'War' narrative in COVID-19 crisis fails to empower Filipinos, groups say

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
'War' narrative in COVID-19 crisis fails to empower Filipinos, groups say
Photo dated April 15 shows residents of Brgy. Harapin ang Bukas in Mandaluyong City lining up for cash amelioration aid as military forces stand watch to enforce social distancing.
The STAR / Walter Bollozos

MANILA, Philippines — Human rights and healthcare organizations on Friday said the Duterte administration's narrative of a nationwide war against the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), perpetuates a misplaced militarism in a time when medical solutions are needed. 

In an online press conference held by the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates and In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement, healthcare practitioner Nemuel Fajutagana of the Medical Action Group (MAG) said this approach reinforces a learned helplessness that leaves Filipinos more vulnerable to abuse. 

Also present at the media briefing were musician Gary Granada of the League of Authors, Artists, Advocates of Public Interests (LAPIS) and Dr. Nymia Simbula of the Philippine Human Rights Information Center (Philrights), who both weighed in with assessments on the government's performance throughout the first month of enhanced community quarantine in Luzon.

Luzon is entering its fifth week of an enhanced community quarantine that is expected to go on until at least the end of April. Since March, the Philippine National Police and the Armed Forces of the Philippines have been have posted personnel to enforce physical distancing measures.

During his April 13 public address, President Rodrigo Duterte was quoted as saying, "I think we will win this war. And I’m sure that with our three veteran generals who are now implementing this whole execution, and I believe that in the end, you can have a great plan."

'Learned helplessness'

Duterte earlier this week appealed for citizens to discipline themselves in observing physical distancing, warning that he would issue orders for military and police enforcement that he likened to Martial Law. 

Current measures already include restrictions on non-essential movement and a curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. Those found breaking quarantine protocols have been arrested, made to do physical exercies, and, in a case in Manila's Quiapo district, repeatedly hit with a wooden stick.

READ: Duterte asks public for 'discipline' in following quarantine rules

Simbulan said that the "war" narrative is an intentional move, saying this encourages dependence on the military and highlights their role in maintaining peace and order. Duterte's constant praise for the military and police has been paired with officials repeatedly characterizing Filipinos as "pasaway", or stubborn.

The rights activist also challenged Malacañang's notion that the high numbers in COVID-19 cases is due to the stubbornness of Filipinos. 

There were reports during Holy Week of Filipinos flocking to public markets despite government guidelines against crowding, which raises the risk of exposure and infection. The government said police and military teams will be deployed to public markets to enforce physical distancing guidelines.

"Why [do you think] some of our fellow Filipinos, especially the poor, are acting that way? I think there is something wrong with the way the state is handling this pandemic," Simbulan said.

Government has released financial aid although agencies have admitted that there have been logistical challenges to identifying beneficiaries for subsidies. Local government units have also had varying levels of success in distributing food packs to residents affected by the weeks-long stoppage of "non-essential" work.

READ: Government appeals for patience as outbreak aid gets entangled in red tape

[If] anyone is being stubborn, you hit them, you punish them, you torture them. That's what our government believes," she said in a mix of Filipino and English. 

'Reliance on government'

According to Simbulan, the narrative of a war puts citizens in the backseat and forces them to look to their leaders, which she pointed out could easily be used to generate political capital come election time. 

"I tend to believe they're being projected as passive recipients of whatever assistance is provided by the state, especially since elections are coming up. Our leaders can easily make it look like they contributed a lot during the pandemic," she said. 

"That's why Filipinos are so passive, because they are left on the receiving end, waiting for whatever is given to them by local government officials and the national government. Because of this, we can really see that there are violations and cruel, inhuman treatment."

"We are not at war. We are in a state of defending a life of dignity of peoples and communities," Simbulan said.

Labor groups last week said that the government should consider organized and community-based action against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those initiatives could include organizing them to make masks, gloves and protective gear and having community washers provide services to frontliners and essential workers who have been exempted from quarantine restrictions.

Community kitchens can also be organized to feed frontliners and poor people while farmers and fishers’ groups can engage in community gardens for local food production, Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino, Partido Lakas ng Masa and Sanlakas said.

READ: Communities can do more in fight vs COVID-19 than staying at home, labor groups say

Inequality in the Philippines

Granada, for his part, said the root of the militarist approach was what he called "siga (tough guy) politics" in government today.

He questioned the widespread praise of the Duterte administration's tart brand of showmanship as the government works on a comprehensive plan to deal with the pandemic and the insufficient support for the poorest of the poor. 

RELATED: Government appeals for patience as outbreak aid gets entangled in red tape

"The treatment of the privileged is so different, but the poor are jailed. Inequality is so overwhelmingly ingrained...people don't have equal access to resources," he said in Filipino, pointing to the disparity between the treatment of poor and the approach towards politicians who broke quarantine. 

When Sen. Koko Pimentel breached quarantine and hospital protocols and made confirmed trips to Makati Medical Center and a grocery store despite knowing he may be infected with COVID-19, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told reporters that "[d]uring abnormal times like these, when people are prone to commit mistakes or violations of the law, the DOJ will temper the rigor of the law with human compassion."

Pimentel found out he was positive for COVID-19 while at the hospital with his wife.

READ: Compassion for curfew violators defeats purpose of quarantine, task force says

The DOJ has since moved to act on a complaint that lawyer Rico Quicho filed against Pimentel over his trip to Makati Medical Center. 

"Let's hold accountable those who have the most power," Granada also said.

'Honor frontliners, but protect them too'

Healthcare advocacy group Coalition for People's Right to Health in a statement issued late Saturday night also called on the DOH to tend to the needs of health workers, including ensuring they get their work benefits as well as access to personal protective equipment.

"As the rest of government officials scramble to provide social amelioration and find an end to the lockdown, health ministers ought to demand a seat at the table to address what matters most," CPRH's statement read.

READ: Anger at P500/day allowance for medical volunteers about more than money, advocates say

Fajutagana slammed the narrative that healthcare workers should not call for more support or be critical of government.

"Let's not abuse the concept of volunteerism," he said, pointing out that COVID can be used as a "pretext for abuse."

Fajutagana and CPRH are worried over the Health Department's disclosure that 13% of deaths are of health professionals and frontliners.

"While frontliners want to serve, they don’t feel like they’re protected in what they’re doing. They’re being asked to serve without equipment, and that’s very unfortunate," he said. 

RELATED: Healthcare 'grossly neglected' in 'middle-income' Philippines, groups say 

"There will be no end in sight if the capability of the healthcare system remains under-resourced and inefficient, due to years of neglect and a present lack of coordination," CPRH said, pointing out that 1 in every 8 confirmed case is a health worker.

"Expressing gratitude to frontliners and honoring their sacrifices does not end with flowery statements, but ought to translate to purposeful and enduring actions. Labeling the fallen as heroes does not address the reason for their unfortunate demise," they added.

"At the end of the day, the DOH is ultimately accountable not just to patients, but its health workers that ensure and comprise its mandate."

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