by Lauryn Lin
Police and armed soldiers now walk the streets of Manila as they try to keep people inside their homes. “Shoot them dead,” ordered Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in a national address after a protest in Quezon City. The protest occurred at the beginning of April after people had not received relief supplies and food starting March 15 when the COVID-19 lockdown went into motion. Duterte initially enacted a form of martial law back when he first declared the administration’s War on Drugs. Threatening to further this in a time of crisis is reminiscent of his extrajudicial killings that occurred before the pandemic. Duterte’s zero tolerance policy for illegal substances already has many frightened for their lives. The circumstances of COVID-19 are giving Duterte room to broaden his regime of cruelty.
Duterte was granted emergency powers on March 25 with the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, a measure to allocate funds and direct hospitals to prioritize efforts that target the pandemic. Critics argue against this because of the extreme measures he took when he waged his drug war. Duterte’s orders allow security forces to shoot to kill anyone they feel is a threat. In a personal statement addressing the president’s overstepping of authority, University of the Philippines Law professor Jay Batongbacal said, “No to emergency powers. The existing powers are already being abused.” Duterte’s past points ontaking advantage of these powers are widely regarded as a means of keeping the people in a state of fear. So far he has only asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) to work around the clock, never closing under the new twenty-four hour operation. These agencies work to find a vaccine and assess effective medicine for the virus.
Even though the Bayanihan Act’s main purpose is for Duterte to redistribute funding for efforts against the virus, it contains provisions that would punish those who are spreading fake news about the virus. Some say that it could be used to target people opposing Duterte’s regime. “Under such emergency, local government officials risk being booted out from their post for merely adjusting their COVID-19 response to the specific needs of their jurisdiction,” says Rep. Arlene Brosas. As local governments try to figure out the best way to combat the virus, this provision will limit the possibility of exploring every option.
There is one measure in the act however, that allows for Congress to examine Duterte’s actions and regulations in regards to his new emergency powers. Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros is keeping an eye on how this will be carried out, saying that “The Senate must exercise its oversight functions,” she affirms. “I’ll be very active that Bayanihan Law is exercised without abuse and funds will reach those who need it most.” In addition to this clause in the act, Duterte must also send weekly reports to Congress about how effectively he has utilized these powers.
On May 5, the leading broadcast network ABS-CBN was forced to shut down by orders from the National Telecommunications Commision. Duterte has been targeting the network since his election in 2016 when they refused to run his presidential campaign ads. Since then, they have closely followed the cruelty of the drug war and more recently, have been communicating important updates regarding the current public health crisis. A statement from the network reads, “Millions of Filipinos will lose their source of news and entertainment when ABS-CBN is ordered to go off-air on TV and radio tonight (5 May 2020) when people need crucial and timely information as the nation deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.” The last time ABS-CBN was forced off the air was in September of 1972 during a time of martial law when President Ferdinand Marcos chose not to renew the network’s license. A controversial leader, Marcos was known for his brutality and corruption, quite similar to Duterte. A repeat of the past seems to be becoming a threat to the freedom of press and has even caught the attention of human rights activists.
The United Nations has reported that such a “highly militarised response” from the Philippines with coronavirus restrictions is cause for concern. They also named China, Sri Lanka, and El Salvador as countries who instrumentalized the pandemic as a means to hide their human rights violations. Peggy Hicks, the Director of Thematic Engagement at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned that any restrictions enacted in these states as a response to the pandemic, must be absolutely necessary and of a temporary placement. The United Nation’s unease about how many countries are dealing with the pandemic is indicative not only of the change that needs to occur in the Philippines, but every country scapegoating the health crisis as a means to extend austerely draconian policies across the globe.