“Just follow” won’t beat COVID-19

March 16, 2020

by Sonny Africa


It’s 45 days after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the country and two days after the Duterte administration’s community quarantine-cum-lockdown of Metro Manila. Now it’s the eve of an enhanced community quarantine (i.e. lockdown) in the whole of Luzon. There is much more anxiety, fear, and panic than there should be.

The coronavirus threat is real, and it’s critical for the government to respond quickly and decisively. Everyone also has a responsibility to support every measure to stop the spread of the virus.

But what if the government’s response is muddled and, worse, ill-conceived? Do we, as the president said, “just follow” because it’s for our own good? Follow, and keep silent?

There are fortunately more than enough Filipinos who are neither blindly adoring of Pres. Duterte nor crave subjugation. Speaking up from outside government and especially within it, they are the best chance to get the Duterte administration to reconsider its militarist approach to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.

And there should be no doubt that militarist it certainly is.

Militarist mindset

When the president addressed the nation on March 12, he was flanked by uniformed military officials instead of, for instance, health and social welfare officials. Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff General Felimon Santos, Jr. was on his left and Philippine Army chief Lieutenant General Gilbert Gapay to his right. On the first day of the National Capital Region (NCR) quarantine, NCR Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Brigadier General Debold Sinas for some reason felt compelled to put on his combat fatigues when he faced the media.

Looking beyond the rambling delivery, the president’s March 12 announcement was straightforward – the administration’s headline measure to address the pandemic is a militarist population control measure. The AFP and PNP will flex their armed might to contain and control some 16 million Filipinos living or otherwise working in the NCR. “Just follow.”

The spectacle was an example of cognitive bias in full play. The Duterte administration’s authoritarian and militarist mindset is well-established – in how it approached the problem of illegal drug abuse, in its defeatist approach to China’s incursions into Philippine territory, and in its hawkish approach to peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP). Cobbling together the most militarized government, and Cabinet, in the country’s history only made this worse.

The Duterte government is irrationally predisposed to a militarist approach to problems – COVID-19 being just the latest nail for its militarist hammer. Other public health and economic measures aren’t given the emphasis they deserve.

The president’s declaration today wasn’t any more helpful and just drove the militarist point home even more. All he really announced was a ratcheting up of population control measures to an enhanced community quarantine (aka total lockdown).

Missing measures

There is still nothing about vastly improving COVID-19 surveillance and contact tracing. The president can start with acknowledging the horribly mistimed halving of the Department of Health’s (DOH) Epidemiology and Surveillance Program budget from Php262.9 million in 2019 to Php115.5 million in 2020.

More than that, even if very belatedly, he can announce massive free testing to get a real picture of the situation. This is the most sensible starting point for contact tracing and managing the problem – that is, for action based on facts rather than mindlessly and simplistically thinking that force and militarist measures are magic bullets.

There is nothing about assuring suspected and, especially, confirmed COVID-19 cases of free care and treatment. He can again start by acknowledging the likewise horribly mistimed budget cuts in the DOH’s Health Systems Strengthening Program from Php25.9 billion to Php19.3 billion.

The number of infected Filipinos will exponentially increase in the coming weeks. But we are not assured that there are enough properly equipped public health and quarantine facilities.

It’s important to admit that hospital bed capacity per capita in the country has been falling and hospital care more expensive over the decades of health privatization since the 1990s. With more private beds than government beds in the country today because of this, there is a ready justification for declaring that private hospitals will be mobilized to combat COVID-19 regardless of any complaints that their profit-seeking will be disrupted. NCR has the biggest concentration of private hospitals in the country.

There is nothing about educating the broader public further on simple but effective measures they can take to help stem the spread of the virus. The presidency is a powerful platform to convince people about things they can do to contribute to the solution. Yet, the government seems to think that social distancing is more about enforced control rather than education.

There is nothing about assuring the vast millions of workers, informal sector earners, and small entrepreneurs, that the government will support them in this time of grave economic disruption. The pandemic will have far-reaching consequences on people’s livelihoods especially of low-income groups and particularly with the community quarantine of NCR.

The president can declare that the government will take the side of workers over employers and ensure that they will have continued pay and incomes. In NCR alone, businesses can afford to be helpful to their workers with at least Php1.2 trillion in combined profits just in 2017. All we have heard from the labor department is that they will “urge” employers to be understanding and flexible. Helping others in this time of crisis is apparently just voluntary and a matter of charity rather than social responsibility.

The president can say that hundreds of thousands of NCR jeepney and tricycle drivers, street and market vendors, carinderia and sari-sari store owners, and other urban poor will be protected and kept healthy. The social welfare department has only been able to refer to its existing assistance programs which are woefully underfunded as it is even before the pandemic. The department has even announced suspending pensions, unconditional cash transfers and feeding programs just when they’re needed the most. The ‘community quarantine’ will likely push at least hundreds of thousands into even deeper poverty.

There is also nothing about how to protect the 215,000 inmates packed into the most overcrowded incarceration system in the world. The administration just made things worse with its so-called war on drugs. The overcrowding makes them incredibly vulnerable with the many sick and elderly within having it worst.

Prioritize people

Of course, none of this is to write off community quarantines on principle. What is clear is that the administration hasn’t made a case for this yet and is just implementing it mindlessly.

A range of measures are needed to combat COVID-19 and the narrow-minded militarism of the Duterte administration is getting in the way of necessary and proportionate attention to these other measures. Harsh measures aren’t necessarily effective measures.

If the correct package of measures isn’t taken, then it’s possible that the virus will just spread even more. Tens of thousands of frontline health responders working heroically will only become even more overwhelmed. Millions of Filipinos will be unnecessarily at serious risk. Any measures should also be sensitive to the conditions of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable.

Which is why public exhortations to “just follow” and actually just following are so dangerous.

Unfortunately, this is the kind of governance that the administration has been pushing in the 1,354 days since Pres. Duterte took his oath of office as the 16th president of the Philippines. The capital and the country are where we are today because of a trajectory that started that fateful day at the Rizal Ceremonial Hall of the Malacañang Palace. ###