COVID-19 Op-ed

Problematizing the Securitization of Covid-19 in Southeast Asia: A Necessary Step Towards an Inclusive, Rights-Centred Normal

Written by admin

Joel Mark
 Joel is Programme Director of
SHAPE-SEA. He would like to thank Patricia Miranda, a health and human rights
campaigner based in the Philippines, for additional information and

The Southeast Asian COVID-19 response contains all the critical
elements of securitization. In countries like the Philippines and Cambodia,
laws granting emergency powers were passed that gave various heads of state
to enforce peace and security measures to address economic recession. What
started with lockdowns, travel bans, border closures eventually led to police
surveillance, detainment, control of access to information, and further
shrinking of spaces for dissent and activism (Chen, 2020.)

lived experiences in the region show that the securitization of Covid-19
comes with a painful cost. There is clear evidence that disruptions of public
health and other essential services, coupled with highly-securitized
emergency measures, can create more dangers, especially in contexts where
there are insufficient social safety nets and legal safeguards (Miranda and
Angkaya, 2020). As such, the pandemic is perceived as a threat to the people,
requiring stringent, repressive measures to combat it (Nunez, 2020.)
Furthermore, by adopting this wartime rhetoric, States deem necessary to
suspend fundamental rights and freedoms to achieve “victory” (Carbonaro,
2020.) To make matters worse, people are obliged to assume duties and
responsibilities sanctioned by the state; and anyone who disobeys and divert
from the “agenda” would pay a hefty price.Danger at the front
Frontline workers throughout the region are
enduring the brunt of the lack of strategic and generous support from their
governments. Repeated calls for adequate provision of personal protective
equipment and increased case testing have fallen on deaf ears (Salsabila,
2020). Unscientific responses by public officials misguided the public,
leading to the ballooning of infections and deaths (Hasanah, 2020)
Furthermore, social stigma and acts of violence have impeded health workers,
as well as, survivors from enjoying a safe and decent life (Kurniawan, 2020
and Catolico, 2020.)  Front liners based in conflict-affected areas have
reported that militarized and draconian measures harm communities, since it
creates a culture of fear and silence (Abo and Ayao, 2020).In pursuit of
beating Covid-19, all Southeast Asian States resorted to a militarized approach.
Since the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak, activists and development workers
have been playing a pivotal role in responding to the needs of communities,
calling out corrupt and abusive policies and practices, and pushing for
health-centered approaches to the crisis (Adorador, 2020.) However,
governments seem to view these actions as threats to the agenda of national
peace and security. Emergency laws and policies have been used to silence and
purge human rights defenders. The State of Emergency Law in Cambodia had
provided authorities powers to place restrictions on the use of social media
or the freedom of telecommunications, as well as to surveil on suspected
dissidents (Pinol, 2020.) In the Philippines, Human rights defenders involved
in food distribution in Bulacan Province were charged with violating
the Bayanihan to Heal As One Act and incitement to commit sedition
after finding newspapers and magazines with anti-government content in their
vehicle. The same law was also used as a basis for government officials to
order for the arrest of those they deem to be spreading “fake news” on Social
media (Conde,2020.) In Indonesia, police regulations served as the basis for
the arbitrary arrests of individuals and groups who were allegedly disrupting
“public order” (Rumpia, 2020.) Even in Timor Leste, freedom of expression and
press freedom has been curtailed in light of the national state of emergency
(Alves, 2020.)The precarity of
economic conditions, social exclusion, and repressive policies make up a
perfect storm ravaging the deprived, disenfranchised and underserved amid
Covid-19. Poverty has been the biggest hindrance for many governments in
enforcing measures. Social distancing is just impossible for the poor who
live in cramped spaces and rely on mass transportation to earn a living
(Abuso, 2020.) Access to cash aid and essential health services have become
arduous for those living on survival. This has been the case in Timor Leste,
where affected rural and urban poor communities were left hanging on a
promised meager subsidy (Da Fonseca, 2020.) In Thailand, informal workers
have suffered the most due to the inability to access health insurance and
difficulties in accessing government aid (Cassinerio, 2020.) Furthermore,
communities are excluded from engaging in strategic measures to curb the
contagion (Ampilan, 2020.) This is the main reason why they remain
significantly at risk of new infections.This pandemic has exposed gaps in the
scope of the right to public health amid the state of emergency. Migrant
workers, refugees, stateless people are left to fend for their survival,
forcing them into desperation and invisibility in their host countries. They
have been struck than any other vulnerable groups mainly because they are
voiceless, estranged, and most are undocumented, making them most at risk in
times of national crisis (Ramachandran, 2020.) Refugees in Malaysia and
Thailand are forced to break social distancing and quarantine rules to be
able to access government support or to creatively seek channels for survival
(Jalil, 2020 and Jittiang, 2020.)  A critical mass of Filipino migrant
workers in the Mekong Region, on top of the inability to access cash aid,
have to endure “no work, no pay” policies imposed by their employers (Novio,
2020.) In Singapore, before the discovery of a high number of cases of
COVID-19 among migrant workers, government distribution of face masks and
hand sanitizer, apart from was limited only to citizens. The crisis has
indeed has brought up issues of ‘hidden apartheid’ not only on the grounds of
race but also of citizenship (Petcharamesree, 2020).Gender at
the core of response actions
The struggle for gender equality
and justice cuts across generations and sectors, reaffirming the need for
powerful collective action in responding to today’s challenges, including the
specter of COVID-19. A gender perspective is also needed to ensure response
operations and strategies do not reinforce discrimination, or enable impunity
and violence to thrive. Instead, a peaceful and inclusive COVID-19 response
should respond adequately to the different needs of women and girls, homeless
and displaced, indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, and other
vulnerable sectors (Abo and Ayao, 2020).While the virus does not
discriminate, women and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex,
and Queer (LGBTIQ) communities have much suffered from disproportionate
impacts of the Covid-19 crisis. From a gender lens, securitization aggravates
inequalities amongst women and sexual communities. They enjoy limited access
to health care or any form of social protection to shield them from the
pandemic (Aranas, 2020.) Furthermore, women are compelled to fend for their
families’ daily needs amid the crisis. In developing countries like Timor
Leste, Covid-19 had paralyzed them women, who make up 60% of the informal
working sector, from decently making a living due to the shutting down of
businesses (Chen, 2020.)Women across Southeast Asia are forced by gendered
expectations to assume unpaid care work for their families, especially the
sick or for the quarantined in the absence of enough hospital beds and access
to critical medical and social services (Aranas, 2020.)  There has also
been a rise in domestic violence during national lockdowns. In Malaysia,
women and girls who experienced abuse cannot escape the house, and they are
likely to be trapped with the abusers. Thus, movement restrictions make it
harder for the victims to report the case and seek help on time (Try,
2020.)Even before the pandemic, members of the LGBTIQ communities have
already been facing discrimination and violence stemming from conservative
patriarchal, religious, as well as hetero- and cis-normative values imposed
by society in the region. This condition had pushed them to the fringes of
society. Restrictions and repressive measures on Covid-19 left many
scrambling for survival. A significant population of LGBTIQ individuals, who
have to rely on the informal sector and gig economy, suddenly find themselves
out of work. In terms of personal safety and security, there have been cases
of domestic violence (physical and mental) against individuals living in
unaccepting and abusive households during the self-quarantine/lockdown period
(Hanung, 2020.)Violence against LGBTIQ persons is also rampant in the public
domain—ranging from humiliation to deception and death. In the Philippines,
three young LGBTIQ persons were questioned for violating the curfew. A
village official accused them of looking for illicit sex and, as punishment,
publicly humiliated them by ordering them to kiss, dance, and do push-ups on
a live video broadcast on social media. They were identified by name, and the
videos of their punishment went viral, adding to their embarrassment.
(Thoreson, 2020) In Indonesia, YouTuber Ferdian Paleka, delivered “care
packages” full of garbage to transwomen in Bandung, West Java. In North
Jakarta, a transwoman who was burned to death by a mob in public. Both
garnered lukewarm reaction from people and officials, proving that stigma and
discrimination against LGBTIQ in much is greatly normalized (Saputra,
the silence
The securitization of Covid-19 in
Southeast Asia has, indeed, done more harm than benefits to the hundreds of
millions living at the edge of fear and uncertainty. At this point, we still
can’t tell when the dust will fully settle. While the world waits for a
vaccine that will end our fear, it is critical to ensure that systems and
structures are reformed to accommodate the demands of a Post-Covid world
adequately. In pursuit of rights-centered governance, plans and policies
should respond appropriately to the different needs of women and girls,
LGBTIQ persons, workers, refugees, migrants, asylum seekers, indigenous
peoples, persons with disabilities, and other groups who are most
marginalized and excluded.Everyone has a role to play in mitigating the worst
of the impacts of this public health emergency. People and their rights must
be placed front and center in the COVID-19 response and recovery. We must
break the silence when it comes to the stigma and discrimination. At the core
of any action, government response actions should never dismiss or ignore the
importance of human lives, livelihoods, and rights. This is why we urgently
need pro-poor and gender-embracing approaches to hurdle this health, poverty,
and inequality crisis. We need more significant and meaningful participation
from marginalized and vulnerable sectors in both community and high-level
decision-making levels to address any type of compounded crises that come our
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