PH government violating social and economic rights during and after COVID-19

November 11, 2022

by IBON Foundation

Reference: Sonny Africa, IBON Foundation

Philippine UPR Watch +63 928 505 3550

The policies of the Philippine government during and after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 adversely affected the realization of economic, social and cultural rights for the people. Tens of millions of Filipinos unnecessarily suffered from the Duterte administration’s militarist COVID-19 response and are still struggling to recover to even just their pre-pandemic situation under the Marcos Jr. administration today.

The rapidly developing food, fuel and recessionary crisis in the global economy makes immediate relief even urgent. At the same time, structural poverty and the existential threat of climate change also makes real systemic alternatives urgent.

The Duterte administration imposed among the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world to contain the pandemic and was extremely sparing in its public health measures. This resulted in a public health crisis accompanied by parallel social, economic and human rights crises. Tens of millions of Filipinos already left behind by decades of neoliberal policies only fell even further behind. Structural social and economic inequalities were greatly exacerbated and, because of policy continuity under the current Marcos Jr. administration, are becoming even more magnified today.

Health and economic crisis

The Philippine economy was in structural crisis even before the pandemic. Annual job creation had already fallen to their lowest in at least 35 years. This was due to neoliberal policies which caused manufacturing to fall to its smallest share of gross domestic product (GDP) in 70 years and of agriculture to its smallest in the country’s history.

The Duterte administration’s lockdowns since 2020 made this situation worse. They were among the most stringent in the world, according to the Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT). Yet they failed to address even just the pandemic.

The Philippines still had the 5th most COVID-19 cases per capita in Southeast Asia and the 2nd most COVID-19 deaths per capita. On an aggregate basis, the country had the 5th most COVID-19 cases and 2nd most total deaths in the region. This underscored the structural weaknesses of the privatized and eroded health system which denies millions access to adequate essential care.

The lockdowns moreover caused a 9.6% contraction in GDP in 2020. This was the biggest economic contraction in the country’s recorded national accounts history and also the worst in South, East and Southeast Asia (aside from the small tourism-dependent economy of the Maldives).

The lockdowns resulted in the Philippines seeing the biggest unemployment increase in at least Southeast Asia and the highest unemployment rate in the Asia-Pacific region. At its peak, official unemployment hit a record 7.2 million with a 17.6% unemployment rate in April 2020 with protracted lockdowns causing this to remain elevated at an average of some 8% until the end of 2021. Workers in the informal economy, which include as much as 70% of employment by some definitions, have suffered the most.

The Philippine government had Php5.5 trillion in gross borrowings in 2020 and 2021 ostensibly driven by the need for COVID-19 response yet there were not enough compensatory social and economic measures. Only Php616 billion was disbursed for pandemic response compared to Php2.3 trillion for debt servicing and Php1.9 trillion for infrastructure.

Government resources for pandemic response were also unnecessarily eroded by corporate income tax cuts from the CREATE law passed in 2020 which reduced revenues by Php138.2B (0.7% of GDP) in 2021 to increase corporate profits by the same amount. This follows the regressive TRAIN law of 2017 which increased consumption taxes while reducing personal income, estate and donor taxes on the rich.

Deteriorating social and economic rights

The Philippines had a population of 108.8 million, with 24.7 million families, in 2020 increasing to 111.6 million in 2022.

The government’s poor COVID-19 response drastically increased suffering. The spike in joblessness resulted in 15.5 million households going hungry in 2020, according to the government’s Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI). The longest school closures in the world – with schools reopening only this year – have drastically worsened the educational divide. Nearly a million children dropped out of basic education in school year 2020-2021 on top of tens of millions struggling with stop-gap remote and distance education.

Household incomes have collapsed. The latest Family Income and Expenditure Survey (FIES) results showed the real value of average family incomes falling 10% by 2021. This increased the number of poor Filipinos by 2.3 million to 20 million and poor families by 492,000 to 3.5 million. This is according to the low official poverty threshold and can be considered those in extreme poverty.

The number of poor and vulnerable families is much higher – the number of families without savings increased by 3.7 million from before the pandemic to reach 19.4 million as of the third quarter of 2022 or some three out of four families (72.5%), according to central bank data. This is consistent with data by the private Social Weather Stations (SWS) which had 78% or 21.3 million families reporting themselves as poor (49%) or borderline poor (29%).

In contrast, the collective net worth of the 10 richest Filipinos increased by Php471 billion or 19% between 2020 and 2022. Executive compensation in the country’s 20 largest corporations also increased by 3% to as much as 50% in 2021 and 2022. This is while the real value of the minimum wage in the National Capital Region (NCR), the country’s highest, has fallen by over 3% since the onset of the pandemic.

The World Bank already recently reported the Philippines as seeing the largest increase in pandemic-era inequality among nearly 100 countries it surveyed. Despite supposedly being on the cusp of upper middle-income status, the Philippines has the 4th worst poverty incidence in Southeast Asia. A United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report also highlighted how urban poor, Bangsamoro, women, LGBTQ+, persons with disabilities, youth, and even rights defenders suffered varying forms of discrimination under the pandemic response.

Unreformed policies

The COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath have highlighted long-standing structural injustices and exacerbated the social and economic situation of tens of millions of Filipinos. The Duterte administration’s disproportionately harsh measures to contain the pandemic has adversely impacted the rights to health, food, social security, education and work – with the worst outcomes in at least Southeast Asia.

The Marcos Jr administration is elite-biased aside from including the daughter of former president Duterte as vice-president. It unsurprisingly refuses to acknowledge grave systemic problems and the previous Duterte government’s militarist lockdown-induced injustices. This bodes ill for any expectation that it will do all it can to respect, protect and fulfil human rights.

It has already decried emergency assistance as “a waste of money” and cut social protection spending in its first proposed budget, while increasing amounts for debt service and infrastructure. Amid accelerating inflation, it is also proposing even more consumption taxes while avoiding direct taxes on high incomes and billionaire wealth.

Philippines UPR Watch calls to remedy the inequitable COVID-19 response and for relief and recovery measures that will realize people’s demands for economic, social and cultural rights as well as protection of the environment.

Ways forward

We call on the Philippine government to abide by its obligations and commitments under the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Among the most urgent steps it can immediately take are to: 1) boldly expand government social protection, health and education programs; 2) greatly increase support to the vast numbers of small farmers, fisherfolk, workers and enterprises to expand domestic production; and 3) address the disguised crisis of joblessness with measures strengthening the capacity of the economy to create decent work.

Systemic alternatives to the dominant inequitable status quo are available, viable and urgently needed. Civil society and popular struggles have long pushed the vast range of social and economic reforms needed which successive government have resisted. The democratic space for these to operate have to be preserved and expanded.

We enjoin the UN Human Rights Council, especially during the upcoming Universal Periodic Review of the Philippines, to scrutinize the extent of economic, social and cultural rights (ESCR) violations of the Philippine government, beyond its rhetoric and empty promises.

We ask the UN Special Rapporteurs (SR) on development, extreme poverty and human rights, and indigenous peoples to examine how millions of Filipinos have been left behind and are yet to see their right to development realized even before but especially since the pandemic. The UN Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt on human rights will also see how the country’s excessive debt burden severely limits its ability to promote social development and provide basic services.

We also ask the UN SRs on the rights to food, health, education and housing to look into continuing distress in these areas and help address the need for a comprehensive approach to ensuring people’s rights to these.