The Philippines ranks among the world’s most disaster-prone nations, all too often suffering the debilitating impact of typhoons, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods and tsunamis. But these disasters, added together, could soon be dwarfed by the coronavirus pandemic. “We are about to head into not only a health crisis,” warns one of the UN’s top Manila-based officials, “but also a humanitarian crisis.”
Even with optimal policies, astute leadership and high levels of administrative capacity, the Philippines would be hard-pressed to meet the challenges that the hyper-aggressive virus poses to its more than 105 million citizens. Health systems are already underfunded and stretched to the limit, capable of delivering high-quality care to well-heeled patients but not yet able — despite recent advances — to meet the needs of the 21 per cent of the population living below the poverty line. Also ill-served are the millions of “near poor” who, especially in the present crisis, are likely to descend back into poverty.
Particular challenges can be found in Metro Manila, which is among the most densely populated megalopolises in the world. (Its core component, the City of Manila, has a staggering 71,000 people per square kilometre — more than two and a half times that of Manhattan.) Informal settlers comprise nearly 11 per cent of the Metro Manila population, living in tightly packed shanty towns with extremely poor sanitation.
The structural challenges of an ill-equipped health system and high urban density are very much exacerbated by the failure of effective leadership. Not unlike other bombastic populist leaders, president Rodrigo Duterte first denied and then only very belatedly acknowledged the dangers posed by the coronavirus. True to his leadership style, he finds it much easier to bark out executive directives than to demonstrate executive competence.
Duterte has seen the virus as an opportunity to add to the already substantial authority of the Philippine chief executive, and Congress has only been too willing to comply. With his 24 March signing of the “Heal as One” Act, which enhances his emergency powers, Duterte acquired what one lone opposition senator called “a virtual blank cheque with no clear plan or strategy to defeat Covid-19.” As a lawyers’ group further exclaimed, it is a “disastrous mistake” to give “more power to one man, especially one who believes that the problems of the country can be simplistically solved with the use of brute force and martial law powers.”
The world’s first coronavirus fatality outside China came on 1 February, when a tourist from Wuhan died in a Manila hospital. This heightened a widespread public apprehension that the Duterte administration’s response was driven more by geopolitics than by concern for the health of the Philippine public. Only three days earlier, in a congressional hearing on the coronavirus threat, health secretary Francisco Duque acknowledged that the government found restrictions on tourists from mainland China “a very tricky, very difficult” issue. Duque asserted that the Philippines must be “very careful… about the possible repercussions… in the light of the fact that the confirmed cases of coronaviruses are not limited to China but [are] now, in fact, in several countries.”
Duque’s statement aligns with the stance his boss, Duterte, has taken from his first day in office. Early in his term, the president declared his desire to improve relations with China and separate from the United States. He has repeatedly said that now is not the time to fight China, specifically on the Philippines’ recognised claims to disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea (referred to in other countries as the South China Sea).
Duterte remained unruffled as the health department continued its updates on the threat and the media reported on the spread of Covid-19 in China, the Philippines and worldwide. In early February, he urged the public to remain calm and joked that he was seeking out the virus and would slap it down when he found it. He also asserted that the national government was “prepared to handle this public health emergency in case the worst scenario happens.”
Partly because of a woeful lack of testing (arising from a shortage of test kits much more severe, on a per capita basis, than in Trump’s America), the Philippines recorded a mere four cases during February. But as the number of “persons under investigation” climbed towards the 1000 mark on 21 February, health secretary Duque was recommending that the president declare a public health emergency — a measure that would have alerted the public to take precautionary measures. Even so, Duterte assured the public on 1 March that the virus will “die a natural death.” A week later, though, roughly when the first case of local transmission was reported, the president heeded the advice of his health secretary and signed the proclamation of public health emergency.
By the second week of March, in the Philippines as in other parts of the world, public anxiety was rising in tandem with the spike in reported infections (from ten to 140 cases between 8 and 16 March). The health department warned against large public gatherings and Duterte suspended classes in Metro Manila. The president himself, however, continued his own public schedule — including a speech to an assembly of some 1500 mayors on 10 March. His focus was not on the coronavirus, which he continued very explicitly to downplay, but on critics of his drug war. (He declared, not at all uncharacteristically, that “it is my job to scare people, to intimidate people, and to kill people.”)
The eventual shift in Duterte’s policy was announced on the Ides of March, when the entire Metro Manila region was put under a lockdown that is to continue until 14 April. In a nationwide broadcast, Duterte, with military and police officials by his side, spoke disjointedly about the dangers of the virus, repeatedly asking the people not to be afraid (although nothing in his nearly hour-long address would have calmed the public’s disposition). In the two days between the announcement and the enforcement of the lockdown, thousands of workers in the metropolis flocked to the bus stations and airports in an attempt to return to their home provinces. In their mad rush to get home, they flagrantly violated health department guidelines on physical distancing.
In one case, a construction worker, fearing he wouldn’t survive when the metropolis was placed in community quarantine, rushed to a bus station to get a ride back to his home in southeastern Luzon. Failing to get a ride, and with about A$15 in his wallet, he decided to walk back home, a distance of more than 400 kilometres. Many others, he recounts, were destined for even more remote provinces. By the time he reached his home, the entire island of Luzon was in “enhanced community quarantine.” His experience mirrors the disruption brought to millions of Filipinos since the sweeping decision to lock down the country’s largest island.
When he expanded the lockdown, Duterte didn’t take the opportunity to spell out measures that would reassure the public about their welfare. He didn’t outline how the government would help wage-earners deprived of their income or how food and other essential supplies would be made available. Instead of thanking medical frontliners and assuring them that the protective equipment they need was on its way, he expressed gratitude to Chinese president Xi Jinping for his offer of assistance. Nor did he outline any clear plan for targeted measures of the kind that have proved successful in Singapore, South Korea and elsewhere — including wider testing and intensive contract tracing — even to the modest extent that resources might allow.
What Duterte did emphasise was the need to comply with the lockdown. He forcefully reiterated his instructions to law enforcers to punish those who violate the new restrictions.
As with his “war on drugs” since 2016, which has claimed what some human rights groups estimate to be more than 27,000 lives — mostly among the urban poor — Duterte’s approach to combating Covid-19 has centred on shock and awe. Using force to exhibit resoluteness and mask his own deficiencies, he seeks out opportunities to consolidate his power.
Nothing exemplifies Duterte’s leadership style more than the mass killings of suspected drug pushers and drug users. In waging that war, he has relied on a series of top-down directives to law enforcers and local government officials, who are assured of presidential protection should charges of abusive behaviour be made against them. The vast majority of those targeted, generally mere bit players in the highly lucrative drug trade, are not accorded even the most basic due process. Carried out at the hands of “the law,” their deaths are regularly justified by the myth of nanlaban: that “they fought back” and thus deserved their fate.
Without a clear plan for tackling the pandemic, Duterte called on his allies in Congress to declare a national emergency and grant him extraordinary powers. The initial draft of the “Heal as One” Act submitted by Malacañang Palace, the president’s residence and workplace, to the lower house would have empowered Duterte to take over any private corporation or utility. Not surprisingly, that provision sparked opposition from the business community, particularly given Duterte’s recent strong attacks on three leading conglomerates. In the end, the Senate removed this controversial power from the final version of the law.
This sequence of events fits a broader pattern: Duterte seizes extra powers but then lacks a long-term strategic vision of how to use them. Faced with the siege of Marawi City by an Islamic extremist group, itself the result of a massive failure of intelligence, Duterte imposed martial law in Mindanao from late May 2017 until the end of 2019. Yet he didn’t use extra powers granted to him by Congress to tackle the longstanding facilitators of conflict on the southern island (including the ubiquity of high-powered firearms and ineffective legal mechanisms for resolving land disputes). Unabashed, he often threatened to extend such powers throughout the nation.
In his blunt attempts to flatten the Covid-19 curve, Duterte has left the implementation of a yet-to-be-spelled-out national action plan to a group of ex-military men led by his national defence secretary. This reflects an ad hoc style of governance, carefully honed during his two decades as mayor of Mindanao’s Davao City, that sacrifices policies and procedures to a penchant for piecemeal solutions. The issuing of orders is commonly backed up with threats to employ force against those who prove recalcitrant. Such indeed was Duterte’s response to a small protest of urban poor in Quezon City on 1 April: “My orders are to the police and military… if there is trouble… shoot them dead.”
Alongside his thunderous threats, Duterte is prone to rambling, stream-of-consciousness monologues. At a 9 March press conference, for example, he responded to a question about what the government was doing to obtain test kits with disconnected references to the bubonic plague, the Spanish flu, the Roman Empire and an inquisition targeting people who had birthmarks.
To be fair, some presidential communications have displayed considerably more clarity. In a broadcast on 24 March, for example, the supremo adopted a more empathetic tone as he thanked the public for their “patience, understanding and utmost cooperation” and expressed optimism that “Filipinos can finally claim victory of this war and emerge as a stronger and more united Filipinos and Philippines.”
But the accompanying “Heal as One” rhetoric has been undermined by glaring disparities in both who has access to the country’s extremely limited testing capacity and how punishments are meted out. Public outrage has come down on one senator, lucky enough to be screened for the coronavirus, who strode into a leading hospital with his pregnant wife — only to receive a phone call informing him that he had tested positive. Hospital administrators were furious at this breach of health department protocols, but the justice secretary urged a compassionate response.
At the other end of the spectrum of societal privilege, a homeless woman in Manila was imprisoned for violating the lockdown order — in effect, for failing to shelter in an abode she does not have. Quite obviously, the capacity to “lock down” at home varies widely across social classes. “It may be possible [to isolate] in other areas because they are rich. They have big spaces,” explained a young mother from a poor district in Manila to the Straits Times. “Here we are crammed.”
Meanwhile, early reports are that cash subsidies to eighteen million poor families, as promised in the “Heal as One” Act, may be delayed while the government develops a database able to identify beneficiaries. Given prior experience of significant leakages in the distribution of cash transfers, a critical question is the extent to which these disbursements will be riddled with corruption.
The grandiloquence of “Heal as One” has also been undermined by insensitive remarks from the president, most recently on 30 March, when he asserted that health workers who “died helping others… are so lucky [because]… they died for the country.” As the news site Rappler reported, “The President’s remark quickly drew backlash online, with many users pointing out doctors’ deaths could have been avoided if the government prepared earlier for the outbreak.”
Even with the most forward-looking leadership at the helm, the Philippines’s overstretched health system and cramped urban spaces would provide optimal conditions for the rapid spread of the virus. Unlike many other Asian countries (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, China — and even Vietnam despite its poorer economy) the Philippine state simply does not have the capacity required to respond deftly to such an aggressive viral foe.
Even so, President Duterte has not delivered either wise leadership or sound policies. His eventual promise of decisive action came more in the form of threats and directives than coherent policy, with emergency powers unable to conceal the reality of disjointed national government action. (Which is not, to be sure, for lack of sound policy advice from leading analysts, including a group of University of the Philippines economists.)
In the end, the power grab may come back to haunt the Palace; as senator Risa Hontiveros noted in her opposition to the “Heal as One” Act, Duterte and his allies no longer have any excuse if they “let our people down.” One of the casualties of Covid-19 could thus be the very high levels of trust and approval that Duterte has enjoyed since he came to office in 2016.
The political fallout, however, pales in comparison with the impact on the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of Filipinos. As this article goes to press, 3018 Covid-19 cases have been reported (alongside 136 fatalities and fifty-two recoveries), nearly twice as many cases as four days earlier. As more testing facilities are set up, the number of cases is anticipated to increase. While the government has started preparing new isolation facilities, public and private hospitals will be saddled with more critical cases than they are equipped to handle.
Many local executives and civic leaders are working tirelessly to stem the tide, but in doing so they have been obstructed by geopolitical positioning, populist bombast and policy missteps at the very top. While it is too early for solid predictions, the Philippines could be facing its biggest nationwide humanitarian crisis since fierce fighting in the closing months of the second world war caused enormous destruction in Manila and elsewhere in the archipelago. It will come as little comfort that many other countries — and most starkly many other developing countries — may face a similarly grim fate. •