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Sunday, September 25, 2022

COVID-19 Pandemic: Worst time for PH Democracy, Best Time for Duterte

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*Co-authored with Kirchhoff Thomas Angala

The COVID-19 pandemic is a window of opportunity hastily seized by the Duterte administration to conceal its four years of failure and simultaneously administer its authoritarian motive and agenda. With the best excuses at hand, the sky is the limit for them to execute, not the people’s interest, but their own. But even before the said health crisis happened and struck the Philippines, Duterte’s brand of governance and his “Lawfare” tactic has severely affected the social fabric of our nation and the public institutions in our democratic system. The cases of former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, Senator Leila De Lima, Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and many others resoundingly reflect on how the culture of fear and threatening rhetoric of the President turns institutions and laws–which are in place as safeguards–into weapons against his critics. He makes use of a supposed hatred against so-called “oligarchs” and a flawed sense of patriotism to drive his solemn promise to repair a broken system of government and end high-value crimes as well as justify all judicial and extra-judicial means in achieving a reformed political order. All of these at the expense of innocent lives, human rights and the rule of law make this period the worst time for Filipinos and our democracy but the best time for Duterte to thrive.  

The relationship between the Filipino People and Rodrigo Duterte can be traced back when he finally announced his presidential bid in 2016. Duterte’s main branding was the “iron fist” approach to governance which he had cultivated for years as the Mayor of Davao City. The promise of a style of leadership so radically different from the usual ‘trapos’ that Filipinos had grown accustomed to was too hard to pass up and he won in a landslide victory with over 16 million votes. At the forefront of his campaign was his “War on Drugs”–that had the intent to eradicate the country’s drug problem once and for all. However, even with the strong (empty) words and fiery (hollow) conviction, the Drug War has been an utter failure as the Duterte administration has largely struggled to contain the influx of illegal drugs and the operations of drug lords within the country. Despite this failure, the Duterte administration will be the first to tell you that they are winning. In numbers, the death toll has been reported to be as high as 27,000 as a result of both legitimate police and extrajudicial killings by unknown suspects. In anti-drug operations conducted by the police, the narrative of the suspect who fought back or ‘nanlaban’ has become common parlance in countless police reports since Duterte assumed power. 

This would prove to be the first of many policy approaches wherein Duterte took an iron-fisted approach. After the Marawi Siege, Duterte signed Proclamation No. 216, which established Martial Law in all of Mindanao. This was extended thrice by Congress and would last for over two and a half years. The militarization of the island of Mindanao brought a bigger dilemma to its people—peace was never attained and longer scenes of injustice and violence would be the norm. Again, the ends were never achieved but somehow the Duterte administration won. The pattern is too obvious to go unrecognized. The struggle of the country and its people seem to be the literal source of power for the Duterte administration; when the people are weak, they augment the dilemma and take advantage of it—and evidently, the COVID-19 pandemic at present, is the perfect source of strength for Duterte to further tighten his grip on power and de facto dictatorship.

No matter how many times Duterte may try to deny it, the COVID-19 pandemic has become a leeway for his administration to conjure its authoritarian rule and ravage our democratic systems. The country has been under one of the longest lockdowns in the world since the pandemic began, and since then, the country has faced problem after problem, often by the administration’s own hand no less. During the first stretch of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ); Duterte turned to his only solution to every crisis that his administration has faced—militarization. He treated the pandemic as a sort of foreign invasion and placed former generals and other military men at the helm of a public health crisis and empowered police forces to arrest anyone caught not complying with health and safety protocols. 

Not long after, Duterte would ask Congress for special powers granting him a budget spree that was said to help alleviate the economic crash that the country and the Filipinos will face while the movement of the economy is strictly controlled. Ironically, despite all the ammunitions he asked for to help outpace the pandemic, the state of our nation has become even worse. We have the highest number of total COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia with workplace and family-wide virus transmission, the worst GDP contraction recorded among major ASEAN economies and a record recession in nearly 30 years. All these are alongside the fact that the country’s current debt reached Php 9-trillion as of June 2020 due to Duterte’s borrowing spree. 

Furthermore, at a time when people are in dire need of legitimate and competent information, the government decided to shut down ABS-CBN, one of the country’s biggest television networks. This was actually an overdue quest for Duterte as he had already been eyeing to shut it down in a ruthless vendetta dating back to the 2016 presidential race. This is undeniably a huge attack to the people’s freedom of speech, and at the middle of an economic crash, the administration’s move to shut down one of the biggest corporate entities in the country led to the unjust termination of thousands of employees. 

Duterte’s crusade continued when he championed the “Anti-Terrorism Law”. Advocates, and human rights lawyers and lawmakers have been critical against the said law as it upsets checks and balances, and poses a threat to the people’s security, safety, and freedom. The administration, or more specifically Duterte, cannot be trusted with this kind of law and power as their track record shows that they have the tendency to ‘stifle’ the Filipinos, figuratively and literally. 

People are dying from the virus and hunger due to the delayed disbursement of the government’s Social Amelioration Program (SAP). The limit of our health care capacity is fast approaching while health care workers and frontliners have already reached their breaking point. Meawhile, Duterte, his favorite [PxxxT] Secretary Francisco Duque, and the rest of his inner circle continues to sit on their hands and wait for a vaccine that may never come. 

Now, read all of that again, and keep in mind that all of it happened in the middle of a global crisis. Duterte and his government’s priorities are not misguided, they know exactly what they have been doing since day one and it is not in the interest of the Filipino people but their own. The dangerous thing is that this may only be the tip of the iceberg. The rock bottom of the Filipino people always paves a way for Rodrigo Duterte’s mountain top.

Niño Verzosa finished his MA in Public Administration at the University of the Philippines Diliman and currently works in the Senate as a Legislative Staff Officer

Kirchhoff is a sophomore student at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. The current Editor In Chief of Junior Philippine Institute of Accountant-Link, a volunteer writer and researcher at The Save Our Schools Network, and an IP activist.

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