April 3, 2020
We are taking you to our various operating areas. Over there, there is no escape from Covid-19 either. What consequences of this pandemic do they see? What is their biggest fear, and where do they find hope? We talk with colleagues and partners. Here, we will share their stories.
Covid-19 and the Philippines
January 30, the first person in the Philippines tests positive for Covid-19. February 1, the second person has died of causes related to the virus. On March 9, a state of emergency has been declared. On March 15 and 16, quarantine measures have been implemented in Manilla and, by extension, the entire island of Luzon. Depending on the number of confirmed infections, local authorities in other areas decide whether quarantine is imposed or not.
A conversation with our partners teaches us about the president’s “special authority”, about the way solidarity and violence go hand in hand in society, and how the real danger, bigger than Covid-19, is a creeping famine and a faltering health system.
“Why not a medical solution for a medical crisis? Why do the military and the police get more power? Why is there a strict quarantine with numerous checkpoints that strongly complicate trade? Why not make maximum efforts to protect health workers? Where is the government support for food supply and livelihood?”
What are you doing, Mr. President?
The faith in the president is very fragile. When he addresses the people, more questions than answers arise. He is certainly not a shining example of trust, but rather a target of ridicule on social media after his statement on how he would ‘knock back’ the virus.
Nevertheless, on March 24, the president received special powers (emergency powers) of the Philippine parliament to fight Covid-19. For example, he was put in charge of private hospitals and companies, which allows him to make decisions about, among other things, patient transportation. He can also oblige companies to prioritize the production of medical supplies, and he can rearrange government funds. To date, he has promised to allocate these funds for the Covid-19 measures, but it remains a wait-and-see situation regarding the concrete effects of it.
Critical voices from progressive circles question the new powers that President Duterte received. They fear abuse and corruption.
It is striking to see that politicians and people with influence are given privileges in access to tests and medical assistance, despite the fact that they often do not adhere to the imposed quarantine protocols.
“Horrifying stories of abuse reach us: rule violators get locked up in dog cages by the military and the police, they receive a lot of beating or are forced to sit in the afternoon sun.”
The victims of the crisis
Clearly, the common man is already the biggest victim of the crisis in the Philippines. Farmers are experiencing major transportation challenges: they do not get through the checkpoints in time to sell their products on the market. In addition, it becomes difficult for them to reach the fields in the first place in order to harvest their products, because currently, a special pass is required for it.
In addition, 11 milion people are employed in the informal economy in Luzon. They count on their wages on a daily basis and have no savings buffers. Due to the larger cities being completely shut down by the quarantine measures, many of them will return to their native villages for economic reasons.
Some local authorities meet the basic needs of the poor (or they try to). It comes from their local budgets, and it is estimated not to last for a very long time. Therefore, the government funds that President Duterte will allocate are eagerly awaited.
It is estimated that at least 18 million households will be in need of food.
Even though most of the vegetables and fruit are produced locally, there is already some fear about food sufficiency. Farmers can no longer get on their land or on the market, food processing factories are running at half forces because the public transport has come to a standstill and workers thus cannot reach the workplace any longer, and some imports have stopped: Thailand and Vietnam , for example, have already halted exports of rice. Cynically enough, since last year, the Philippines has been focusing more on rice import dependency through the hotly contested new law on the liberalization of the rice market.
It looks like the majority of the Filipinos will not be able to have a healthy and varied diet during the coming weeks.
The current Philippine health system is not prepared for a crisis of this magnitude. Patients are already being sent home without care because overcapacity has been reached. In addition, there is an acute shortage of personal protective equipment for health workers. Already 12 doctors are deceased due to the virus, and this figure is expected to rise in the coming period. Despite of the red ribbons that you can spot everywhere, comparable to our Belgian white sheets, there is also persistent mistrust and even discrimination against health workers.
“Sometimes, fear takes over. A nurse was attacked with an acid while shopping. It will potentially affect his vision. And why? Just because he is a nurse and may carry the virus. It is terrible, and unfortunately not the only story about aggression towards health workers.”
The health system in the Philippines has been neglected for years. In 2016, a shortage of 15 000 doctors was recorded. On top of that, between 2016-2019, the health budgets have only shrunk. In addition, privatization of public hospitals has quickly emerged. The remaining public hospitals are struggling with shortages of staff and cannot handle the influx of sick patients. Patients are being sent home without any examination, and they are being told to ‘self-quarantine’.
“There are problems with the test kits. People are not being tested, they die, and it is only after their death that their family becomes aware that their loved one died from Covid-19. Thus, the figures from the official authorities are certainly not the accurate ones.”
These poignant conditions are not holding our partners back, though. They work from home, just like we do. Major mobilizations have been postponed, but online campaigns with infographics and petitions have started. Their great fear is that this crisis will lead to more oppression instead of protecting the people. The choice to tackle this medical crisis militarily raises many eyebrows. The national action plan will be led by military and police, that is what President Duterte announced after receiving his special powers. This only fuels fears that Covid-19 will become ‘the new terrorism’ in the Philippines, a country that is already known for its questionable image when it comes to respecting Universal Human Rights.
“In Mindanao, we have already observed in the past that the introduction of a martial law increased violations of human rights. These new measures could have serious consequences for the population and their freedom. Many attacks on freedom of expression have already been reported. Recently, the distribution of ‘fake news’ has become punishable by imprisonment. A woman asked on Facebook why her region did not receive any relief supplies (which, by the way, was the truth), yet the government still arrested her under the guise of fake news. ”
Food donations, personal protective equipment for health workers, temporary shelter for the homeless, the spreading of information materials, hotlines, vegetable delivery services, online campaigns and protests,…these are some of the particularly hopeful initiatives taken by individual citizens, civil society organisations and our partners.
“The bayanihan, or the culture of helping others, is the glimmer of hope we can see during this crisis. The people are not solely waiting for help from the government, but now, they are also acting independently to help their neighbours by any possible means.”
Shall we clap for health care workers from the Philippines as well tonight? Solidargo wishes its sharp-witted partners in the Philippines a lot of courage and perseverance, good health and a sufficient amount of healthy food for everyone!
UPDATE: Televised address April 1
On the morning of April 2, the spectacular statements made by President Duterte have reached us: ‘shoot to kill’ (shoot them dead). The televised address came after an incident in San Roque where residents had called for emergency aid. The police violently ended this cry for help, and 21 people got arrested.
The incident, including the president's reaction afterwards, is strongly condemned by progressive groups, as well as by our partners. Many of the Filipinos also express their anger about this situation through social media, using the hashtag #OustDuterteNOW.
Unfortunately, all of this confirms our suspicion that Covid-19 is perceived and treated as the ‘new terrorism’, which makes the line of humanity seem to be blurred.
Together with our partners, Solidagro strives for sustainable food systems and for agricultural practices that are safe and healthy. Hereby, agroecology is the system that we put forward. Eat locally and seasonally, that is one of our golden pieces of advice. Read more about it on www.solidargo.be
Author: Debby Deconinck, communication officer Solidargo, after several conversations with partners in the Philippines. Translation: Ekaterina Anikeeva