Editor’s Note: William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has built his regime on fear and repression, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that his response to the Covid-19 crisis is following the same script. Unless there is a sharp change of direction, the results of this military-driven approach will be disastrous for the Filipino people.
I have taken a particular interest in the situation in the Philippines in my role as an expert on US arms transfer policy, because I am interested in the consequences of US weapons sales to repressive regimes. The Duterte government is high on that list. Duterte’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic raises further questions about the nature of his regime and the wisdom of continuing to arm his military and police forces.
As occurred in the United States, Duterte downplayed the threat posed by the virus, criticizing a “hysterical” public response in early February. Now that the virus is spreading throughout the country, the Duterte regime has adopted an extreme, militarized approach to a massive public health challenge
On March 24, Duterte was granted extraordinary emergency powers by the Philippine Congress, which has allowed him to direct hospitals and public transit, and to reallocate funds in the 2020 budget, to fight Covid-19. Critics have said the powers go beyond what is needed to address the virus and will merely entrench the current government.
“NO TO EMERGENCY POWERS!” wrote Jay Batongbacal, a law professor at the University of the Philippines, in a Facebook post suggesting Duterte is abusing the powers he already has. And Edre Olalia of the National Union of People’s Lawyers, a group of Filipino attorneys, described the emergency measures as “a rehearsal for martial law,” during an April 1 webinar sponsored by the Malaya Movement, a Filipino human rights group.
As of Friday, the Philippines had recorded 428 deaths from Covid-19 and 6,459 confirmed cases, according to data maintained by Johns Hopkins University. Al Jazeera has reported that military and police checkpoints are ubiquitous in Manila, the Philippine capital.
Protective equipment has been in short supply, according to health workers, though on April 1 the government said it had acquired $35 million worth of it and was awaiting delivery. Some was delivered last week, and the country has begun producing more locally, according to the government.
A telling fact with respect to Duterte’s approach is that, as of early April, his regime had arrested almost as many people for violating Covid-19 curfews and lockdowns as it had tested for the virus. Also in early April, protesters were arrested after demanding government relief aid, which has taken weeks to begin reaching the country’s poorest residents, with the first batch of unemployed workers receiving support March 25-26 and the first tranche of cash delivered to the poor in early April.
During the pandemic lockdown, the government has censored journalists and at least one critic on Facebook, according to Human Rights Watch. On April 1, Duterte went on television and said that his instructions to the military and police enforcing quarantines were, “If they become unruly and they fight you and your lives are endangered, shoot them dead!”
Though the country’s legislature declined to give Duterte more far-reaching powers – an initial bill sought to give him the power to take over private companies and utilities, for instance, to fight Covid-19 – but any additional powers are a bad idea, in the case of a leader who governs through threats, has bragged of personally killing people and seems to know no restraint.
While the US grants a president some authority to direct companies toward emergency production during a crisis, and while many have called for President Donald Trump to make more aggressive use of that statute, granting more power to Duterte is understandably far more concerning.
Duterte’s violent approach to Covid-19 is in line with his “war on drugs.” Since the start of the drug war, nearly 30,000 had been killed during that campaign, as of one estimate made last spring. The regime specializes in suspected extrajudicial killings, carried out without benefit of charges or a trial.
While it has militarized the streets and given orders to shoot and kill anyone fighting back and threatening security forces’ lives, the Duterte regime has given the military near total control of the relief effort, with the body overseeing its disbursement of aid controlled by a panel of current and ex-generals.
At least one hospital has raised the issue of lacking protective equipment, while Amnesty International’s Philippines executive director has accused security forces of “putting curfew violators inside dog cages” and “beating up people with sticks.”