing for all — something that has yet to be undertaken, unlike in neighboring countries. 

What’s Scarier Than the Virus?

In the immediate aftermath of the lockdown, poor Filipinos especially were distraught by the prospect of contending with hunger. With no available sources of income and virtually nonexistent savings, many homeless and slum dwellers bore the brunt of the ECQ. 

On April 1, more than a hundred people from the city slums of Sitio San Roque gathered on a nearby highway to voice their discontent and demand food and aid. Their already poverty-stricken community, like many others, had found it near impossible to deal with having no livelihood or even space to stock up on food in such tight quarters. Twenty-one of the hungry protesters were beaten and arrested by the police. The incident summarily reflected the handling of grievances by the authorities during the lockdown.

The arrests occurred just over a week after Duterte granted himself emergency powers to deal with the pandemic. With newly acquired powers he called for an even stricter implementation of the ECQ. He had a message for anyone who intended to replicate the behavior of the San Roque residents: “I will not hesitate. My orders are to the police and military, as well as village officials, if there is any trouble, or occasions where there’s violence and your lives are in danger: shoot them dead.”

Taking his cue, the police declared they will stop issuing warnings and will simply arrest even low-level violators of the quarantine rules. At a police press briefing in early April, arrests were shown to have spiked during the quarantine, with the cops nabbing an average of more than a thousand people per day nationwide. 

Since then there have been reports and sightings of extreme prejudice in the operations of law enforcement. Stories such as those of a mentally ill Army veteran who was shot dead for being outside and a fish vendor severely beaten for not wearing a face mask have become commonplace. Arrests have also extended to anyone caught criticizing the administration’s perceived failures during the pandemic. Police have begun to target relief workers and even people posting unflattering opinions about Duterte online. The biggest single haul of the crackdown came on Labor Day, May 1. Ninety-two individuals across five cities were imprisoned while either engaging in feeding programs or joining online protests. 

Prominent human rights group KARAPATAN slammed the mass arrests, saying the regime should refocus its efforts. The group’s secretary general Cristina Palabay said, “The Duterte government and its minions [are] exploiting quarantine measures to harass, vilify, and rabidly arrest — even kill — activists. Instead of responding to the socioeconomic needs of the people, these mass arrests will only worsen the plight of the poor. Those who are helping the poor are being put in jail.” 

Palabay pointed to the murder of relief worker Jory Porquia the day before Labor Day by suspected elements of law enforcement as the backdrop of her comments.

In the last week of March, Duterte announced a larger economic relief package of nearly $4 billion, primarily for low-income families, dubbed the Social Amelioration Program (SAP). Plagued by chronic procedural problems in the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), there are constant complaints of the SAP not reaching its intended beneficiaries and the allocations per town being far too small to do much good.

Former DSWD chief and now of the broad network CURE COVID (Citizen’s Urgent Response to End COVID-19) Judy Taguiwalo criticized the use of an outdated census to guide the state’s relief effort. She told The Diplomat, “Limiting the financial assistance to a list based on the 2015 census created major delays in the distribution. They should instead opt for a universal approach, extending financial assistance to everyone in need throughout the process. People are lining up under the heat of the summer sun desperate for assistance. Maybe social workers can go house to house, but they are also lacking PPEs and working long hours. Going to every door also requires a universal approach. The state should welcome the involvement of civil society groups and the private sector in the relief effort and reduce obstacles of various permits for their participation.”

Robert Lunzaga, a community leader in the province of Bulacan from the national urban poor group Kadamay, told The Diplomat that not only were SAP allotments too few for their predominantly impoverished town but those aligned with organizations critical of the administration were bullied by the authorities. He was brought to the local military encampment and told to cease all political activity, surrender to the government, and only then would they receive any aid. Other locals have recounted similar stories. Lunzaga adds, “We have four barangays (towns) in the Pandi municipality, each with more than a thousand poor families. But each barangay has only been allotted around 400 slots for the SAP. Many people are desperate and fighting over aid … just to get $100 to $150.”

To deal with the inadequacies, Congress’ Makabayan (Patriotic) bloc, composed of several opposition parties, has forwarded a bill to expand the SAP in the hopes of reaching out to more Filipinos in need. They particularly noted that 1.7 million workers have been excluded from aid programs. 

“It is reprehensible that while Duterte’s economic managers discuss the need for economic recovery from the COVID-19 fallout. Filipino workers who make the daily operation of transport systems, factories, and malls possible are still largely left out in the government’s aid efforts,” said the coalition in a joint statement. 

The whole world is looking forward to a return to some semblance of normalcy. But what makes the Philippine government one of the worst examples of handling the pandemic is its incompetence married with militarism threaded throughout its responses. The backlash facing Filipinos now and after the quarantine is quite a distressing picture. It is a bleak one marred by a totalitarian streak and the people’s increased realization that the state is more intent on filling jails and the pockets of Chinese businesses than starving stomachs. 

Michael Beltran is a freelance journalist from the Philippines.