Philippines: COVID-19 crisis reveals simmering tensions in the regime

Activists distribute food aid in Caloocan City, Philippines. Photo: Jose Pedrosa.

The Philippines is emerging as one of South East Asia’s worst COVID-19 hot spots.

On April 21 the death toll was 437, having risen by more than 100 in a week.

The government’s response has been a draconian, militarised lockdown, which has led to almost 30,000 arrests in the first month, without any accompanying public health measures, such as mass testing.

So counterproductive has the lockdown been that it has actually impeded efforts by local governments and grassroots activists to counter the pandemic. Countering the pandemic has also been impeded by corruption on a society-wide scale. Measures allegedly brought in for public health or maintaining the economy are being used by President Rodrigo Duterte and his cronies to seize assets.

This prioritisation of repression and self-interest is not surprising, Duterte having already gained an international reputation for violence and contempt for the rule of law. Most notorious is his war on drugs — in reality a war against the poor.

While there are no reliable figures, as many as 29,000 people may have been killed. Targets have included political and community activists, and the killings have also provided cover for turf warss between criminal gangs, but the majority of killings have been random. The common factor has been the targeting of poor communities as a form of mass intimidation.

The militarised response to a police incident in the city of Marawi, Mindanao, in 2017 drew worldwide attention and was another example of the Duterte regime’s violence. A full-scale ground and air assault, backed by advisors and air support from the United States and Australia, killed more than 1000 people and flattened the city. Funds for rebuilding Marawi have been siphoned off by regime cronies and the population are still living in tents.

However, the reasons why the Philippines state is failing to adequately confront the pandemic predate the 2016 election of Duterte.

Decades of neoliberalism have gutted social infrastructure and generalised poverty. The health system is inaccessible to the poor and is driven by profit — illustrated by the horrific toll that the pandemic is taking among health workers deprived of protective clothing.

Housing is inadequate and livelihoods precarious. More than 10 million Filipinos (about 11% of the population) work overseas and the economy relies on their remittances. A large proportion of those remaining work in the informal sector. These include vendors and drivers of jeeps and tricycles (the main forms of urban public transport).

Workers suffer

One immediate effect of the lockdown imposed on Metro Manila on March 15, and the whole of Luzon on March 17, was to deprive millions of workers of income. The government announced a ₱5000 (A$156) one-off payment for workers (under the Labor Department’s [DOLE] COVID-19 Adjustment Measure Program [CAMP] for regular private workers). However, this is dependent on employers submitting paperwork (which many have not) and does not cover contract and informal sector workers.

According to data provided by Solidarity of Filipino Workers (BMP), workers from at least 250 companies in Metro Manila have reported “unjust treatment”, which includes “no work, no pay” arrangements, illegal termination, reduced pay owing to “flexible work arrangement” and non-application of CAMP. BMP’s list includes giant call centres, factories, commercial centres and even an animation studio and a mainstream TV network.

“In an effort to impede the rapid spread of the virus, Malacañang adopted containment policies such as the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) that, unfortunately, have impacted the quality of life of our working masses,” said BMP President Luke Espiritu.

“Workers have suffered the most since. In addition to ensuring their health and that of their families, they have to contend with the twin challenge of economic survival, in the midst of a public health emergency.

“Complicating the daily obstacles that workers face are reports of unjust treatment of workers by companies during this crisis.”

The workers’ plight is exacerbated by the total shutdown of public transport. There are still a number of establishments operating in Luzon island — primarily hospitals, supermarkets and factories — which require workers to walk several kilometres in extreme heat to get to work. Most of those who choose not to endure such torture, or who are afraid of infection, are left unpaid.

The government has even used the pandemic as an excuse to cut cash payments to poor households. Furthermore, with the population confined to their immediate neighbourhoods, many have been left without access to food due to numerous market/grocery shutdowns, police blockades and stringent curfew hours. There have even been random arrests of hawkers, the urban poor and even a private relief operations team.

Prior to the Lent holiday, Duterte promised a “Social Amelioration Program” (SAP) cash relief payment for the “poorest of the poor”, worth ₱200 billion. However, hardly any family has received the ₱5000–8000 dole per household. According to Pasig City Mayor Vico Sotto, the Social Welfare Department has been using an outdated 2015 census list.

Duterte threatened to discontinue the SAP payment in a speech on April 16, because of unverified reports of poor people betting the cash on cockfights. He also claimed the funds are being sourced through foreign debts, even though Congress formally released the funds through an “emergency” act passed on March 23.

Further repression

This disastrous state of affairs has generated resistance.

On April 1, residents of the urban poor community Sitio San Roque spilled onto the neighbouring EDSA — a major Manila thoroughfare — with placards demanding the promised emergency food to be distributed. They were violently dispersed by the police and military, and 21 residents arrested.

Duterte responded, characteristically, by threatening to shoot protesters and “leftists” who he, without evidence, blamed for the protest. However, the protest had results and food was distributed the next day. Moreover, an outpouring of solidarity, and people stepping forward to post bail for the arrested residents, meant that all were released on April 6.

On April 4, police arrested 19 vendors in Quezon City — members of the Metro Manila Vendors Alliance (MMVA) — for setting up their stalls in an effort to provide income for themselves and food for others. One of those arrested was a minor.

They were all released on April 7 because of community solidarity. But the arrests of street vendors did not stop there. On April 21, five hawkers, also members of MMVA, were arrested in Quezon City and are still in jail.

On April 19, seven relief volunteers, led by left-wing former member of congress Ariel Casilao, were arrested and detained by police in Bulacan province. Police alleged they were arrested for handing out “anti-government fliers”, despite this not being illegal.

Hospital congestion

Philippine healthcare has been overwhelmed by COVID-19. All hospitals are operating beyond their maximum capacity, as necessary drugs and protective equipment have been running out.

At the time of writing, aside from a rapidly rising infection rate, COVID-19 has infected more than 800 Filipino health workers, killing 22.

A TV reporter revealed on April 10 that the bodies of suspected COVID-19 patients had been left exposed in the corridors of the East Avenue Medical Center, stoking fears of infection among workers and patients. This was initially denied by the Health Department, but the hospital administration later confirmed that there were “15 to 20” bodies in the hospital that day awaiting proper disposal.

The virus had infected 61 workers at the National Center for Mental Health by April 19.

Two activists also recently died, including urban poor leader Domeng Zaragoza, who exhibited COVID-19 symptoms, and died on April 15 awaiting test results. Three days later, activist musician Noli Aman from BMP’s Teatro Pabrika succumbed to stroke as no hospital could accommodate him due to congestion.

Environmental destruction

More than 100 heavily-armed police dispersed a blockade of the Didipio gold mine in Kasibu, Nueva Vizcaya, on April 6. The blockade was led by indigenous community leaders and set up in July last year, after the contact allowing Australian-owned multinational Oceana Gold to operate the mine had expired .

A statement by Alyansa Tigil Mina said: “The mining contract has expired, so there is no activity allowed inside the mine.

“The local governments have not given any permit for the mining company to operate. The area is part of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) order of President Duterte, therefore no work activity is permitted.

“This is a clear violation of the work stoppage, the physical distancing and the quarantine procedures imposed by the ECQ in the whole Luzon Island.”

Furthermore, reports surfaced on April 19 of Chinese vessels carrying heavy coal-mining equipment docking at Semirara Island, Antique province, on April 11.

On April 18, Chinese vessels carrying heavy equipment were also seen docked at Homonhon Island in Eastern Samar. Local activists reported the resumption of large-scale quarry operations on the island despite the lockdown.

Community resistance

An important act of resistance has been the distribution of food and medical supplies to poor communities.

As of April 21, a coalition spearheaded by the left-wing Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM), the BMP trade union centre and the mass organisation Sanlakas had distributed 8080 meals, along with medical supplies such as face masks, in 22 food drives.

One of the logistical difficulties confronting these food drives is that the lockdown means activists can only work in their immediate neighbourhoods.

These efforts have prioritised the homeless, who already make up a large proportion of the population and whose numbers have been swelled by the lockdown, as workers find themselves stranded away from their homes.

“You would see hand-painted appeals for food or relief, or people on the streets donning cardboard with their message asking for food,” said Sanlakas Secretary General Aaron Pedrosa.

“This will only get worse unless concrete actions are undertaken by those in power.

“The lockdown has spawned a food crisis — the hardest hit are the same areas that are most vulnerable to the pandemic, with pre-existing problems of lack of water, electricity, decent housing and the lack of jobs.

“What the food drives and citizen-led initiatives tell us is that, given the opportunity, the bayanihan spirit [the tradition of solidarity and mutual aid in Filipino culture] can mobilise people to contribute, find solutions and generate positive actions.

“Imagine harnessing that spirit and unleashing the power of collective action.”

The food drive has been combined with a campaign for mass testing for the virus. While testing kits are in short supply, priority has been given to the clique around Duterte and other members of the elite.

While tests are not available for those at most risk, the well-connected are able to get tested, even if they don’t meet the government’s own testing criteria.

Political implications

The COVID-19 crisis has also increased simmering tensions within the regime.

PLM Chair Sonny Melencio explained in an April 4 article in Ang Masa: “Duterte did not come to power through the support of an organised base, including a party base of his own.

“PDP-Laban, almost a disintegrating party before the May 2016 elections, adopted Duterte as the party’s president close to the elections.

“Only after the May elections, did a broader coalition with other traditional parties form, but it was clear that even Duterte himself did not consider PDP-Laban as his loyal base.

“The core faction of the Duterte regime includes his loyal acolyte Bong Go, the Dutertes themselves, and former army and police generals handpicked to do his bidding and secure support from the police and the military.”

Combined with this core faction is a peripheral faction “represented by trapos [traditional politicians from political dynasties] and elites who support Duterte and abide by his biddings,” said Melencio.

“This faction includes the Marcoses, the Arroyos, the PDP-Laban machinery, the coalition parties that supported [Duterte] in 2019, and the local warlords and trapos egging him on to impose a trapo-led federalism in the country.

“What’s common among this faction? These are clans who felt they were persecuted or were left out of the game by the previous political elite in power (those they call the ‘Dilawan’).

“Duterte styled himself as a Godfather and dispensed favour to this faction by appointing them in positions of power or handing them economic favours.”

Melencio explained that among this peripheral faction there is a growing fear of “being eased out of power and privileges”.

“Duterte has secured a large chunk of money out of the ‘emergency powers’ Act,” said Melencio.

“It is ₱275 billion officially, but it is now nearing ₱305 billion, if the money handed over by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (₱25 billion more than the proposed amount) and the recent ₱5 billion ‘loan’ from World Bank are included.

“The disbursement of this money is centralised to Duterte and his core faction. Part of the ‘emergency fund’ may find its way to the 2022 presidential elections. This is going to be a contentious issue for all factions.”

As well as these tensions within the regime, the ruling class has its own interests. For example, real estate developers building and operating shopping malls are a powerful capitalist sector that is losing profits from the lockdown.

Furthermore, rising popular disenchantment with Duterte could cause the peripheral faction of his coalition to jump ship.

The crisis presents a challenge for the left, as outlined by PLM international head Reihana Mohideen: “In order to resist and struggle for our immediate demands — mass testing, economic relief and sufficient food for all, protective equipment for frontliners —  we need to be able to use our traditional forms of struggle — mass mobilisations, both decentralised and centralised, based on mass campaigns to raise awareness and strike action — adapted to these different times.

“We need to be able to take back, safely, the public spaces that are now being denied to us. Draconian law enforcement cannot be allowed to cover for the failure of the state and neoliberal capitalism to make a public health response possible.

“Duterte’s martial law measures only further compromise the physical distancing and other measures needed for public health. This is also why the spontaneous actions of the Sitio San Roque residents on EDSA were so important.

“Many of the demands the movement has raised in the past, such as for public services and ownership versus privatisation, almost seem like common sense right now.

“The question of political power is more important than ever, especially if the ‘Oust Duterte’ sentiment gathers strength.

“The challenge still remains of how to present a practical, transitional socialist program that can mobilise the working class and our allies towards this end.”

[Donations to the relief efforts coordinated by the PLM, BMP and Sanlakas can be made to:

Account Name: Transform Asia Gender and Labor Institute, Inc.

Acct. No: 304-2-30400456-2 Bank: Metro Bank

Swift/BIC: MBTCPHMM

Bank address: Metrobank, Aurora Blvd - Anonas Branch, Caly Bldg., Aurora Blvd., cor. F. Castillo St., Project 4, Quezon City, Philippines.]

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