MANILA – Faced with 3,870 confirmed Covid-19 cases, 182 deaths and an upward-pointing trend-line, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is doubling down on his “enhanced community quarantine” policy by extending an already month-long lockdown until the end of April.
Whether his government can hold that line long enough to tamp down the Covid-19 curve is an open question as desperate and sometimes hungry Metro-Manila residents break the government’s military-enforced containment measures to seek out sustenance.
The extension was announced on April 7, soon after Duterte was given extraordinary powers late last month by Congress to strictly enforce social distancing and home quarantines, and disburse a multi-billion-dollar aid package for the hardest hit communities and businesses.
The decision has won broad support, including from independent and opposition legislators, due to growing concerns the lockdown so far has met with only mixed results.
There are simultaneous concerns, however, that some officials have seemed to overreach in threatening lockdown violators, with unverified images going viral on social media of detainees held in literal dog cages. In an hour long televised address on April 6, a visibly exhausted Duterte appealed for public patience.
“At the start I told you be careful, that this [Covid-19 epidemic] will hit us hard. It might not really cripple the country but it will of course cause sadness and fear…how are we going to overcome this?,” the Filipino leader said in an often incongruent mix of Filipino and Tagalog languages.
This is “rampaging our country and every country for that matter. Even the government is desperate now. I am desperate now,” Duterte added, in a flip-flop shift from his dismissive tone weeks earlier when he discounted the risk of the now global pandemic.
Through the second week of March, the Filipino president actively downplayed the epidemic threat, often defying the “no-touch policy” set by his own Presidential Security Group to protect the septugenarian president amid indications the disease is particularly lethal to the elderly with underlying health issues.
In a March 11 talk, Duterte confidently told people to not take social distancing measures too seriously. “I’ve been told to – you folks are too scared of this corona [epidemic]. They are discouraging long meetings and large congregations. Don’t be fools by believing it,” he said in a mixture of English and Tagalog.
With confirmed cases now among the highest in the region at nearly 4,000, the government has whipsawed to a strict soldier-enforced lockdown across many major cities, including Manila, on the main island of Luzon.
Tensions, however, have been building up in the past week, ones that threaten instability if handled with heavy-handed measures and a lack of ameliorative measures for worst-affected communities. With quarantine violations building up, online commentators turning critical and small-scale protests erupting, Duterte issued an April 1 “shoot to kill” order for lockdown violators.
“I will not hesitate. My orders are to the police and military, also the barangay, that if there is trouble or the situation arises that people fight and your lives are on the line, shoot them dead. Do you understand? Dead. Instead of causing trouble, I’ll send you to the grave,” the president said, echoing his years-long threat to use violence against criminals and drug dealers.
Top officials have since tried to assuage public worries by saying that the president’s warning came with strict caveats and was based on established rules of engagement, small comfort in a country where there have been reports of thousands of extrajudicial killings since mid-2016 in a scorched-earth drug war.
There are also concerns that the emergency lockdown may be giving cover to a crackdown on dissent.
In early April, a week after Duterte was handed his new emergency powers, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) reportedly issued more than a dozen subpoenas against netizens for allegedly spreading fake news and disinformation.
Prominent human rights lawyers like Chel Diokno, who has volunteered to represent several netizens now facing charges that carry jail terms under emergency rule, have argued that the subpoenas are a form of suppression of legitimate criticism.
Diokno has accused the government of imposing a chilling effect on free expression, including for “fair commentary on matters of public interest.”
“I don’t think that we have any reason for the government to do that. Even in this emergency, we are still entitled to our opinion. We are still entitled to transparency and accountability by the government,” the lawyer said.
Diokno has also raised concerns about an alleged lack of transparency in government expenditure during the the lockdown, an accusation that drew the ire of Duterte during a recent nationally televised address.
“I am angry at you, you are a nuisance, a fool,” an enraged Duterte said in referring to Diokno, resorting to his characteristic ad hominem attacks in a mixture of Tagalog and English. “Your problem is, when you speak, your teeth are too big that’s why people were discouraged…When we meet, I’ll remove a tooth from you,” the president said.
Others, meanwhile, have raised concerns over the efficacy of the lockdown amid scarce resources and emerging food shortages. In an impassioned plea, Cavite City governor Jonvic Remulla asked for national assistance for his province, situated near but not included in Metro-Manila.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has hit my province hard,” the governor said. “In the past three weeks, most have depleted their savings. Families of eight stay in housing units 24 to 40 square meters small. Cramped as they are, they are generally optimistic people. Despite all that, they are hurting.”
The existing multi-billion-dollar Social Amelioration Program has primarily targeted the poorest families, which have been entitled to cash subsidies of around 5,000 pesos (US$100) to 8,000 pesos ($160).
Duterte has warned that the government has limited resources to help all struggling families amid a commerce-crushing lockdown that is now in its fourth week. “We’ll try to remedy whatever, if we can pick something along the way,” he said vaguely.
Others have criticized the lack of mass Covid-19 testing to ensure effective containment of the epidemic amid an economically debilitating lockdown some fear could last several months without a more efficient health response.
“Without mass testing, we are totally blind. And when we are blind, the risk is higher of spreading the virus again, thereby wasting the 30-day [lockdown],” a leading independent Senator Sherwin Gatchalian said in a statement.
Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr, a former military chief and lead implementer of the lockdown, however, has said that the government is moving in that direction, with mass testing of suspected Covid-19 cases set to start on April 14, nearly a month after Metro-Manila and surrounding regions were first placed under quarantine.