COVID-19 Op-ed

Public Health or Public Order?

Written by admin

Paolo Iñigo C. SevillaBA
Anthropology, University of the Philippines,

The San Roque

Only a few hours before I wrote this essay, there was a
violent dispersal in Sitio San Roque. San Roque is an urban poor community in
Quezon City, Metro Manila. As expected, it is one of the sectors most
affected by COVID-19. According to the press, a shortage of relief goods
triggered the protest. Residents
poured into the streets demanding food, and were beaten back by
baton-wielding, camouflage garbed policemen. In total, 21 protesters were
detained.Under the “Enhanced
Community Quarantine” (ECQ,) vulnerable sectors face hard questions, and as
can be seen in the San Roque 21 incident, painful consequences.”Where
will we get our food? What happens if we violate quarantine? How will we
survive?”Amidst such uncertainties, one thing is clear. This protest,
and the anger that fueled it, is rooted in hunger and the fear it


Let us take a step back. To
understand the present situation of the Philippines during COVID-19, one must
take into account the relationship of the State with the Filipino people. As
police and military agencies function as extensions of the State, examining
how they act is paramount. Military and police operations can be divided into
two domains: rural and urban. President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s war on drugs is
waged by the police in the city. The War on Drugs has taken over 5,000 lives
before 2019, including innocents such as the young Kian Delos Santos. Military
efforts extend to the countryside through the occupation of Lumad
Schools and the
killing of peasant leaders. Additionally,
there is red-tagging, repression of
political opposition, and the
targeting of progressive and anti-administration groups. This list of
abuses under Duterte’s administration pre-COVID-19 is far from
complete.Clearly, Duterte’s approach to public health issues, and social issues
in general, is rooted in a public security and order perspective. As such,
his administration addresses them with military solutions. It comes as no
surprise that human rights abuses are rampant and public mistrust and fear
have become the status quo.

Emerging Issues Under

As the ECQ continues, the
Administration’s iron-fist approach prioritizes “discipline” in public order
over public health.  Former military generals head the large-scale
efforts against the virus, and with the direct involvement of the AFP and the
PNP. Military
presence was stark from the beginning of the ECQ with 2,500 military
personnel and 2,000 police deployed to checkpoints. Reports of
human rights violations quickly emerged. In Paranaque, ECQ violators were
forced to sit in the midday sun. In another
Barangay, violators were placed in dog cages. Several
netizens were charged by the National Bureau of Investigation due to online
posts critical of the administration.These are just
a few of the many emerging violations.

“Shoot them

Let us return to April
first in San Roque. In less than twenty-four hours after the protest at Sitio
San Roque, PRRD made a shocking, but unsurprising statement: “Shoot them
dead.” In any instance of resistance from the citizens, shoot them dead;
a clear and cold directive from the Chief Executive and
Commander-in-Chief.Neither his
tone nor choice of words is in any way surprising. Over the course of his
presidency, Duterte has made a reputation for brash and unfiltered
statements. “The mayor should have gone first,” when
speaking about the rape of an Australian national. On another occasion, 
an order to shoot female members of the New People’s Army “in the
vagina.” And perhaps
most famously, a promise to back all police and military who killed on his
orders.The Duterte
administration takes tools of brute military force and violence as its
primary solutions. It weaves a narrative where the issue is not poverty, but
discipline; not social disenfranchisement, but “katigasan ng ulo”
(hard-headedness.) This militaristic approach is supported by equally violent
and violating speech that emboldens state forces and state-sponsored
violence.COVID-19 has created an environment of uncertainty, economic
insecurity, paranoia, and crippling fear. Combined with the militaristic
approach of Duterte’s administration and his vehement campaign against human
rights, this creates a fertile ground for further abuses.If the national and
international actors do not move with haste to disrupt this military-centric
framework, human rights violations are bound to multiply. In the face of the
current health crisis, Duterte’s iron fist can only maintain “order” and
suppress the public for so long.After all, there is very little that hungry
men fear.


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