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Corona in the Philippines: Duterte's hard-hand policy continues

After three months since the first confirmed coronavirus cases appeared in the Philippines, the Filipinos and Filipinas are now trying to adjust to a "new normal" characterized by ongoing quarantine measures. On the first weekend in May, the number of officially confirmed cases of infection almost reached the 9,000 mark. So far, 603 deaths have been recorded. The number of unreported cases is definitely much higher, as there is insufficient testing.

Criticism: restriction of freedom of the press and freedom of expression

In response to the Covid 19 crisis, President Rodrigo Duterte initiated a one-month “community quarantine” - in principle a soft lockdown - for the region around the capital Manila in mid-March. After initial implementation difficulties and unclear information, the order was quickly expanded into a stricter quarantine for the entire main island of Luzon. Shops, markets, the popular shopping malls and all other non-essential facilities have been closed. The suspension of local public transport resulted in empty streets in Manila, which is otherwise plagued by constant traffic jams. The lockdown has now been extended to May 15 and extended to other parts of the country. Regular national and international air traffic has been completely stopped, at least temporarily. At the same time, measures are being eased for the first time in other parts of the country.

Ten days after the start of the lockdown, Duterte had the congress, which is controlled by his supporters, pass an emergency law that enables the president, among other things, to redirect already planned government spending to various support programs made necessary by the corona crisis. In addition to these, at least on paper, laudable measures, the authorization also included a commission, according to which the dissemination of "false information" can be punished. Critics saw it as a dangerous restriction of freedom of expression and freedom of the press and renewed evidence of the one-sided “Law and Order” approach of the Duterte government. It remains to be seen whether the powers will actually be withdrawn after the three months have expired.

Prisons overcrowded, 10,000 prisoners released

Critics saw their fears confirmed when Duterte announced in a national address on April 1 that he had ordered the military and the police to shoot criminals if there were problems with the implementation of the lockdown. Such martial remarks put the reaction of the Philippine government to the coronavirus crisis in direct connection with Duterte's internationally criticized "war on drugs," in which the president also relies on an iron hand. The problems that this approach brings with it, especially in times of the coronavirus, were recently underscored by the occurrence of Covid-19 cases in the hopelessly overcrowded prisons. As a result, the government was forced to release nearly 10,000 prisoners early due to lack of space.

The implementation of the promised aid measures by the government is also making slow progress. The number of tests carried out remains low and there is still a lack of protective equipment for medical personnel. Only around a quarter of the announced aid payments to 18 million families in need have been made so far and the Ministry of Labor has suspended its aid to workers for the time being due to a lack of financial resources. For a large part of the population, the pandemic therefore not only poses a health threat, but also an economic threat in particular.

Hope for community spirit

While regularly employed workers fear that their jobs will continue to exist, members of the informal sector are already without work and depend on food rations that are distributed by their district administrations or aid from relatives, friends and NGOs. It remains to be seen whether the Philippine economy and thus the situation of the people will slowly improve again in the coming months or whether the country, which is already characterized by widespread poverty, will slide into a review. One can only hope that the famous Filipino community spirit, called bayanihan, will give Filipinos and Filipinas the strength they need to persevere.

Published on May 5th in the IPG-Journal