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Restaurant workers watch Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte as he delivers a speech on TV about the COVID-19 virus situation in metropolitan Manila on March 12, 2020 Credit - Aaron Favila—AP
Edd Gumban sleeps on a foldout bed in an office in central Manila. The 57-year-old photojournalist has a wife and a home in Bulacan, part of the commuter belt 14 miles north of the Philippine capital, but he is too afraid to go there. The Philippines began imposing stay-at-home orders last March, in a bid to halt the spread of COVID-19. There are confusing variations in rules from locality to locality, however. The armed police that man checkpoints have also, at times, been encouraged by President Rodrigo Duterte to shoot lockdown violators dead.
At the very least, Gumban risks being detained, or even beaten, if he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. So rather than commute each day, he only risks the journey every few weeks, when he needs to pick up some things or grab new clothes. The rest of the time, home is a corner of the press office of the Manila Police District. But even there, it seems, he can get no clarity.
“Everything is confusing,” Gumban tells TIME. “There are no clear cut policies to follow. The national government says one thing and local governments impose another.”
Such is life in what must now be one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns. The first community quarantine, as it is locally called, was imposed on the island of Luzon on Mar. 16, 2020, when its 53.3 million people—including the capital’s 12.8 million residents—were ordered to stay at home. Since then, community quarantine orders of varying severity have been rolled out across the other islands of the Philippine archipelago.
Under the highest tier, so-called Enhanced Community Quarantine, residents must stay indoors unless they can produce a pass that enables them to go out and buy essential items. Non-essential businesses close and there are curbs on transport. Under lower tiers, certain businesses are allowed to open, but some groups—such as the elderly and the very young—must remain indoors at all times. Bewilderingly, local districts, known as barangay, can apply variations in lockdown rules to an individual street or block.
To Duterte’s critics, these lockdowns appear to be more than a public health measure. They say that the pandemic has fulfilled the strongman’s dream of placing the country under armed rule and point to the worryingly high proportion of senior military figures now advising the president on managing the pandemic. Human rights, already threatened by Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, appear to have worsened further, say experts. Under the cover of coronavirus, says rights lawyer Jose Manuel Diokno, “There is a clear effort from some quarters in the government to shrink the democratic space and free discussion that is essential to a democracy.”
In the meantime, the livelihoods and personal lives of many ordinary Filipinos are deteriorating. “I have to endure the pain of living far from my family,” Gumban says. “At some point, you’ll cry it out in one corner, and say ‘Please, Lord, enough already.’”
Human Rights in the Philippines Under COVID-19
With its weak public health system, COVID-19 has presented a major challenge to the Philippines. The country logged over 616,611 coronavirus cases and more than 12,750 fatalities from the beginning of 2020 to Mar. 13, 2021 —the second-highest figures in Southeast Asia. Undoubtedly, lockdowns have prevented Philippine hospitals from being overwhelmed. But they also constitute what the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet described as a “highly militarised response” to the pandemic.
William Hartung, the director of the arms and security program at the Washington D.C.-based Center for International Policy, says the approach is eerily similar to Duterte’s much criticized war on drugs, with its emphasis on armed enforcement and punitive measures. “The regime has more tools now to crack down on people than when it started,” he tells TIME. “Now, they’ve got a crisis that allows them to tighten its grip on power.”
The climate of fear is undeniable. TV operators in the Philippines used to reserve late-night slots for crime tales and horror shows. These days, they allocate the time to equally grim fare: weekly COVID-19 “updates” from Duterte, shown at the head of a table of military top brass.
The broadcasts have become a pulpit for the president’s verbal attacks against those who disagree with him. In a recent tirade, Duterte wished death upon Leni Robredo, the country’s vice-president (who, under the Philippine system, is chosen in a separate election and may come from a different party). Robredo had called out the country’s delayed vaccination program—held up, critics say, by the administration’s lack of urgency and foresight.
During another, he ordered police, military and local officials to arrest unruly quarantine violators after hungry protesters demanded food. “If they fight you,” he said, “shoot them dead.” At other times, Duterte rambles incoherently, or advocates unsafe practices, such as encouraging people to disinfect face masks with gasoline.
On the streets, emboldened local authorities appear to have free rein. There have been reports from rights groups of children stuffed inside coffins for violating curfew and other regulations. Adults have been beaten up or thrown into jail, some in dog cages.
Against this backdrop, Duterte and his henchmen have moved against longstanding political enemies. Last July, with the country grappling with a dearth of accurate information on the coronavirus, Duterte’s allies in Congress refused to renew the franchise of the ABS-CBN television network, which had earned the president’s ire for its critical reporting. The Philippines’ biggest broadcaster was simply forced off air.
In June, a Manila court convicted prominent journalist and editor Maria Ressa, one of TIME’s 2018 Persons of the Year, of “cyber libel,” sending more shivers through the media establishment. Ressa continues to face a slew of tax evasion and other suits that she says are vexatious.
Philippine social media has also become fraught. A new law has criminalized the spreading of “false information” with up to two months in prison and a fine of one million pesos ($19,600)—a fortune to ordinary Filipinos—and at least 17 people have been subpoenaed by the National Bureau of Investigation for expressing discontent online.
In November, Lt. General Antonio Parlade, the head of a military task force against the country’s ongoing communist insurgency, made attacks on Facebook against Filipina actresses Angel Locsin and Liza Soberano, and against Miss Universe 2018, the Filipina-Australian Catriona Gray. The three women are vocal on social and political issues. Parlade discouraged them from having links with leftist groups and warned that this could cost them their lives.
The lawyer Diokno, who chairs a team of legal professionals offering pro bono services, and who himself as been attacked in one of Duterte’s televised harangues, describes the situation as unprecedented. People “are afraid. They don’t know what to do,” he says. “It seems that the long arm of the law is reaching out to them.”
The centerpiece of Duterte’s new machinery of repression is a sweeping Anti-Terrorism Act, rushed through Congress last June. The measure is the most contested law in the country’s recent history, the subject of 37 separate petitions filed before the Philippine Supreme Court asking for it to be struck down. It allows for detention without warrant for 24 days and gives the executive vast powers to interrogate and detain anyone it deems a terrorist. Opposition leaders, rights groups, church groups and former government officials say the measure violates the constitution and warn that it will open the door for more abuses.
Their fears appeared to be realized on Mar. 7, when nine activists were shot dead by security forces in raids around Manila. Authorities say the nine were hiding caches of arms and killed because they resisted arrest, but many are skeptical. In a statement Monday, Vice-President Robredo described the events as a “massacre.” The killings came days after Duterte reportedly appeared on television saying “I’ve told the military and the police, if they find themselves in an encounter with the communist rebels and you see them armed, kill them.”
Says Hartung: “The United States shouldn’t be arming this regime at this point.”
Washington is one the major exporters of arms to the Philippines, its oldest military ally in Asia. Back in November, Manila took delivery of $30 million worth of weapons from the States. More recently, in January, the Philippine Air Force acquired two Lockheed C-130 aircraft. Continuing to sell arms to Duterte, Hartung says, “would be a kind of stain on U.S. foreign policy.”
Ela Atienza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, warns that Duterte’s continued reliance on the armed forces sets a dangerous precedent. “When you have a president who feels they need to get the support of the military and the police to impose their preferred policies,” she says, “that further encourages certain people in the military to exert their authority and their influence.”
Filipinos Are Struggling in the Pandemic
Despite its mounting case numbers, the Philippines has been the last country in the region to start a vaccination program, rolling out Chinese-made CoronaVac jabs only at the beginning of March. Limited investment in labs, equipment and manpower has also hampered the expansion of contact tracing and mass testing. That continues to leave lockdowns as the government’s main tool in fighting the pandemic.
The hardship faced by Filipinos, undergoing their country’s worst economic contraction since World War II, has meanwhile been exacerbated by the chaotic distribution of food and financial subsidies. People have been forced to violate lockdowns in order to provide for themselves and their families.
In Manila, Sarah Celiz, 56, routinely dodges the cops to pick up laundry from neighbors. The meager income from washing clothes makes her the sole breadwinner in her family, where there are 12 grandchildren to feed. Waiting for government aid is not an option. “We would die of hunger,” she says.
Duterte’s war on drugs has claimed the lives of two of her sons and the loss has made Celiz deeply distrustful of the authorities. Ironically, she doesn’t believe in the existence of COVID-19, regarding it as a government ploy to starve the population into total submission.
Professor Atienza explains that there has been hardly any effort to educate people about coronavirus. The priority, she says “is more on people having to obey lockdown procedures instead of [ensuring] that people will be healthy or health will be protected. People should be educated why they need to stay at home and why certain facilities have to close down.”
That’s easier said than done. When health workers went public over mounting patient numbers that were forcing hospitals to choose which patients should be put on ventilators and which should be left to fend without, Duterte was furious. He used his television soapbox to accuse doctors of fomenting revolution.
Physician Tony Leachon, who used to be part of Duterte’s team of medical advisers until he blasted the administration for its incompetence, says medical workers are simply too afraid to speak out. “I am really frustrated,” he says. “If your opinions run contrary [to the government’s], you will be assaulted verbally … you will cower in fear.”
For now, Filipinos continue to endure the political uncertainty, harsh restrictions and unprecedented social isolation that comes from their government’s draconian response to COVID-19.
Afraid that he might spread the virus on one of his infrequent visits home, the photojournalist Gumban only meets his wife outside his front gate, where they exchange bags. These days, he adds, even his dogs have become suspicious.
“They used to greet me with wagging tails,” Gumban says. “Now, they just bark as if I’m a stranger.”