COVID-19 Op-ed

COVID-19 and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines

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Jean Linis-DincoJean Linis-Dinco is
a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. She is interested in using
programming tools in media analysis to predict conflicts. Her past research
has analysed HIV/AIDS-related reports in the Philippines, media sentiments
towards LGBTIQ communities in Nepal, and the impact of securitisation on
marginalised communities in Indonesia. Jean has worked as a Public
Information Consultant for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner
for Human Rights. She tweets at

Being one of the most culturally-diverse countries in the
world, the Philippines is home to at least 17 million indigenous peoples
(IPs) belonging to 110 ethnolinguistic groups (United Nations Development
Programme, 2010). While they are recognised on paper through the 1987
Constitution and further protected by the Republic Act 8371, the reality is
different on the ground.

Now more than ever, IPs in
the Philippines are facing increased securitisation from the state. It should
be remembered that in July of 2017, Philippine President Duterte threatened
to bomb Lumad schools for allegedly spreading subversive
ideas and communism (Lingao, 2017). The government has also recently secured
a $211.2 million loan from China Exim Bank to build Kaliwa
Dam in northern Luzon in the face of disapproval from local IP groups in the
area (CNN Philippines Staff, 2020).

antagonistic attitude of the administration towards IPs sits on top of
intergenerational oppression, violence and discrimination (Ty, 2010). As most
IPs in the Philippines live in far-flung areas where access to health
facilities is inadequate (International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs),
they already experience lower health indicators and are no strangers to
infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and leprosy (Global Alliance for
Rabies Control, 2018). This means that the global COVID-19 pandemic not only
deepens pre-existent forms of omission but also presents a severe threat to
their very existence.

Land disputes and IPs in the
country have an extensive and bloody history, especially in the island of
Mindanao (Chandran, 2018). This has put thousands of IPs in a situation of
necessity to escape their homeland and move to the capital to avoid being
caught in the clash between state forces and non-state armed rebels (Delizo,
2019). However, the situation in Manila never offered them a safe zone. The
presence of the pathogen further aggravates intersecting ‘everyday’
vulnerabilities that IPs face in the capital.

The Philippine government has romanticised
the pandemic as something that uniformly affects people from all walks of
life. They took advantage of the resilience of the Filipino people amidst
catastrophes (Department of Foreign Affairs, 2020). It feels as if they are
suggesting that people living in gated subdivisions have the same experience
as the displaced IP communities living on the streets of Manila, who were
mostly dependent on the informal economy which crumbled as a result of the
lockdown. As they watch their livelihoods shatter, they go an extra mile to
put food on their table in the middle of the lockdown where they can face
frightening and lop-sided responses from security forces. COVID-19 has become
a piece of equipment for the government to suppress human rights under the
guise of ‘emergency power’ (ul Khaliq, 2020). Duterte, for instance,
instructed security forces to shoot people dead who are not following
quarantine orders (Capatides, 2020; International Work Group for Indigenous
Affairs, 2020). This has empowered the police force to abuse their power in
various ways, including confining people to dog cages and coffins (Human
Rights Watch, 2020).
There is politics in pandemics. As the
health crisis persists, local government units would prioritise people in
their electorates, which means that displaced communities living in those
cities would be discounted from any ‘ayuda
or cash relief programmes.

The situation in the
Philippines confirms that the perils generated by COVID-19 should not only be
measured by the R-naught alone. It correspondingly divulges the established
and evolving challenges that IPs confront in their everyday lives and during
times of emergencies. As long as the government repudiates to acknowledge the
pain and suffering of IPs, we will never escape that loophole. Instead of
prioritising militarisation and red-tagging, the government should allow
self-determined indigenous communities to devise and run their own COVID-19
roadmap plan. IP communities know best what kind of assistance they need to
not only survive the pandemic but also create a sustainable environment where
their lives and cultures can flourish in the long


Capatides, C. (2020, 2 April). “Shoot them dead”: Philippine
President Rodrigo Duterte orders police and military to kill citizens who
defy coronavirus lockdown. CBS News. Retrieved

Chandran, R. (2018, 19 April). Driven from home, Philippine
indigenous people long for their land. Reuters. Retrieved

CNN Philippines Staff.
(2020, 3 March ). Construction of China-funded Kaliwa Dam eyed by July –
Panelo News. CNN Philippines. Retrieved

Delizo, M. (2019, 30 March). One, two… flee: Lumad teens
find refuge in Manila, pursue studies. ABSCBN News.
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Department of Foreign Affairs. (2020, 22 June). DOST
Secretary Highlights Filipino Natural Resiliency, Creativity in Responding to
COVID-19 Pandemic at UN High-Level Debate. Retrieved

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Defenders [Press release]. Retrieved from

Lingao, A. (2017, 25 July). Duterte threatens to bomb Lumad
schools News. CNN Philippines. Retrieved

R. (2010). Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines: Continuing
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Khaliq, R. (2020, 23 March). COVID-19: Philippines President seeks emergency
powers, News. AA. Retrieved from

United Nations Development Programme. (2010).
Fast Facts: Indigenous Peoples in the Philippines.
Retrieved from


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