PH gov’t militarizes response to COVID-19 pandemic

Human rights alliance Karapatan sounded alarm over President Rodrigo Duterte’s militarist response to contain the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic following his public statement on Thursday, March 12, 2020. Karapatan Deputy Secretary General Roneo Clamor urged that “for us to effectively counter this pandemic, the public needs access to free public health services for testing and treatment, not Duterte’s go-to militarist-flavored response to crisis.”

“Flanked by top-ranking military and police officials in addressing the public, it is clear as day that Duterte is militarizing the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Duterte is once again projecting his strongman image to mask the fact that the Duterte government has been negligent not only in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic but with the country’s public health care system in general,” Clamor stated.

At least PHP 10 million was reportedly slashed from the 2020 health budget, particularly the funding for disease surveillance. Clamor said this budget would have enabled key government agencies like the Department of Health to formulate and implement concrete and preventive measures against the COVID-19 pandemic. “These budget cuts reflect the glaringly myopic view of the Duterte government’s health and financial managers and they have impaired the government’s response to the pandemic, putting the people’s right to health at severe risk.” 

“Millions and millions of pesos are funneled for so-called intelligence funds, the sham drug war, and counterinsurgency campaigns while funds for public health and basic social services have decreased. Health care and public utilities like water — which the people would need in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic — are privatized and profiteered by large companies, making them largely inaccessible. Neoliberal economic policies married with militarism is a deadly anti-people disease. It’s no wonder that Duterte, under the easy guise of countering the pandemic, is opting for a Metro Manila-wide ‘community quarantine,’ — a shy euphemism for a draconian and utak-pulbura military-enforced lockdown that will expectedly infringe on and curtail people’s rights and civil liberties,” Clamor continued.

According to Duterte’s public statement, the Metro Manila-wide “community quarantine” declaration involves the suspension of domestic air, land and sea travel, class suspensions, stringent social distancing measures and prohibitions on mass gatherings, and heightened deployment of military and police forces as well as checkpoints all over Metro Manila.

The Karapatan official further averred that “questions have been raised regarding the feasibility of some of these policies. The living conditions of poor families in single-room square-feet shanties and their lack of access to necessities such as clean water and medication are not taken into account for quarantine guidelines. The economic impact of missing work days as part of the lockdown remains unaddressed, especially for workers who live outside Metro Manila or for those whose income are based on a ‘no-work-no-pay’ scheme. The poor need to commute and go to work, making social distancing a near impossible policy. How exactly will the government implement these measures? These necessary questions were left unaddressed after the president made the public wait for more than two hours. What we’re left with instead is a flexing of Duterte’s strongman militarism to desperately mask the government’s neglect.”

“Duterte’s statements are vague and leave more questions than answers. How can the people ‘obey’ rules if the rules are unclear and highly prone to abuse by State forces? Why the repeated mention of police and military deployment instead of deploying more frontline health workers? Why the specific mention of protest demonstrations and threats of penalties on those who will join demonstrations amid this quarantine?” he asked.

Clamor said there is an obvious answer to this question. “Duterte and his militarist lackeys are aware of the people’s growing dissent and dissatisfaction with the government’s poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Duterte’s public statements are not mere ramblings. They highlight the priorities of the Duterte administration, and they intend to create a chilling effect to make people bend to his orders, stoking people’s anxieties rather than actually clarifying and addressing them. After all, this is a regime that thrives on sowing confusion, fear, and State terror. Duterte says the lockdown is not martial law, but he makes it sound like it is.”

“Militarist measures mask the Duterte regime’s utter incompetence. What the public needs amid this public health crisis is concrete, pro-people action — not fascist ego boosting, not militarization. Lives are at stake, and the government should rechannel people’s taxes to funding public health care resources and equipment for the prevention and treatment of the spread of infectious diseases, to making necessities such as surgical masks and rubbing alcohol freely available to the poor whose lives are highly vulnerable to the pandemic, and to provisions to protect frontline health workers in all parts of the country, especially in rural areas where there is minimal to no government health services available,” the Karapatan official ended.