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The Philippines: President Duterte’s violent approach to Covid-19

As of early April, President Duterte’s regime had arrested almost as many people for violating Covid-19 curfews and lockdowns as it had tested for the virus. Protesters have been arrested, journalists censored and people are put in cages and beaten if they break any lockdown restrictions. Yet despite the violence, US President Donald Trump publicly supports Duterte’s efforts.

On 1 April, Duterte went on television and said that his instructions to the military and police enforcing quarantines were:

“If they become unruly and they fight you and your lives are endangered, shoot them dead!”

Two days later, a 63-year-old farmer was shot dead in Mindanao after reportedly refusing to wear a face mask. The police reported that the man had been drunk and attacked the health workers and the police with a scythe.

In early April, protesters were arrested after demanding government relief aid, which has taken weeks to begin reaching the country’s poorest residents, with the first batch of unemployed workers receiving support around 25 March and the first portion of cash delivered in early April. During the pandemic lockdown, the government has also censored journalists and at least one person who posted criticism on Facebook, according to Human Rights Watch.

Carlos Conde, a researcher at Human Rights Watch Philippines, said that beyond mistreatment at the hands of the authorities, the arrests have been counterproductive in reducing the spread of the coronavirus.

“The most worrisome aspect of tens of thousands of arrests is that they are thrown into crowded jails and holding areas, which completely eliminates the possibility of social distancing,” he told Foreign Policy.

Though the Philippine Congress initially declined to give Duterte more far-reaching powers to fight Covid-19 – an initial bill sought to give him the power to take over private companies and utilities, for instance – he was granted extraordinary emergency powers in late March which has allowed him to direct hospitals and public transit, and to reallocate funds in the 2020 budget. Critics have said the powers go beyond what is needed to address the virus and will merely entrench the current government.

Maria Ressa, CEO and executive editor of the Filipino news site Rappler, wrote: “While emergency powers seem necessary during these extraordinary times, let’s not give up our hard-won freedoms. Getting them back may be even harder than taming a virus.”

Duterte’s violent approach to Covid-19 is similar to his “war on drugs”. Since the start of the drug war, nearly 30,000 have been killed according to estimates and the regime seems to specialise in suspected extrajudicial killings, carried out without benefit of charges or a trial. The United Nations has called for an investigation into that crackdown.

On 12 April, Philippine Senator Bong Go told the media he has body bags for “drug addicts or peddlers of fake news”.

The Duterte regime has given the military near total control of the Covid-19 relief effort with the body overseeing the disbursement of aid controlled by a panel of current and ex-generals. The streets have become militarised during this pandemic and the orders are to shoot and kill anyone fighting back and/or threatening security forces’ lives.

At least one hospital has raised the issue of lacking protective equipment, while Amnesty International’s Philippines executive director has accused security forces of “putting curfew violators inside dog cages” and “beating up people with sticks.” Further reports have emerged of police beatings and shootings around the country.

“Anyone out at the wrong time will be shot, you sons of bitches,” said a police officer on a radio report on March 26.

Despite the violence, US President Donald Trump publicly supports Duterte’s efforts. During a telephone call on 21 April, Trump assured Duterte of his support for the Philippines’ against the pandemic.

Trump “expressed his solidarity and offered additional assistance to the Philippines as it continues to battle the Covid-19 pandemic,” the embassy said in a statement on Tuesday.

The US government recently provided an $1.3 million or over P66 million to the Philippines to combat Covid-19. In total, the American assistance to the Philippines to address the health crisis amounts to $4 million or P203 million.

But there is no criticism regarding Duterte’s violent approach and even before the pandemic, President Trump had kind words for Duterte, praising him in 2017 for doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”

The International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) and other human rights groups have called for an end to US arms and military support for the Duterte government as leverage to end the systematic killings and other human rights abuse.

“This pandemic has brought out the absolute worst of this government. People are tired, angry, and fed up at how we are being treated. Filipinos have shown the world people’s power. We have ousted two presidents before. I’m sure that if the need arises, we will not hesitate to do it again,” said a student protester to Foreign Policy.

As of Friday 17 April, the Philippines had recorded 428 deaths from Covid-19 and 6,459 confirmed cases, according to data maintained by Johns Hopkins University.

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