Seeking Leadership in the Philippines Pandemic Response

Authors: Gideon Lasco, University of the Philippines and Vincen Gregory Yu, Ateneo de Manila University

In the wake of the Omicron variant, many Southeast Asian countries are warming up to the idea of ​​living with COVID-19, as a manageable endemic disease, and guiding people to live in this “new normality” is the most realistic path. .

Manila’s notorious traffic jams are back after Philippine authorities reopened public facilities to full capacity. Cinemas in Hanoi have resumed operations after a nine-month closure. And in Singapore, other countries have been added to the “Vaccinated Travel Lane” program, which allows entry of fully vaccinated travelers without quarantine.

But as the region begins to move beyond the pandemic, there are lessons to be learned from how countries have responded to the pandemic. In many countries, the burden of transmission mitigation has been placed squarely on the shoulders of ordinary people. This has diverted attention – and primary responsibility – from governments.

The Philippines, which suffered the worst Omicron surge in the region, exemplifies this “individual empowerment”. For example, a major element of the country’s response to the pandemic has been an emphasis on the use of personal protective equipment for the general public, at their own expense. This has extended to mandates on the use of face shields – even outdoors – despite limited scientific evidence on their effectiveness or practicality.

The haste with which this policy was passed contrasts with the government’s reluctance to carry out mass testing and implement contact tracing. His slow recognition of the airborne nature of COVID-19 has also prevented larger-scale systemic changes to improve ventilation in schools, workplaces and other public spaces.

Policies to limit transport and mobility, particularly at the start of the pandemic, also demanded compliance from individuals without regard to the varying needs that the government should have provided. For example, public transport was suspended immediately in March 2020 with no clear relief measures in place, stranding essential workers in their workplaces and forcing them to walk long distances to and from their homes.

Curfews were imposed without notice, leading to clashes between law enforcement and detained commuters at checkpoints. Policies to adhere to social distancing guidelines led to indiscriminate arrests of motorcyclists and, for a time, absurd, even dangerous, plastic barriers between motorcycle riders and passengers.

Social distancing measures have been largely performative. On one occasion, the Philippines health secretary was spotted in a market measuring the physical distance between individuals with a tape measure. Although quick to implement stay-at-home and physical distancing recommendations, the government has failed to adequately create the conditions under which this would be reasonable. It has been slow to provide material and financial aid, especially to low-income families who depend on a daily wage for their daily sustenance. Some policies were counterproductive, such as unnecessary checkpoints and restrictions on business hours that caused overcrowding.

None of this is new to the milieu that has long shaped the Philippines’ largely privatized health landscape, which places individuals, not the state, in charge of their health. By encouraging the ethic of individual responsibility, the government has paved the way for a safe and disciplinary approach to the pandemic. People who don’t follow health protocols are tagged”dead’careless and disobedient.

The concept of “discipline” — a decades-old populist trope reminiscent of the Marcos dictatorship — has become an overarching theme in the Philippine narrative of COVID-19. At the same time, senior officials, from senators to police chiefs, are brazenly flouting the rules they are supposed to enforce without consequence. Two years into a pandemic that has repeatedly spiraled out of control, the government’s law and order approach to the health crisis has only exposed its double standards in enforcement. of the law.

Marginalized sectors of Philippine society have suffered an escalation of state-sanctioned violence throughout the pandemic. Extrajudicial executions related to the war on drugs of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte have increased exponentially during the strictest shutdowns of 2020. The persecution of activists and human rights defenders has continued, while indigenous populations are victims of discrimination and harassment due to their continued defense of ancestral territory.

This disproportionate effect of the pandemic on the marginalized is not unique to the Philippines. Similar results are also documented in other countries in the region, even those that have been more successful in containing the pandemic or that have shown greater leadership.

People who use or inject illicit drugs have been particularly disadvantaged. Lockdowns in Vietnam and Indonesia have severely hampered access to harm reduction services. In Thailand, police have exploited local COVID-19 checkpoints to search and test people suspected of drug use. Prisoners have also been excessively exposed to COVID-19, as overcrowded prisons in countries like Thailand and Myanmar have struggled to keep the virus at bay, even with decongestion efforts like early release orders.

A Vietnamese rubber company took advantage of lockdown orders and destroyed several sacred sites belonging to indigenous communities in Cambodia. Migrant workers in Singapore and Malaysia faced severe discrimination, in addition to facing more precarious working and living conditions.

The result has been that oppressive and discriminatory government actions against the most vulnerable have undermined state-instituted responses to the pandemic. In the Philippines, largely privatized testing costs and a militaristic approach to quarantine have made ordinary people, especially the poor, reluctant to seek treatment.

While vaccine hesitancy has posed a significant challenge to quelling the pandemic in the region, this hesitation stems in part from the failure of governments to address people’s concerns about and beyond vaccination. These include fears of arrest among undocumented migrants and refugees living in Malaysia if they avail themselves of vaccines, widespread misinformation on social media in the Philippines, and the religious and conflicting contexts behind hesitation in Indonesia.

The ideal response to the pandemic is a public health approach that takes into account the structural and social determinants of health. Global and national governing bodies must work hand-in-hand with all segments of the community to promote nationwide responses such as vaccination campaigns and coordinated health information campaigns. Individuals can then play their part through measures such as masking and social distancing.

To truly “heal as one” – as the Philippine government’s mantra has been – and better cope with future outbreaks, the government must be prepared to take primary responsibility for pandemic responses and take socio-cultural factors into account. and broader structural issues that make populations safer (or more vulnerable) to health crises.

Gideon Lasco is a senior lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of the Philippines Diliman, a research fellow in the Development Studies Program at Ateneo de Manila University, and an honorary member of the Center for Criminology at the University of Hong Kong.

Vincen Gregory Yu is a medical doctor and associate researcher in the Development Studies Program at Ateneo de Manila University.

This article appeared in the latest edition of East Asia Quarterly Forum“East Asia Economic Agreement”, vol 14, n° 1.

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