Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte assumed emergency powers on March 25 to combat the coronavirus crisis, but concerns are mounting over his broad-sweeping authority.

The temporary powers allow Duterte to re-allocate government funds and potentially take over private businesses. But Duterte has yet to implement any effective policy aside from furthering military-style containment as a policing strategy.

The main result of Duterte’s emergency power has been the establishment of the National Task Force (NTF), headed by three cabinet members, all ex-generals. Senator Bong Go defended the consolidation of power as necessary to serve the population in the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This will operationalize the social assistance programs of the government. We should do this with haste as the people cannot wait any longer,” Go said in an emailed statement.

Duterte recently declared a “lockdown” beginning March 15 on the roughly 13 million people living in Metro Manila. In his policy address, he called on every Filipino “to participate in this war by following the guidelines of the government.”

Soon after, Duterte extended the lockdown to Luzon, a large island with a population of over 57 million. In his announcement, Duterte once again invoked a militaristic metaphor and said, “we are all soldiers in this war.”


Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures as he delivers his speech at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila, Philippines on Thursday March 12, 2020. Duterte has suspended domestic travel to and from the Manila area for a month and authorized sweeping quarantines in the region to fight the new coronavirus.

The lockdown enforces strict curfews and scrutinizes any movement outside of private homes. Thousands of soldiers and police are upholding Duterte’s warning to imprison those who transgress lawful authority.

This usurpation of power has not gone unremarked internationally. Prominent human rights group KARAPATAN has sounded the alarm over emboldening the state to commit widespread repression. In a statement, the group accused Duterte of abusing the pandemic as an excuse to impose a quasi-martial law on the country.

“Duterte seems to be more than eager to use his emergency powers to give himself full, absolute and sole authority, and tighten his grip on power,” KARAPATAN wrote.

Beyond human rights concerns, the consolidation of power has not been successful in achieving its public health goals.

Contained in Poverty

The police have arrested thousands of people who violated the curfew across the affected regions.

Abuses by the authorities have been reported in various cities. A Facebook user took a picture of five youths placed in a dog cage for violating curfew. Similarly, a 69-year-old homeless woman in Manila was woken up on the streets and arrested for resisting authority.

A Facebook user snapped a photo of curfew violators who were put in a dog cage in Santa Cruz, Laguna.

Meanwhile, the Duterte administration has shunned demands for free, mass testing as well as protective equipment and hazard pay for frontline health workers, citing a lack of resources. Even volunteers for the Department of Health (DOH) are required to bring their own medical supplies.

The Philippine government has other priorities. A week ago the administration promulgated a US$524 million “war chest” for the fight against Covid-19. However, more than half of the money will be used to boost the tourism industry, while only US$60 million is designated for the procurement of testing kits.

The national urban poverty activist group, Kadamay, has led several simultaneous protests from home in slum areas across Metro Manila to demand medical services and food. The group wished to bring attention to the gross lack of aid to the most vulnerable population while the government has concentrated resources on law enforcement.

“How are you supposed to quarantine at home if you have no shelter? How are you supposed to stock up on food if you cannot work?” said Mimi Doringo, a spokesperson of Kadamay. “Poor Filipinos are going hungry because there is little to no support from the administration and local governments are not equipped for the circumstances. Worse, homelessness is being criminalized while public officials are proposing unrealistic ways to cope.”

Doringo joined the protests by banging on pots and pans from her home in the public housing projects in Caloocan City, but was summoned post-haste to the local government office for intense questioning. Doringo said that the containment of the virus by the authorities also entails “the containment of free speech.”

A Kamaday protester holds up a sign that reads "Medical action, not military action" at home.

A Tiered Response to Covid-19

Public officials and others in advantaged positions are able to receive tests and are in quarantine in the comfort of their homes. Some elites have violated protocols without sanction.

Senator Koko Pimentel of PDP-Laban, the ruling party, recently brought his pregnant wife to the hospital. During his stay, Pimentel received the news that he had tested positive for Covid-19. Medical staff on site noted how the senator continued to linger in the premises despite knowing he had the virus, endangering the already dwindling medical personnel. He also admitted to attending parties and official functions during the time he was under medical investigation.

The DOH also admitted that it has given preferential treatment to elites in public office, offering tests ahead of the general public. Renato Reyes Jr., Secretary-General of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (New Patriotic Alliance) or Bayan, criticized Pimentel and those in the administration for exploiting their privileged access to resources while others are suffering.

Reiterating the demands of many social movements, Reyes urged the government to protect frontline health workers instead of the privileged.

Governments around the world have centralized authority and failed to provide for the needs of citizens. But also relevant is the response that citizens and social movements take to the crisis. The movements opposed to the Duterte administration’s policies are not remaining quiet.

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TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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