COVID-19 and the Global South: Focus on the Philippines

Progressive activists have conducted food drives for a month in and around the capital, Manila. Photo: Jose Pedrosa.

Green Left co-hosted an international online roundtable on the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on the Global South on April 11, featuring a range of activists from around the region.

Long-time feminist and socialist Reihana Mohideen, a leader of the Party of the Labouring Masses in The Philippines, spoke about the dire situation facing that country. Mass testing only began on April 14 and workers in the informal sector and the urban poor are bearing the brunt of a woefully inadequate health response by the Rodrigo Duterte regime.

The following is a transcript of her presentation. Or listen to the speeches by Mohideen & Dr Kumar Jeyakumar (Malaysia) below

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Reihana Mohideen: Every academic or researcher who looked into this area knew that this was coming. Even intelligence agencies seemed to know that it was coming, and not a single government in the world was informed. So what we are witnessing is a huge failure, of not only the public health system, but the system as a whole.

I have been asked to talk on The Philippines. The capacity of the Philippines state to provide even the modicum of public services, systems and related infrastructures, such as health, water, power, etc, public education, has been gutted after decades of structural adjustment programs, debt diktats of neoliberal economic policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and so on, multilateral, bilateral agreements with imperialist countries all enthusiastically embraced by our technocrats and successive elite governments.

The country has no universal healthcare program and one of the most expensive health services in the region. The public health system was in crisis and now it has to meet the corona[virus] crisis. And on top of all this, our debt repayment continues — the never-decreasing debt — with one third of our annual national budget automatically appropriated for debt repayments.

This ailing public sector coexists, however, with the so-called strong arm of the state, which has been maintained and which has even increased its capacity to mobilise the military and the police to impose a range of authoritarian measures. From a war against the urban poor, starting with the deaths of thousands of mainly youth, in the guise of a campaign against drugs, to martial law in the southern island of Mindanao. And today, this dual character of both a weak and strong-armed state is starkly demonstrated in the [Rodrigo] Duterte regime’s response to the COVID pandemic.

In terms of the numbers, we are reassuringly told by the Department of Health that our numbers are not looking too bad, even looking good. As of 4pm yesterday (April 10) there were approximately 4200 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, and 119 new cases — which was a bit of a decrease from the previous 24 hours, and so on.

But if you look at our Case Fatality Rate (CFR), it is really high and probably one of the highest in the region; 5.3% is our CFR. If you look at our Case Recovery Rate (CRR) it is much lower than the CFR — it is around 3.4%, which is also high. And these figures of around 4200 confirmed cases, these figures are flabby because no substantive testing has been done as yet.

The government is promising that mass testing will only start next week — April 14. And one of the most startling examples of the crisis of our public health system facing the corona crisis are the number of health workers who are infected and who are dying. Over 200 doctors and nurses around the country have contracted the coronavirus — and these are Department of Health figures, which would be conservative. Out of this 200, 65% are doctors and 25% are nurses and 21 doctors have died to date and these are figures from yesterday. These are people who head up hospitals. These are people who are basically responsible — a lot of them — for leading the response against the crisis.

The Philippine Medical Association (PMA) has come out with a very clear statement that the main reason for the contraction [by] and the deaths of our health personnel is the lack of protective equipment. Very clear statement from the PMA.

The Department of Health has apparently procured 1 million pieces of protective equipment for distribution, and these include donations — people are just going and donating some of this stuff — and it is all stuck in this massive quagmire of red tape.

Miliary response

So instead of addressing the weakness in the health system infrastructure as its main priority, the Duterte regime’s strategy has been to declare a lockdown of the entire capital — Metro Manila, the national capital region — which later on extended to the entire island of Luzon. It started on the 15th of March and it has been going on for several weeks now. It is a one month lockdown. It has now been extended to April 30. And the main feature of this lockdown has been the deployment of police and some units of the military.

And the left has responded and has opposed this kind of lockdown, saying that this is a military response to a public health crisis.  When the lockdown was announced, it was done at a press conference, where Duterte was surrounded by the leaders of the Philippines National Police and the Armed Services of the Philippines, there was the Secretary of Health and there were no public health officials. There were no doctors and medical experts who are leading this at the press conference.

We are currently under enhanced community quarantine, which is strict form quarantine for all households. Transportation is suspended and only the provision of food and essential health services are allowed. This has been enforced by checkpoints everywhere. Local checkpoints, even the barrios are surrounded with checkpoints. Passes are needed to pass through, very limited movement, public transport has ceased, and so on. Even the transport of emergency health personnel in tricycles is not allowed.

Now Duterte has repeatedly announced that anyone violating this state of enhanced community quarantine will be arrested, including for resistance or for disobedience towards persons in authority, under the provisions of the Penal Code. So workers, people simply trying to shop for food, workers trying to get to work, students who are helping families, trying to food and so on, are now being arrested.

Nineteen members of our local vendors’ association (the Metro Manila Vendors’ Association) in my area were trying to sell their goods — because they need food, they need money to live — and were arrested a few days ago. We ran a massive campaign and [had] a small victory: they were released without charges because of the protest.

Unlike, for example, in South Korea, where the military and police carried out temperature checks, testing, cleanups and disinfecting, our police and armed personnel at the checkpoints are doing none of this. In fact, in the first few days they weren’t even provided with the basic safety equipment such as masks and hand sanitisers. That came later on.

On March 23, Congress passed what is called the Bayanihan (To Heal as One) Act. Bayanihan in The Philippines is the concept of the community and communal solidarity. And this granted Duterte additional powers to deal with the pandemic.

These powers included being able to realign and amass massive sums of money, including from the budget, for the COVID response. Some ₱275 billion, divide that by forty and that is roughly about A$6–7 billion dollars has been pulled out of the budget for the COVID response. None of this money has been distributed as yet. Again, it is stuck in red tape, stringent criteria for beneficiaries [has been] imposed by the Department of Social Welfare. Part of the problem with this stringent criteria that has been imposed by the Department of Social Welfare and the government (and it is not reaching the beneficiaries because of that) is this absurd notion of targeted poverty alleviation programs that has been pushed down our throats by development banks, development agencies and international financial institutions.

[Duterte] has also announced around ₱25 billion for a “war chest” to fight COVID, but much of this money — about ₱14 billion is going to the tourism budget, to bail out companies in the tourism sector.

Testing scandal

Meanwhile, mass testing is only going to be started this April 14. We have a population of around 109 million people. We have only six testing centres across the country.

In early March, only 2000 testing kits were available, and Duterte’s family and his cronies were given preferential treatment for the use of these test kits, even though they didn’t meet the Department of Health criteria. This was a huge scandal all over the papers, all over the TV, all over social media, where these 2000 test kits were essentially being plundered by Duterte and his cronies for their own personal use. So there was a public outcry and demands for substantial testing, including mass testing.

We launched a national campaign for mass testing in the communities and under this massive public pressure, the government has now agreed to conduct mass testing, beginning April 14.

Part of the motivation and outrage of people is also because of the experience of other countries in the region. They see the reports, they learn in the news about how South Korea and Vietnam have been fairly successful in “flattening the curve” or however they describe it. One of the main reasons was because of the substantial testing they have carried out. Vietnam has had no fatalities to date, as far as we know. 

Well, our scientists responded very fast. The University of The Philippines developed a test kit within a matter of a couple of weeks — much cheaper than the international process of these test kits, but this was bogged down again in the bureaucracy and it took the Department of Health about 3–4 weeks to validate the test kits. They have now been validated and some of these will be used on the 14th of April, but there are still problems with bureaucratic red tape, and so on.

The mayors at the local level are really feeling the pressure of this as well. The money isn’t coming down. This ₱275 billion that Duterte has managed to amass around himself, through his special powers, has not gone down to the local mayors and there is a lot of desperation, a lot of pressure, and the mayors are starting to take their own initiatives.

Some of the mayors that we backed in the last election campaign and who won have taken a number of initiatives including paying workers who are being laid off [their] full salaries, hazard pay, are mobilising tricycles so the health workers and emergency personnel can get to work and these essentially go against the regulations imposed by the Duterte regime.

[They are] also setting up testing centres. They have basically converted hospitals and so on, quickly set up some labs with local experts, the universities in their areas. Now the Department of Health has refused to endorse any of these testing centres so far. They have basically blocked [them]. These mayors are under enormous pressure, they are taking initiatives and the Duterte regime has come out and, Duterte, in a press conference a couple of weeks ago, said that if these mayors did not strictly comply with these regulations (and that included tricycles to be allowed to take emergency workers to work — that was one of the things he did not want to happen) that these mayors would be arrested and would be filed with criminal charges.

Now, the impact of the crisis on workers and the urban poor — as you can expect — has been devastating. Hunger has increased. Suicides have increased and in a very conservative catholic country. Food relief is not coming from the government. The Local Government Units and barangays [districts] are using calamity funds, private donations, whatever funds that they can get their hands on, to distribute food relief. And this is essentially a few kilos of rice and canned goods.

Staying at home is not an option for a majority of people in The Philippines. Staying at home is just not an option. Recently some residents in one of the urban poor communities close to us — the city of San Roque — they just mobilised, walked out of their homes, walked out of their communities, took over one of the major highways, demanding food. They were arrested, but once again because of public pressure, they have been released. And it worked. They were released because there was enormous public pressure. People just brought donations and paid their bail and then people just brought food. And it actually worked and it was a little success story.

Poverty the main problem

There was one comment that was made by one of the leaders of this [action]. It was a spontaneous gathering, a spontaneous mobilisation. The left had mass organisations in the area and we joined it. Our members joined it, but it really was a spontaneous action and there was one of the leaders of it who said: “I’m not afraid of COVID-19. What is frightening us is dying with our eyes open because of hunger.” And that is essentially the sentiment in the country of the masa [people] today.

Our relief operations are ongoing. We started it from day one. We have continued it every day including the Easter holidays where everything is locked down in Catholic Philippines. We started with the homeless and now we have expanded it to other urban poor areas, and of course, we make sure that our base is also secured.

The Department of Labor and Employment has announced a one-time financial assistance of ₱5000 for every worker, which is about $3 per day for 30 days, but again this is rigged because the employers have to apply for it, workers can’t apply for it directly, and workers in the informal sector and workers who are outside Metro Manila, who are now stranded from their workplace because of the lockdown, can’t apply for it from outside Metro Manila. The informal sector workers aren’t given assistance and so on.

Meanwhile, at the height of all this, the Department of Social Welfare came out several weeks ago and temporarily suspended its poverty alleviation cash grants to the poorest families in the country.

I should also add that the regime is also facing a political crisis of sorts. We have a sick President. He is extremely ill with liver cancer. He rambles at daily press conferences, possibly even beats the ramblings of Donald Trump.

A couple of days ago he came out on national TV and declared that there was no money in the coffers, he didn’t know what to do, he was going to sell all government assets to be able to raise money. But the problem is, most of the valuable government assets have already been sold as a result of privatisation. The only place he could point to was the Cultural Center of The Philippines.

Meanwhile, the international financial institutions are lining up with loans. The Asian Development Bank is providing a US$1.6 billion loan to The Philippines for its COVID response. All these loans are hard money — that is, they are not grants, they are not low interest, or whatever. These are all high interest loans, which means debts are going to grow. These loans we have no reason to believe we have absolutely no confidence to believe that — given the record of elite governments, given the record of this government — that we will see any substantial amount of that money being used for COVID response. It is very likely that a big proportion of that money will be plundered by various factions of the elite.

Meanwhile, we still have the debt appropriation law, which is one-third of the national budget automatically for debt servicing and we are calling for a moratorium on this debt appropriation law, which has been a historic demand of the movement.

In terms of the left — the left and progressive movement have been campaigning against Duterte’s military response to a public health crisis and has put forward a platform of demands that includes: mass testing for all; free hospitalisation for victims; mass disinfection in all communities; food and water rationing for workers and the poor; distribution of face masks, hygiene kits, vitamins, contraceptives; assistance to farmers, drivers and affected workers; paid emergency leave for uninsured workers; refunding tuition to students due to class exemptions; price controls on commodities; electricity, water and communications to be provided 24/7; allowing vehicles and tricycles to provide transport to medical workers and people with medical needs; suspension of rent, water, electricity, communication and other fees; disarming the large numbers of military and police deployed, so as not to cause terror to the people; and a debt moratorium.

Today we face a multiple, intersecting crisis. A public health crisis triggered by the pandemic, an economic crisis — with many leading financial expecting this to be the worst recession in living memory, and a climate crisis (and the coronavirus crisis needs to be considered part of the climate crisis, and very much so). The climate crisis and the impacts of that will continue. We had in the Pacific a few days ago massive cyclones. It’s not like these extreme weather events are going to stop. So we had massive cyclones in Fiji, Vanuatu and so on.

These intersecting crises signal a major socio-economic crisis and some analysts have even said a collapse of the capitalist system. I think this is very much highlighted in the situation in the US today — the centre of global capitalism, the epicentre of the crisis — which is now providing the baseline for the worst case scenario, with over 500,000 cases of infection and over 18,000 deaths and coming at over 2000 deaths per day — a big majority of these African Americans. We also think that the rising authoritarianism and the provisions that are put in place from Hungary to Britain to Chile to Israel to the US and The Philippines and other countries where speakers are speaking from today, could shape politics for years to come.

The corona crisis has highlighted the fact that continuing on the capitalist path, including some reformed social democratic version of it is no longer an option. And as we struggle for our immediate demands, we also need to put forward a socialist alternative. And we think that solidarity has to be an essential core of this socialist vision. And Cuba sets an example for the world today in how this socialist vision can be described and visualised.

Finally, there will be sporadic and spontaneous combustions, as people protest and resist in their struggle to survive. This is inevitable. The next steps and tasks in The Philippines today are framed by posing the following questions: Who will lead the rising opposition against Duterte? Is the political opposition, with their electoral forces, ready for it? Is the organised left, with their mass organisations, positioned and willing to lead? The various groups might as well merge with the rising opposition against Duterte if they are not placed to lead it. Now is the time to be tested.

Thankyou.

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