Covid 19, the Neo-liberal policies and Chinese Imperialism (Part2)

By Prof. Edberto Malvar Villegas, PhD

(This article is presented in two parts and will be given in three posts. The first part covers “Covid 19 in the Phillippines”, “The Imperialist Neo-Liberal Policies of the IMF-WB-WTO”, and the “The Neo-Liberal Policies and US Overproduction”. The second part comprises “The Emergence of Chinese Imperialism”, “China’s AIIB”, “China’s Debt Trap”, “The US-China Rivalry and Covid 19” and the “Conclusion”. While the rapid spread of Covid 19 in the Philippines is due to its poor health system because of the policies of the IMF-WB, the virus was directly caused by the easy entry of Chinese nationals into the country due to the too open accommodation of the Duterte’s administration of Chinese imperialism.)

The Emergence of Chinese Imperialism

China entered into the global trade during the period of Deng Xiaoping, after the death in 1976 of Mao Tse-tung, (founding father of the Chinese People’s Republic), the incarceration and eventual deaths of the so-called Gang of Four in 1978 and the purge and executions of around 20,000 Maoists (adherents to the ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism) who were leading cadres of Mao’s cultural revolution. China’s GDP grew by leaps and bounds, reaching 11% in the late 1990’s due to very low workers’ wages in government corporations in partnerships with foreign MNCs, mostly US and Japanese, located in free trade zones. Deng restored capitalism in China and considered the establishments of free trade zones as vital part of his so-called four modernization program. Hundreds of millions Chinese workers in sweat shops in the trade zones were receiving the lowest wages in the world ($2/day) and the number of those living below the poverty line in China was growing at a fast rate. (Pao-yu Ching, 2010) Soon, an emergent Chinese bourgeoisie, based on trading activities and mostly former government bureaucrats were amassing great wealth in tandem with corrupt government officials so that by the first decade of the 21th century, China had the most number of billionaires in the world. (Forbes) The new rich were living in the cities, particularly in Shanghai and Beijing, while the vast Chinese majority (60%) of its population belonging to the lower classes, earning below $2 to $20/day were mostly inhabitants in the provinces. (Pew Research Center, 2015) Thirty-nine percent of the Chinese people are middle class and 1% occupies the upper echelons of society, which include billionaire businessmen and politicians.

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte poses for posterity with People’s Republic of China Vice President Wang Qishan who paid a courtesy call on the President at the Foshan International Sports and Cultural Center in Guangdong on August 31, 2019. (Palace photo)

Since the Chinese elite political leadership in China has grown to be a totalitarian state after the demise of Mao who called for a rule of the working masses, it began to suppress dissent from workers and students regarding its economic and political policies. In 1989, the Chinese government massacred with tanks and machine guns around 10,000 demonstrators, led by students and workers, in Tianamen Square in Beijing. The demonstrators were criticizing government corruptions and asking for democratic reforms and transparency from their political leaders. (BBC, Dec. 23, 2017) Since then, protests in China have occurred in far-off provinces mostly launched by striking workers and miners, especially in the provinces of Guangdong and Heilonging. (China Labor Bulletin) In 2018, however, millions of protesters led by students erupted in the territory of Hong Kong, demanding democratic reforms. For China to call itself still a Communist country is a misnomer since Marxist communism, to which Mao adheres, advocates the abolition of capitalism, the disappearance of the state and the prioritization of the welfare of the poor classes. The current Chinese regime has called its kind of state (bureaucrat) capitalism as actually socialism with “Chinese characteristics” as envisioned by Mao! Mao may be restlessly turning in his grave.

China accumulated tremendous surplus capital from the surplus value created by underpaid workers in the factories of the comprador and bureaucrat capitalists. China began lending this surplus capital to other nations for it to earn interest. In the late 1990’s, China’s bourgeoisie targeted Africa as the region it can mostly dump its surplus goods and capital, using its strategy of a “debt diplomacy” to aggressively penetrate the continent. Some Chinese critics of their government have accused it of turning Africa into its “second continent” to exploit the latter’s very rich natural resources. Africa supplies a third of Chinese oil and is very abundant, among other natural resources, with manganese and cobalt, the first used as ingredient for steel production and the second for electronics.(Forbes, Aug.4, 2018) Soon 10,000 Chinese companies, bringing Chinese workers with them, were set up in Africa and the continent became the foremost area for Chinese imperialism.

In order to receive favorable concessions, the Sino government, particularly that of the current president Xi Jinping, began unloading their huge surplus capital, derived from the wage slavery of Chinese workers as debts to African countries like Zambia, Nigeria, Kenya, Djibouti and others. As of 2020, total African debt to China is $200 billion, or 15% of its external debts. Beijing started to bribe corrupt African politicians and were able to impose debt contracts advantageous to China.

African critics have accused China of building infrastructures, highways, buildings, bridges, etc. using poor and overpriced materials. These critics specially mention cutting costs by Chinese contractors for the shoddy infrastructures they build in Africa. (Forbes, ibid.) It is to be noted at this point that bridges and buildings in China, for that matter, have been collapsing due to lack of government biddings and a non-transparent government. As one Chinese furniture maker says, “Who will police the police?” so that he says the Chinese people are so used to sloppy government constructions in their country. (Morning edition, Aug. 2012) For instance, from April 2011 to August 2012 alone,  eight major bridges collapsed in China, the most known of which was the $300 million Yangmingtan bridge in Harbin City which broke only after less than 2 years of operation. It is the same situation with buildings with the latest the Xinjia Express Hotel, being used to house Covid 19 patients in the city of Wenshou, collapsing in March, 2020, with 10 dead. On May, 2019, a Shanghai building collapsed with 25 dead and in October of the same year several buildings housing migrant workers stumbled to the ground in the province of Wenghou with 22 dead. (smartcities. Dive site)


President Rodrigo Roa Duterte gives a warm welcome to Communist Party of China (CPC) Chongqing Party Chief Chen Min’er who paid a courtesy call on the President at the Malacañan Palace on September 16, 2019. (Palace photo)

China’s Asian Infrastructure and the AIIB

In 2015, China established the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank) for Chinese capitalists to rival US imperialist dominance in the world economy and as an alternative to the WB and its regional bank in Asia, the Asian Development Bank (ADB). Though AIIB’s capital at $100 billion is only about half of WB’s and its membership totals 84 compared to WB’s 189, the goal of this government-controlled bank is to extend China’s trade influence over other countries by funding the so-called Belt and Silk Road through Asia, Africa, Europe and eventually to the Americas. It is envisioned to achieve this ambitious project by spending from $4 to $8 trillion by the year 2049 through the expansions of infrastructures, highway complexes, railroads, ports, airports, etcetera along the Belt and Silk Road. China’s philosophy of development is supposed to be based on building mega infrastructures which it poses against the export-oriented development policy of the IMF-WB-WTO.

The Belt Road, which is actually a maritime route, would cover the South China Sea, the South Pacific Ocean, and a wide part of the Indian Ocean. Does one have to wonder why China is aggressively pushing for the control of the South China Sea, including the rich resources under it, at the expense of the Philippines under its slavishly subservient to China, President Rodrigo Duterte? The gains of countries which participate in the Belt and Silk Road project have, however, been one-sided, to say the least, in favor of China. For instance, between 2014 to 2016, the trade volume of China along the Belt and Silk Road exceeded $3 trillion, but only created $1.1 billion revenues and 180,000 new jobs for countries involved. (Wikepedia) Overproduction, the inherent contradiction of capitalism, in Chinese factories have grown since the late 1990’s and this is the reason China relies heavily on the export of goods as well as capital, the latter primarily through the AIIB, to maintain its high growth rate. Overproduction has led to hundreds of thousands of goods worth $64 billion stockpiled in factories, representing one-fifth of China’s total production. (Chicago Tribune, Feb. 4, 1997) #

(Conclusion/Section 2 of Part 2: China’s Debt Trap, US-China’s Rivalry and Covid 19)

= = = =

The author is a retired Social Sciences Professor of the University of the Philippines-Manila and De La Salle University. He is also a novelist and an author of several books on many topics.

Covid 19, the Neo-liberal policies and Chinese Imperialism (Part I)

By Prof. Edberto Malvar Villegas, PhD

(This article is presented in two parts and will be given in three posts. The first part covers “Covid 19 in the Phillippines”, “The Imperialist Neo-Liberal Policies of the IMF-WB-WTO”, and the “The Neo-Liberal Policies and US Overproduction”. The second part comprises “The Emergence of Chinese Imperialism”, “China’s AIIB”, “China’s Debt Trap”, “The US-China Rivalry and Covid 19” and the “Conclusion”. While the rapid spread of Covid 19 in the Philippines is due to its poor health system because of the policies of the IMF-WB, the virus was directly caused by the easy entry of Chinese nationals into the country due to the too open accommodation of the Duterte’s administration of Chinese imperialism.)

Covid 19 in the Philippines

The Covid 19 pandemic has put into full light the long neglect of the Philippine government of its health system because of its strict adherence to the neo-liberal policies of deregulation and privatization initiated by the Group of 7 capitalist nations, led by the United States, in the developing countries, starting in the latter 1970’s. Private hospitals in the Philippines, which purchase their drugs and other medical supplies from the foreign multinational companies (MNCs) have continuously increased their prices, as the government has abided by the deregulation policy. Hospitalization for an ordinary Filipino worker costs three months or more of his monthly wages. Even government hospitals like the Philippine General Hospital ], because of government low priority for health, have hiked their fees and reduced the number of their free patients to still remain viable. Further, the Duterte government is planning to privatize 33 out of 72 government hospitals like the National Orthopedic Center, the National Center for Mental Health, the Eastern Visayas Regional Medical Center, Dr. Jesus Fabella Maternity Hospital and others. (InquirerNet) These policies of deregulation of prices and eventual privatization of public hospitals have compromised the quality of health services extended to the general public so that when Covid 19 came roaring into our shores, brought by Chinese tourists, there was a dire lack of PPE (personal protective equipment) like face masks and shields, long sleeve gowns, gloves and respirators for health workers. Ventilators and hospital beds for Covid 19 patients were inadequate. Testing for the virus was also very limited so that people may not even be aware that their neighbor is already Covid positive.

The Philippines due to its unprepared health system, coupled with the gross incompetence of Duterte has become No. 1 by April 15, 2020 with Covid positive people in Southeast Asia with 5,222 cases and 335 deaths followed by Malaysia with 4,917 cases and 77 deaths. (Statista) The martial-law like implementation of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ), only in the Philippines, has added more sufferings to the inhabitants of Luzon apart from the high costs of hospitalization if they catch the virus.

The low regard of the Philippine government for the health of its people compared to its payment of foreign debts is shown by the constant decrease of its health budget through the years. For example, from 2016 to 2020, the health budget declined by 11% from P113 billion to P101 billion. (Department of Health [DOH] website) The DOH’s measly P101 billion budget in the 2020 General Appropriations Act is far below that of the payment for interest alone for foreign and local debts of P451 billion and the budget for the Armed Forces at P192 billion in the same year.(2020 national budget) In the Philippines there is only one doctor to every 33,000 Filipinos when the required ratio should be 1 to 1000 and it is worse for the number of nurses at 1 to 50,000. Thousands of Filipino nurses and doctors go abroad to work since there is a lack of job opportunities in the country and salaries are very low. This is why six out of 10 Filipinos die without seeing a doctor. (IBON) Philhealth, which seeks to lower the costs of hospitalization, has been mired in corruption and some have even called for its abolition.

Private hospitals cannot be relied upon to meet the growing health needs of Fillpinos because their expertise are concentrated on the sickness of the rich like cancer and heart diseases and give less priority to contagious diseases like the Covid 19 pandemic which hit the poor the most. Infectious diseases fall under the category of public health concerns which government hospitals are supposed to be more expected to address. Private hospitals exist primarily to profit from the sick after all and not for public service. The inequity of Philippine society has come to the fore because of the Covid pandemic with more poor dying from it than the rich. This is further exacerbated because the costs of medicines in the Philippines are also the highest in Southeast Asia, benefiting the foreign pharmaceutical MNCs like Pfizer, Wyeth, Sanofi Aventis and Abbot that dominate the drug industry in the country.

Photo by Joseph Cuevas/Kodao

The Neo-Liberal Policies of the IMF-WB-WTO

The reason why the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the implementers of neo-liberal policies in the Philippines, have demanded privatization and deregulation in the country’s health system is that these financial institutions, both dominated by US capital, want the government to prioritize the payments of foreign debts obtained from the Group of 7 nations. The priority for the defrayment of debts has been made legal by PD 1177, an obsolete law passed during the martial law regime of Marcos which should have long been abolished after EDSA I. This law allows the automatic appropriation for debts in the national budget so that if our debts grow so huge, there may be zero budget left for health and other social services like education and social welfare. This is why the government, in order to meet its debt obligations, has also squeezed more taxes like Train 1 and 2 (VATs required by the IMF-WB) from the masses since the rich has preferential treatment for decrease in taxes from the Duterte regime.

Among all nations, the Philippines has been the most obedient client of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) with 34 stand-by agreements with this institution (completed in 2002). The debts of the Philippines from the IMF-World Bank (WB)consortium has resulted in the high foreign debts of the country, reaching $83.7 billion at present (2020), which still includes the debts absconded by Marcos and his family and new loans from Chinese banks (to be discussed later). The Duterte government has borrowed the greatest percentage of our foreign debts during only its four years in office. (IBON)

Accompanying the stand-by agreements with the IMF are the structural adjustment programs (SAPs) dictated by the WB as conditions for new loans from it and the Fund and from their bank clubs, called the London club and the Paris club. Capitalist banks need to acquire profits from their surplus capital and those of their big depositors, the industrial and commercial capitalists, and they do this by lending this capital to other nations, particularly in the Third World for it to earn interests instead of just lying idle. Loans of surplus capital, particularly to other sovereign nations, also aid the capitalist countries to offset the falling rate of profit due to overproduction in the firms of the industrial capitalists. (To be discussed below) And the IMF-WB, their protector, make sure that those who borrow this surplus capital from capitalist banks and their investors will pay their debts on time. Thus, the stand-by agreements of the Fund and the SAPs of the Bank. The tie-up between the financial capitalists who own banks and other financial institutions with the industrial capitalists(commercial capitalists sell the goods of the industrial capitalists) is what constitutes the “financial oligarchy” or monopoly capitalism(imperialism).

The WB, various SAPs-covered industry, the energy sector, the financial sector and agriculture

The main thrust of these SAPs is trade liberalization in developing countries, aside from its policies of privatization and deregulation. Trade liberalization of goods was more fervidly pushed after the long-delayed founding of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995. WTO became the third member of the capitalist triad, apart from the Fund and the Bank. The Philippine Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) in 1996 with the WTO has become the most oppressive of all the country’s trade agreements with the capitalist nations, killing local agriculture particularly the planting of staple crops of rice and corn, and pauperizing millions of Filipino peasants and farm workers. The capitalist nations, particularly the US, were dumping their surplus agricultural products on the Philippines to avoid overproduction. The increasing importation of rice by the country demanded by AoA eventually made the Philippines to become the no. 1 importer of this crop in the world by early 2000 in spite of its very fertile soil. There were extensive land conversions accompanying the AoA, favoring the comprador bourgeoisie in the real-estate business, like the Villars and the Ayalas, because agricultural lands were being turned into subdivisions and leisure places for the rich like golf courses and high-class resorts.

Photo by Joseph Cuevas/Kodao

The Neo-liberal Policies and US Overproduction

The neo-liberal policies, particularly trade liberalization, were adopted by the capitalist triad due to the growing crisis of overproduction of goods of US monopoly capitalism or imperialism, which started to manifest itself again in the middle of the 1970’s after a lull of 25 years.(Brenner, 1998) After the war periods which ended in 1976, comprising World War II, the Korean and the Vietnam wars, the rate of profits of US corporations were falling by a worrying 40% caused by overproduction of goods as production for wars has ceased. It is always profitable for the US military industrial complex (MIC) or the American monopoly capitalists to have wars in the world so that they can sell their war materiel to the US government which cost so high. It is to be noted that during the US war with Iraq in 2003, the American economy grew by 4.3%, the highest after the lull and never attained since then. After hot war periods (the US MIC’s profit from the cold war with the USSR was less compared to the hot wars), in order to offset the continuing decline in their rates of profits, more and more US corporations and even other foreign corporations were turning to the financial market, particularly the stock market to sell and buy stocks and other financial papers, for their surplus capital to earn profits through credits. This is the reason why after hot wars, bubble economies grow and burst, victimizing ordinary people who also buy the stocks of the capitalists. The worst of such bursting after the 1929 Great Depression in the US caused by a plunge of stock values in Wall St. was the financial crisis of 2008, which also originated in Wall St., the center of world capitalist activities.

The growing poverty in the developing countries, which includes the Philippines, manifested, among other social factors, by the inaccessibility of the poor to affordable health care is due to the imperialist neo-liberal policies implemented by the IMF-WB. (From Adjustments Effects on Child Welfare, Cornia, 1990) In truth, there has long been a pandemic of poverty among the lower echelons of society in the developing countries as shown by the fact that in the Philippines alone, 85 children on the average die every day due to malnourishment, 31,000 per year, higher than from any contagious disease that has visited the country.(Save the Children. org) This is a foregone conclusion since the SAPs affecting the health systems and other aspects of society and the payments of their foreign debts cause the client state of the Group of 7 to suffer budget deficits and they are made to raise more taxes to continue paying their debts and to balance their budgets. The IMF stand-by agreements are euphemistically called by the IMF-WB as “stabilization programs” to attain supposedly stable economic fundamentals, meaning for governments to balance their budgets with savings to boot, the latter of course adding to the defrayment of foreign debts. #

(Part II: Covid 19, the Neo-liberal policies and Chinese Imperialism)

= = = =

The author is a retired Social Sciences Professor of the University of the Philippines-Manila and De La Salle University. He is also a novelist and an author of several books on many topics.

There’s funding to respond to COVID-19 – the problem is at the top

By Sonny Africa

The Duterte administration is still not clear on what its COVID-19 response is and how much this will cost. On top of that, it also doesn’t know how to fund this because it refuses to let go of its sacred cows – infrastructure, debt service, and the accumulated wealth and profits of the country’s economic elite.

Millions of poor Filipino families are suffering the worst mass unemployment in the country’s history because of the military lockdown since March. This has even been extended for another two weeks. Yet, tragically, the nation still does not know how far it really is in dealing with its worst public health crisis ever.

It is over two months since the first confirmed case of COVID-19, nearly four weeks into the unprecedented lockdown, and over two weeks into pandemic emergency powers. The Duterte administration’s confusion and disarray in responding is unforgiveable and a disservice to the heroic efforts of so many Filipinos including in the lower levels of government and private sector volunteers.

Even worse, based on what little we know, the Duterte administration’s response is not just unclear but also slow and stingy. This means that millions of Filipinos are facing more difficulties today than ever, and also that there will be a deeper socioeconomic crisis going on long after the lockdown is lifted.

Billions to respond

The clearest sign that things are so unclear for the administration is its inability to say exactly what its COVID-19 response is and what budget is needed.

When the military lockdown was declared, the government announced a Php27.1 billion package versus the pandemic. This was a haphazard cobbling together for crude public relations purposes of mainly recycled pre-pandemic government programs, including a completely irrelevant Php14 billion for tourism.

Pressed for something more substantial, it superseded that first package and threw a Php275 billion figure into the air during the railroading of emergency powers through Congress. This supposedly consisted of Php200 billion for emergency subsidies and Php75 billion for health care.

Two weeks and two reports to Congress on the use of emergency powers later, that Php275 billion is still the representative figure and the closest thing to a summary of the government’s COVID-19 response.

In the meantime, the government reports what are meant to be impressive efforts at raising funds for its COVID-19 response – Php300 billion from the sale of government securities, Php189.8 billion in unreleased appropriations and realignments, Php121.6 billion in advanced remittances of dividends to the national government from government-owned and -controlled corporations (GOCCs), Php22 billion in unutilized cash balances and funds, and Php10.3 billion in additional cash allocations and allotments.

Mechanically adding these up gives the impression of Php644.1 billion already available from various sources. However, at least Php143.6 billion or 22% of this – the early dividends and unutilized cash – is actually not a literally new budget for the response and just about ensuring there’s cash at hand to immediately spend. The economic managers are also looking at US$2 billion from multilateral lenders.

Seeing so many numbers is bewildering – so where exactly are we?

Residents of Barangay Payatas’ “Plastikan Area” receive food aid from the group The Vegan Neighbors.

What response?

The logical place to start is from identifying what needs to be done. It’s a straightforward matter to just list what the government itself has already identified as needed, whether by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) or as implied in the president’s reports to Congress.

There are the health interventions: personal protective equipment (PPE) and other logistical support for medical frontliners and responders; mass testing and surveillance; isolation and quarantine facilities in congested urban poor communities; and treatment facilities including medical supplies.

There are also the equally critical socioeconomic relief measures: emergency relief packages, cash transfers and other financial assistance, and business support for micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs).

And yet, so deep already into the crisis, the Duterte administration has failed to present a clear response plan to the public. Instead, the nation is fed a daily stream of anecdotal reports about its fragmented efforts. Clearly, these efforts are far from enough. The lived experience of thousands of frontliners and millions of locked-down households is stark neglect and unnecessary difficulties mounting by the day.

The president’s disorganized reports to Congress on March 30 and April 6 are of little help and in many ways just add to the confusion.

Compiling the various measures scattered in the reports shows the government apparently having plans worth Php233.9 billion. This includes Php38.6 billion for hospitals and other health facilities, Php114 million for emergency relief packages, Php154.4 billion for cash transfers and other financial assistance, and Php40.8 billion for local government units (LGUs).

This is getting close but still doesn’t correspond to the headline Php275 billion figure. The president’s reports to Congress seem to detail the Php200 billion emergency subsidies portion a little bit while leaving a gaping void in what the supposed Php75 billion for health care is about. In any case, something’s wrong if the government’s plan has to be built up in such a piecemeal manner.

Residents of Barangay Payatas’ “Plastikan Area” receive food aid from the group The Vegan Neighbors.

Slow response

The need for clarity about the response doesn’t just come from being unnecessarily obsessive-compulsive about details. Clarity about the response is the starting point of marshalling public resources and organizing the machinery for the immediate and effective response demanded by the crisis.

The disarray goes far in explaining the sluggish response of the administration to date. IBON estimates that up to 18.9 million workers in the formal and informal sector have been dislocated by the military lockdown; 14.5 million of these are in Luzon and the other 4.4 million in the rest of the country. ‘Dislocated’ is understood as work interruptions of some sort with varied risks of corresponding losses in wages, salaries and other income.

The month-and-a-half lockdown-induced disruption in incomes and livelihoods has dire consequences for the poorest 16.1 million low-income families in the country. Their monthly incomes are at most around Php20,000 or so, according to IBON estimates using data from the latest 2018 Family Income and Expenditure Survey (FIES) of the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA). These poorest three-fifths (64%) of families are also those who have little or no savings to speak of, according to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP).

The government itself has acknowledged the vulnerable situation of the overwhelming majority of the population. The Bayanihan to Heal as One Act (Republic Act 11469) explicitly said that 18 million low-income households – corresponding to around the poorest 75% of the population – will be given emergency subsidies.

Yet, weeks into the lockdown, the government response is still painfully slow and inadequate. It seems to have waited until hunger and unrest became critical. This is exemplified by the frustration of the urban poor residents of Sitio San Roque, Quezon City in the heart of the capital who were violently dispersed and, bizarrely, 21 of whom were even detained and charged.

It took three long weeks before emergency cash subsidies were released. And yet these have still so far only reached 3.7-4.9 million poor households – the government’s report is confusing – or not even one third (20-27%) of the supposed target 18 million households under RA 11469. Over two-thirds or as much as 11.5 million badly affected families are still waiting.

Adding insult to injury, the government could have reached as much as 10-15 million households immediately upon the lockdown three weeks ago. The president is also only able to report just a paltry 190,217 food packs distributed by the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). Underfunded local government units (LGUs), civil society groups, and concerned citizens have tried their best to fill this gap.

The government’s other emergency relief programs are doing even worse. The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) reports just 102,892 formal sector workers given Php5,000 in cash assistance under its COVID-19 Adjustment Measures Program (CAMP) – or barely 1% of 10.7 million workers in formal establishments nationwide. Only 55,934 informal workers have benefited from DOLE’s Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers (TUPAD), receiving just an average of Php3,121 each.

Up to 357,614 farmers and fisherfolk have supposedly been given zero interest loans under the Department of Agriculture’s (DA) Expanded Survival and Recovery Aid (SURE Aid) project, or granted loan payment moratoriums. This is just 3.7% of farmers, farm workers and fisherfolk nationwide. The president’s report however could not say how much this support was worth.

Residents of Barangay Payatas’ “Plastikan Area” receive food aid from the group The Vegan Neighbors.

Stingy response

The Duterte administration may be giving repeated anecdotal reports to give the impression of sustained help. The response however is still clearly very slow.

At least part of the reason is the government rationing the help and putting so many bureaucratic hurdles for poor families. However, the importance of ensuring that all the neediest are covered far outweighs the redundance of some less needy being included. Choosing to err on the side of inclusion means dispensing with these hurdles.

But the response is also stingy in two respects.

First, the amounts being given are very small. Beneficiaries will welcome any aid given to them but the amounts fall far short of even the government’s underestimated official poverty line of on average Php10,727 nationwide and Php11,951 in the National Capital Region (NCR).

It is also probable that reported cash transfers for the poorest are bloated because the amounts likely include prior entitlements before the pandemic.

Secondly, the Php275 billion response package is too small to provide critical subsistence support to all the millions of affected households during the lockdown and in the immediate period right after. It is also far below the order of magnitude needed to support the consumption-driven stimulus that the economy needs to moderate the economic collapse in 2020.

IBON is among many others that have pointed out that the relief measures have to be much more ambitious. Our estimate is that Php297.1 billion monthly is more sufficient and should be given for up to 2-3 months at least. This does not yet even include perhaps Php300-400 billion in crucial support for critically affected businesses especially the country’s 998,000 or so micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs).

Aid workers arrested by the police on alleged violations of the lockdown policy of the government. (Unyon ng Manggagawa sa Agrikultura photo)

Funding the response

The president’s lamentation in his last report on government’s response about lack of funding of course raises a valid point. Hundreds of billions of pesos are needed not just to contain the pandemic but to keep the economy from sinking further after the lockdown. More so amid the global recession. And this is not even to speak of what’s needed in the coming years to build a more stable and self-reliant economy.

This is where the Duterte administration is particularly stumbling. It either does not appreciate the difficulties faced by the people and the economy, or chooses to be insensitive because it refuses to even consider the radical measures needed to address these.

The government can find the funding for COVID-19 response measures needed – on a scale many times over its Php275 billion program – if it genuinely wants to. The administration basically has three areas of financing:

1. Budget realignment. It can realign existing budget items under the Php4.1 trillion General Appropriations Act (GAA) for 2020 and Continuing Appropriations from 2019. This includes using savings from existing projects, activities and programs to outright discontinuing them and then diverting budgets to COVID-19 response.

The president’s first report to Congress mentioned Php372.7 billion in unreleased special purpose fund (SPF) allotments. This was presumably mentioned as the initial universe of budget items that can be realigned. By the second report, Php189.9 billion was said to have already been so realigned (including Php100 billion to the DSWD); a large part are reportedly from capital outlays.

However, the government can be much more aggressive in considering budget items for realignment. The Php9.6 billion in dubious confidential and intelligence funds – including Php4.5 billion just for the president – is a start.

The Php989 billion public infrastructure program should be opened up to greater scrutiny. The feasibility studies of these projects were all drawn up at a time of giddy optimism about the economy. However previous assessments of economic and financial viability will no longer hold in today’s greatly changed conditions. At the very least, the social need for many of them will have been overtaken by pandemic-related needs.

The current crisis can also be used to justify at least a moratorium on the government’s debt payments. The SPF includes Php451 billion just for debt service on interest payments. Outside the GAA, there is also Php582 billion for principal amortization. Political will can overcome accustomed automatic appropriations and the habitual deference to creditors.

2. Solidarity financingThe administration can resort to increased borrowing but prioritizing those with favorable terms for the country. The administration has already sold Php300 billion in government securities to the BSP in a classic monetizing of the deficit. It is also looking into borrowing US$1.25 billion from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) – aside from US$8 million in grants – and possibly another US$1.1 billion from the World Bank.

However, the government can consider issuing special COVID-19 bonds targeted especially at large corporations, financial institutions and oligarchic families. There is a huge concentration of financial resources and wealth in this regard that can be mobilized beyond individual donations during the lockdown. This is debt but it can be designed more on solidarity terms rather than on crude financial metrics to minimize the burden on the government. For instance, they can be at low, zero or negative interest rates and be zero coupon; making them tax-exempt can be a sweetener. Perhaps Php300-600 billion can be raised in this way.

3. New progressive taxes. With a view to the longer term, the administration can actually consider new taxes on those who can afford this. It is worth recalling that the TRAIN Law lowered the personal income taxes (PIT), estate taxes and donor taxes on the country’s higher-income groups. This already resulted in Php117 billion in foregone revenues in 2018 – with initial projections of foregone PIT revenues of up to Php193.5 billion in 2022.

The government can consider starting with reverting personal income, estate and donor taxes to pre-TRAIN levels. This focuses on those who, even with the pandemic, are still in a much better position to contribute to the national effort. Tax levels can be fine-tuned to keep higher tax rates on the super-rich and to preserve tax benefits for middle-income households affected by the pandemic and the economic crisis to come.

COVID-19 has highlighted the critical importance of government intervention and public resources in a time of crisis. But it should also drawn attention to how significant government intervention is needed to address chronic problems of poverty, inequality and underdevelopment.

The radical shifts in economic policies the country needs after the pandemic and entering into a world economy in recession will demand huge government resources, among other interventions. Building up the public health system is just the start and the country’s agricultural and industrial system needs to be significantly and rapidly bolstered. A progressive tax system is among the many crucial policy measures to do these.

Barangay Krus na Ligas market goers call for faster distribution of releif aid by the government during the Covid-19 lockdown. (Kodao photo)

Unprecedented crisis

Time is running out for the Duterte government to put together a bold a COVID-19 response package. The country is still at the start of a steeply rising curve of infections and fatalities. After the lockdown, the economy will be facing a steeply falling curve of severe economic crisis.

Every day of delay means more distress for the poorest and most vulnerable, micro entrepreneurs and small businesses sinking, and of course the virus just waiting to spread even more rapidly once the lockdown is lifted.

The priority is saving lives and easing hardship. The problem right now is not lack of a national effort to deal with these – so many Filipinos are struggling everyday to deal with the pandemic and they deserve all the help they can get.

As so many are already realizing – the problem is at the top. #

Updated April 12, 2020 to clarify tax proposals

= = = = =

The author is the executive director of IBON.org

‘Matigas ang ulo niyo!’

By Renato Reyes Jr.

It appears the Duterte regime may extend the lockdown for another two weeks, and then blame the people for it. The developing storyline is that Filipinos are hard-headed and will cause the failure of the quarantine measures. An extension is thus necessary. Martial Law-style implementation is also necessary.

While we recognize there may be difficulties in the proper implementation of the quarantine protocols by some elements, it would be unjust and highly insensitive to blame this solely on the people, especially the poor.

Before accepting hook, line and sinker the Palace excuse, let us all pause for a moment and examine why we find ourselves where we are now in the first place.

It was Malacañang’s slow response to and downplaying of the global health crisis which led to the imposition of severe quarantine measures throughout Luzon and other parts of the Philippines. There was no travel ban at the onset, local transmission happened, and the health system was ill-prepared to handle a crisis.

Let us remind policymakers that when the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) was imposed, there were no plans for public transportation, social protection, relief for affected families and uniformity in the execution of quarantine measures. Local government units (LGUs) were asked to fend for themselves while the regime was busy setting up checkpoints and militarizing the entire ECQ, turning it into a harsh lockdown for the people.

Let us remind policymakers that at the onset, the regime resisted the call for mass testing as well as the positive initiatives of some LGUs to implement health measures. Only after the clamor became so loud that the DOH finally acknowledged the need for mass testing for COVID 19.

Let us remind the people of how the powerful would flaunt quarantine protocols because they felt that they were somehow exempted, thus potentially infecting other people.

Let us remind the regime how it treated the people of San Roque when they sought food and economic aid. They were arrested, charged with so many ridiculous cases and made to pay P15,000 each for bail – when the most reasonable response would have been to just give them food.

Let us continue to point out the fact that the emergency powers did little to speed up the social amelioration program of the government. Up to now, despite the money already allotted, millions still have not received the promised economic support. The list of beneficiaries approved by the DSWD is often less than the list submitted by the LGUs, thus creating problems among administrators and those who are in need.

“Matigas ang ulo niyo!” does not reflect the complex and difficult situation faced by our people. It glosses over government culpability for the crisis and unfairly shifts the blame to the people.

While the ECQ has slowed down the spread of the disease, we have always maintained that it is not enough nor is the lockdown the decisive measure in fighting COVID19. We need mass testing, contact tracing, isolation and treatment of patients. We need to ramp up our health services to accommodate more patients. We need economic support for the people because we cannot expect them to simply stay at home when they are faced with hunger.

We have called on the government to show the people its roadmap and the key indicators for the lifting or modification of the lockdown. How will we move from a state of ECQ to the easing of restrictions as our health system copes with the rising number of COVID19 cases. We supported the recommendations of the University of the Philippines Pandemic Response Team for a modified community quarantine that allows the resumption of economic activity and restores the livelihood of the people.

We cannot simply accept an open-ended or indefinite lockdown that does not address the health and economic needs of the people. We cannot accept laying the blame on people to cover up government inaction, incompetence or gross negligence. We cannot accept heightened military response as the ONLY way to enforce quarantine measures. Whatever happened to “mulat na disiplina” where people follow protocols because they understand what these mean and not because they fear the government? A heightened militarist response invites more abuses in a time when the country is faced with a serious health crisis.

Blaming the people for quarantine woes and difficulties absolves the government of its primary responsibility of effectively fighting COVID19 while protecting the rights and welfare of the people. “Matigas ang ulo niyo!” doesn’t explain away the problems the regime itself should be accountable for. #

The author is the secretary general of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan.

Beyond late night pep talks

By Renato Reyes, Jr.

The government tries hard to convince us that we are doing fine compared to the rest of the world despite the widespread complaints and sufferings of the people who are under lockdown due to the corona virus disease (Covid-19).

The Philippines has had to resort to extreme quarantine measures precisely because of the failure of the Duterte regime to impose travel restrictions, do proper contact tracing, and recognize in a timely manner the local transmission that had been ongoing in the country. Don’t tell us we are better off. We are in this difficult situation because government downplayed many of the red flags early on. Remember that time when a patient from Greenhills with no travel history was infected with the virus, and health secretary Francisco Duque said that’s not local transmission because it’s just one person?

The people want the spread of the disease to stop through the necessary health measures such as community quarantine, mass testing, isolation and treatment of patients. The expanded quarantine has become necessary to slow down the spread of the disease given that our health system cannot cope with the rise of new cases. Slowing down the spread of the disease entails stopping the movement of people, especially when we do not yet have a clear picture of the extent of the infections. A University of the Philippines study projects that as many as 140,000 to 550,000 can be infected especially in densely populated urban poor communities.

Lifting the quarantine will be done based on two factors according to the DOH: lower number of new cases and the increased capacity of the health system to treat patients (enough hospital beds, respirators, doctors). The lifting may not be done abruptly because of the dangers of the virus infecting more people. This may require calibrated or gradual lifting of quarantine measures or lockdown. Some areas may take more time because they have a high incidence of infections.

What will prolong the lockdown is the failure of the government to implement the necessary health measures to confront the pandemic. What will prolong the lockdown is the failure of government to implement the needed economic support for the people. A hungry populace will not stay put and will break quarantine protocols, and will be more vulnerable to sickness. Kaya talagang mahigpit na magka-ugnay yung health at economics.

And if the lockdown is lifted, we have to fix major issues in the workplace, housing, sanitation, mass transportation, education and so on. We cannot just return to the way things were — with gross inequality and government neglect of social services laying the basis for more infections. The first thing we will be demanding after the lockdown is lifted is CHANGE. We do not want to go back to the way things were.

Those telling us we are doing fine are the ones that got us into this dire situation in the first place. They best heed the growing demands of the people and undertake the needed health and economic measures, else we will be looking at a longer lockdown period and more suffering and unrest among the population. Kaya na lang ganoon kadiin ang protesta at pagpapahayag sa gobyerno. Ayaw nating dumami ang tatamaan ng sakit, at ayaw nating humaba pa ang pagdurusa ng mamamayan. #

#TulongHindiKulong
#MassTestingNowPH
#IbigayAngAyuda

(The author is the secretary general of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan.)

Extending the Lockdown Should Be for Saving Lives

By Gene Alzona Nisperos, MD / Community Medicine Development Foundation

The extension of the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) should not be a mere repeat of the month-long lockdown that was bereft of elements necessary to make containment measures effective and more palatable to Filipinos.

Saving lives remains the overarching objective in the fight against COVID-19 but, thus far, the actions taken by government lack both the transparency and comprehensiveness that express its serious intention towards this goal. Instead, there are issues of trust and credibility.

Even as the Department of Health (DOH) relented to the call for mass testing, the reported numbers do not add up, causing more confusion. The conflation between number of tests done and number of individuals tested does not help any. There is severe under-reporting, including those for persons under investigation (PUIs) and persons under monitoring (PUMs), that needs to be seriously addressed.

Further, local quarantine centers outside Metro Manila must also be established. The capacity of the healthcare delivery system under local government units (LGUs) should be raised to prepare for more COVID-19 cases. Enhancing the capacities of the barangays and the mobilization of barangay health emergency response teams (BHERTs) should go together with setting up local quarantine centers. The government should utilize all of its resources in health and create a more centralized command that will work closely with LGUs.

The DOH should protect health workers while actively recruiting and hiring more. Adequate health human resources are central in this campaign, being both the first and last lines of defense. Providing health workers with sufficient resources and personal protective equipment (PPEs), ensuring work safety, and monitoring their well being, including periodic testing, are absolutely essential.

As health personnel are dwindling, the DOH should actively recruit more to supplement the health workforce. The call for volunteers is inappropriate given the amount of money mobilized in the name of COVID-19. It will cost the government around 7.2 billion pesos to hire 10,000 doctors and 20,000 nurses for the next six months, and this amount represents just half of the Department of Tourism allocation. The least that this government can do for the health workers willing to put themselves on the line is to protect them and provide them with adequate remuneration.

As the war against COVID-19 is waged, patients who do not have COVID-19 but likewise need medical care must not be forgotten. Diseases like renal failure requiring dialysis or cancer that need chemotherapy will not wait. Yet these patients, especially the poor, have even less access to health services now. This too must be addressed.

Sadly, the DOH and the Duterte administration have shown no sense of urgency. Amidst a public health crisis, this is unacceptable and must change. The current extension must do more if the ECQ is to be meaningful and effective in saving lives.  

The urgent social imperatives experienced by the poor have not been addressed and the provision of adequate safety nets and social support has largely failed. People are experiencing hunger because the relief assistance did not come on time or was not enough for their families. 

Again, the government should take a more active role in ensuring that the food packs being distributed are sufficient. Government should also ensure access to basic utilities like water, which is needed to ensure hand washing and overall hygiene. Economic relief for those who lost income or were economically displaced must be given. This is the social determination of health. 

Most importantly, fundamental human rights must still be recognized and respected.

The ECQ is a health measure. It should not be used as an excuse to further impose repressive measures against the people. There should be no curtailment of basic freedoms and civil liberties. Rather than stifling dissent through threats, the government would do well to focus its energies on gaining the trust of the people.

The authoritarian behavior of the current dispensation should always be challenged. After all, it is a lockdown for health, not a political crackdown. The virus is the enemy, not the people. 

The containment of COVID-19 is a means to save lives. The extension of the ECQ should be towards this end. At this juncture, public health interventions are essential, social and economic aid is imperative, and resistance to tyranny necessary. #

–The author is a professor of community medicine at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine.

COVID-19: Paracetamol, ibuprofen and other anti-fever drugs should be avoided

By Romeo F. Quijano, M.D.

Paracetamol, ibuprofen and other anti-fever drugs should be avoided, nothwithstanding the World Health Organization’s (WHO) flip-flopping advise regarding ibuprofen use for COVID-19 symptoms.

The reason cited by WHO in retracting its earlier advise to avoid using ibuprofen is that they “are not aware of any reports of any negative effects of ibuprofen beyond the usual known side-effects that limit its use in certain populations” and “are not aware of published clinical or population-based data on this topic”(1).

There are in fact several published reports and studies, including clinical and population-based studies, that show the negative effects of paracetamol, ibuprofen and other anti-fever drugs if used in several types of viral infections (2,3,4,5,6). COVID-19 patients should not be presumed to be exempted from these potential negative effects. The WHO should not expect at this time, while the pandemic is raging,   to find published clinical and population-based studies specifically showing these negative effects in COVID-19 patients. Their main concern should be to protect COVID-19 patients from unnecessary risks because of irrational use of anti-fever drugs.

Fever is a natural defensive response against infectious disease. Fever is an ancient, evolutionary survival mechanism that is jeopardized by anti-fever synthetic drugs. Fever stimulates the innate and adaptive immune responses of the sick person, including the activation and mobilization of defensive cells and endogenous chemicals of that person to assume multiple roles (2) to the path of recovery and harmony with the environment. The use of antipyretic drugs to diminish fever may increase mortality in human populations with viral infection (3) and negatively affects patient outcomes in the intensive care unit (4). A variety of NSAIDs (ex. ibuprofen) have been shown to inhibit the antibody production in human cells (5). Aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen have also been shown to interfere with antiviral immune functions influencing the duration of viral shedding in rhinovirus infected humans (6). 

In my opinion, fever in most cases should not be interfered with unless it exceeds 40 C.  The age-old practice of frequent, vigorous sponge bath with warm water (without making the patient too uncomfortable) with adequate fluid intake is probably still the best management option. Appropriate nutrition, adequate ventilation and other supportive kind of treatment should also be done. Vitamin (ex. high dose Vitamin C) and mineral supplementation may be useful. Traditional medicine modalities (ex. use of herbal medications) may also help. When excessively high fever (>40 C) persists despite conservative treatment, the selective and appropriate use of synthetic antipyretics may be considered on a case to case basis especially if there is delirium, inability to sleep, and excessive anxiety.

(1) Updated: WHO Now Doesn’t Recommend Avoiding Ibuprofen For COVID-19 Symptoms.

      AFP, 17 MARCH 2020.

https://www.sciencealert.com/who-recommends-to-avoid-taking-ibuprofen-for-covid-19-symptoms

(2) Fever and the thermal regulation of immunity: the immune system feels the heat.

      Evans SS, Repasky EA, Fisher DT.

      Rev Immunol. 2015 Jun;15(6):335-49. doi: 10.1038/nri3843

(3) Population-level effects of suppressing fever. Earn DJ, Andrews PW, Bolker BM.

     Proc Biol Sci. 2014 Jan 22;281(1778):20132570. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2013.2570.

     PMID: 24452021.

(4) The effect of antipyretic therapy upon outcomes in critically ill patients: a

     randomized, prospective study. Schulman CI, Namias N, Doherty J, Manning

     RJ, Li P, Elhaddad A, Lasko D, Amortegui J, Dy CJ, Dlugasch L, Baracco G,

     Cohn SM. Surg Infect (Larchmt). 2005 Winter;6(4):369-75.

(5) Ibuprofen and other widely used non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs inhibit antibody production

      in human cells. Bancos S1, Bernard MP, Topham DJ, Phipps RP.Cell Immunol. 2009;258(1):18-28.

      doi: 10.1016/j.cellimm.2009.03.007. Epub 2009 Apr 5.

(6) Adverse effects of aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen on immune function, viral shedding, and clinical status in rhinovirus-infected volunteers. N. M. H. Graham, C.

= = = = =

 Notes:

1. J. Burrell, R. M. Douglas, P. Debelle, and L. Davies,  The Journal of Infectious

2. Diseases, vol. 162, no. 6, pp. 1277–1282, 1990.

The author is a retired professor of the Department Of Pharmacology and Toxicology, College of Medicine, University of the Philippines-Manila.

Pimentel’s caper and this administration’s true legacy

A senator of the Republic is currently reaping the whirlwind after announcing he learned he is positive of the corona virus disease (Covid-19) while accompanying his wife to a hospital delivery room. The Makati Medical Center is livid with Senator Koko Pimentel for what it described as a breach of Covid-19 home quarantine protocols. Pimentel is also being pilloried online, and understandably so.

Pimentel’s ill advised caper followed widespread denunciation of reports that senators, other high government officials and their families pressure the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine to have their test kits processed ahead of everybody else’s, including those who display symptoms of the dreaded disease. Resentment is strong among the people who are being forced to observe the lockdown imposed by President Rodrigo Duterte despite the lack of a logical plan on how the lockdown should be implemented, save for the deployment of police and military personnel with assault rifles on checkpoints throughout Luzon island.

Pimentel’s gambol is not helping the government convince it is doing a good job in containing the spread of the virus. Aside from the utter lack of mass testing to pinpoint where the virus is spreading the fastest, what Pimentel and fellow senators Francis Tolentino, Imee Marcos, and others have demonstrated is their utter disregard for the people, particularly the poor, sick, elderly, and the frontline health workers who need to be tested first with the limited kits that are available.

This has led the people (at least those who have internet connections at home) to launch trending tweet campaigns that demand accountability, such that even this government’s well-oiled troll armies could no longer cover up. President Duterte’s obvious absence isn’t helping his spin doctors any. If he does go on television (often at ungodly hours of the evening) he could only manage rambling speeches that help very little in calming the nerves of an already nervous populace.

The populace’s nervousness is understandable. In communities, the people are afraid whether they would be able to feed themselves or whether there are still food items to be bought until the month-long lockdown ends. The fact that they are also humiliated—such as in Parañaque where those suspected of violating the so-called community quarantine are tortured by being forced to sit under the heat of the unrelenting sun or are harshly and publicly berated—contribute to the growing resentment.

I was in Switzerland and The Netherlands when the Covid-19 pandemic shifted to the region as its new epi-center earlier this month. Countries were also closing their borders and lockdowns were imposed one after the other. But there are no checkpoints in communities and the police do not carry assault rifles to terrorize the people into staying indoors. Only food stores and pharmacies are allowed to remain open but, pretty much, the governments rely on their citizens to comply with self-quarantine requests without unnecessary force. When I arrived back here, all I saw is the overwhelming exercise of state power through the police and the military. Even those who need to be at work because they are real frontliners in the fight against the virus are finding it hard to do their jobs because of the overly-strict and illogical edict of banning all forms of transport.

The Covid-19 crisis is the Duterte government’s Mamasapano and Hello, Garci crises of the past two administrations. If it slides through this one, it would only be through the heroism of the frontliners (doctors, nurses, hospitals, relief and emergency workers, and others) who battle through despite lack of supplies, absence of clear directions and plans, and even through thick-headedness and cheekiness of the likes of Pimentel. How this administration runs around like a headless chicken, albeit full-battle geared, in one of the country’s direst moments is turning out to be its true legacy to the people. #

Love in the time of corona has left the group chat

By L.S. Mendizabal

You are now probably jaded with the barrage of information and opinions—some educated and quite helpful and others downright moronic—on “flattening the curve” circulating here on the Internets. I know I am. But there’s something we need to commit to memory as long as we still enjoy three square meals a day in the midst of this pandemic pandemonium. Repeat after me: We are the lucky bastards, the privileged stinkin’ suckers.

Philippines in lockdown

The working class whom some of us have called “tanga,” “pasaway” and even “motherfuckers” of late cannot afford steady internet connection to keep abreast of the latest developments in the national and global COVID-19 crisis. Most of them have only the Malacañang Palace to turn to for advice, which means that they are likely to ward off the virus by eating bananas and gargling saltwater. Those who reside outside but work in Metro Manila who don’t have a television or electricity at home might not have known about the enhanced community quarantine guidelines and found themselves stuck in Manila without any money to spare for food for the long walk back home now that mass transport has been suspended. People crossing the city boundaries experienced having to literally run in agitation over the armed authorities’ 30-minute countdown before lockdown. Meanwhile, thousands have been held up in the streets by a sheer number of AFP-PNP personnel in full battle gear pointing only two or a few more thermal scanners at people’s heads, interrogating their identities, who they were with, where they were going and why. Once the number of patients infected with COVID-19 began to rise in the Philippines, the administration’s knee-jerk response was militarization. “Obey first before complaining.” Groundbreaking.

Honestly, I was not the least bit surprised by the total lockdown, given that Duterte has been consistently grabbing every conceivable opportunity to maintain his fascist reign. Neither am I as dismayed by the exponential spread of COVID-19 as I actually am by the callousness of so many posts and comments, some of which are made by friends or acquaintances (or are they still?), on social media regarding the plight of the least fortunate—those who cannot afford to “work from home” and must brave the outside world to, I don’t know, probably earn money, find food and shelter maybe? It must also be noted that ironically but not surprisingly, the people who are calling the poor “pasaway” and “naghahanap ng sakit” are the same ones who called them “bobotante” after last year’s botched elections. How disgustingly swift some people have ceased to be humane after their #quarantinediaries selfies earning likes and follows are rudely disrupted by news of the poor struggling to continue living despite government’s orders for them to essentially stop doing just that. How sickening and revolting it has been to know how some of us might act in dire situations such as these, safely perched in their homes, watching TV, clicking and swiping on links in their smartphones or laptops while more than half of the Filipino populace are fighting for their lives in conditions more precarious than ever before, less fearful of the virus and more of hunger and ejection from their homes that may or may not have their own bathrooms and running water to begin with, if they had homes, that is.

The Philippines pre-COVID19

I wish I could write about something more optimistic to lessen our collective anxiety or a detailed objective analysis and critique of the nation’s healthcare system (a.k.a. an easy target for the trolls because apparently, they’ll defend anything their golden calf does), but what really keeps me up at night is not the shortage of 70% isopropyl or ethyl alcohol in stores but the seeming scarcity of empathy in many Filipinos I’ve encountered, at least online. Naturally, the prevailing people in power will do most anything in order to stay in power, while the powerless and exploited will always find ways to fight back. That’s just the kind of society we were born into, sadly. But I’m afraid that this element of “class struggle” has somehow left the consciousness of many a Filipino as we deal with this new unseen enemy they are so afraid of that they cannot be bothered about their fellow Filipinos, especially if in huge crowds in congested places.

In other words, y’all missing the context. Before Luzon went on lockdown, many things have happened in the Philippines besides Sarah Geronimo’s secret wedding. Here are the following, to remind you of a few:

  • The pending ABS-CBN franchise renewal;
  • Apart from non-remittance of taxes, reports of various crimes linked to POGOs, most of which have victimized Filipino citizens, have risen to an alarming rate;
  • Millions of Filipino drivers, operators, dispatchers, mechanics and their families and commuters face the impending jeepney phaseout as well as the inevitable fare hikes as the PUV Modernization Program pushes through in June this year;
  • Contractualization of workers remains rampant despite Duterte’s promise to end ENDO. Police offices have also been erected in Central Luzon industrial zones, a clear threat to workers’ rights to self-organize and fight for their basic interests and welfare;
  • Filipino farmers and millers are plunged further into bankruptcy because of the liberalization of rice importation which has resulted into the Philippines, an agricultural country, currently being the world’s biggest importer of rice;
  • Mindanao is still heavily militarized even after the lifting of martial law, where Lumads are driven to mass exodus as their lands get overrun by military and paramilitary forces, their schools being closed down, their leaders and allies harassed or killed. Meanwhile, Marawi remains in ruins as true rehabilitation has yet to take place;
  • Human rights violations keep recurring as elements of the state continue to redtag, file trumped up charges against, abduct and murder social activists, human rights workers, journalists, church leaders, lawyers, environmentalists and other critics. Last Tuesday, in the thick of the COVID-19 lockdown and Duterte’s incitement of ceasefire between the AFP and CPP-NPA, choreographer and activist, Marlon Maldos, was abducted and killed in De la Paz, Cortes in Bohol province; and all along,
  • The proposed Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 is still underway, which seeks to repeal the Human Security Act of 2007, amending provisions to supposedly strengthen the government’s campaign against terrorism. Simply put, these amendments may lead to anyone getting accused of being a “terrorist” and punished for “terrorist crimes.” For instance, journalists in Cagayan de Oro City and Iloilo City campaigning for the ABS-CBN franchise renewal have been tagged as “communist-terrorists.”

It may sound like it but I am not reading all this as if it were the apocalypse. I only want you to understand that the nation has already been in a state of catastrophe even before the COVID-19 lockdown, and the two main takeaway points here are: 1) No matter how shitty, life goes on, especially for the working class because they have no other choice; and 2) Extreme militarist measures have caused us, notably the poor, more fatal harm than good. So to all those who dared repost photos of progressive groups holding placards that called for a medical solution to the national crisis, and saying that they deserved to be shot down by the military or hurt in any way, please know that persecuting people for fighting for ourrights only highlights your ignorance and apathy. They could have chosen to stay safe and quiet, indeed, but they sacrificed a day out in the streets before eventually bringing the protests online, albeit in masks and at arm’s length between each other, to speak out for you. And yet, you choose to not see the significance of protest in fascist times like these when so many are being terrorized, even slaughtered, into silence. You have neglected the fact that protest and dissent have taken you to where you are today, when you can call yourself a Filipino, enjoying unfiltered internet connection in your cozy house slippers and your soft couches with your Netflix subscriptions and smug faces. You lucky basturd, you.

One may credit this online idiocy to deindividuation, which social psychology defines as the loss of self-awareness because of the feeling of security that stems from anonymity or being in a mob or group like, say, Marcos apologists or passive-aggressive millennials who buck at anyone and everyone on Twitter but can’t bring themselves to ask for ketchup at the fastfood (just a personal observation, sincerely no offense meant). Deindividuation does not, however, make people any less liable for their actions. With or without the COVID-19 crisis, cheering on any human rights violation is just vile and an abuse in itself. If you disagree with the protests, fine. You do you. But please do not attempt to gag them just because you are in a position of privilege. I know you could not afford to house your entire family at St. Luke’s Medical Center if you caught the virus. Leave the discrimination and the bigotry to the elite.

Love in the time of COVID-19 and fascism

Now, more than ever, when the national setting is being engineered to be more conducive to isolation, deindividuation, individualism and segregation, when “social distancing” is the new norm, the Filipino people must strengthen social solidarity. We may not be able to physically link arms with one another, but there are many ways to fortify our unity and national spirit, as proven by:

  • The brilliant scientists and artists who have worked hard to create the COVID-19 test kits and sanitation tent design, respectively;
  • The doctors, nurses and health workers who actually respect human rights and tirelessly toil in and out of the hospitals in spite of the slashed health care funds and lack of facilities and resources;
  • The journalists, researchers and writers who keep us properly informed through the news, online public service announcements and statements;
  • The governors, mayors and other government officials and their staff who are present on the ground, making sure that their constituents are being looked after;
  • The government and bank employees, telecommunications workers, pharmacists and other agents who uphold their duties to secure the daily operations of our most important institutions and systems;
  • The responsible netizens who use social media as an effective platform to launch campaigns that extend all sorts of help to those in need such as petitions, donations and food distribution for the homeless who cannot self-quarantine, free rides for those who are forced to walk across cities because of the absence of public transit, and many other efforts; and last but definitely not the least,
  • Our farmers and farmworkers, some of whom are collecting harvest now as you read this, the workers in the factories, truck drivers, security guards, grocery salespersons, clerks and baggers, couriers, street sweepers, garbage collectors, vendors and the rest of the underprivileged but hardworking masses who are the main reason we are able to eat food that isn’t stale, have clothes on our backs, sleep soundly in relatively cleaner and safer neighborhoods, or for the smokers to even remotely have access to a pack of cigarettes.

The Philippines we woke up to this morning is a fascist authoritarian’s erotic fantasy— stifled press freedom, empty streets, no jeepneys, tricycles or public vans servicing commuters, no teachers or students in schools, no work, food and shelter for the poor, and no mass testing to keep people in the dark while we are being divided and conquered, slowly massacred, or in the case of those who dare criticize him, abducted and killed. Martial Law can’t even.

Our democratic space is constantly shrinking into a cramped cell and only the few and the powerful will not be held prisoners. So unless you see this as a bright future for yourself and your children, you might want to rethink if apathy and blind faith is indeed convenient for you and your fellow human beings. Perhaps now is the time to stock up on an unlimited supply of love, empathy, kindness and compassion, and courage partnered with critical thinking. If there’s anything our long history of Filipino social struggles have proven time and again, it is that nothing can defeat a united front—not an army of foreign colonizers, not a single viral sickness or a single tyrant.#

= = = = = =

Sources:

Socialite Cat Arambulo calls workers getting arrested on TV “motherfuckers” and other elitist reactions to COVID-19 lockdown:

https://www.rappler.com/rappler-blogs/254956-opinion-out-of-touch-elitist-gaps-lockdown

Panelo claims eating bananas is effective to combat COVID-19:

https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2020/03/16/2001322/fact-check-panelo-says-korea-did-total-lockdown-eating-bananas-and-gargling-prevents-covid-19

People running to cross city boundary:

Cagayan de Oro City and Iloilo City journalists campaigning for ABS-CBN franchise renewal tagged as “communist-terrorists”:

Mendiola ng buhay natin

Ni Prop. Rolando Tolentino, PhD

Unang sinulat ng may-akda ang piyesang ito noong Enero 2008. Kahapon, Enero 22, ginunita ang ika-33 anibersaryo ng Mendiola Massacre. Wala pa ring katarungan para sa mga biktima ng krimen.

Malalaki ang bilang na dumadalo ng mga rali noon. Libo-libo, madalas umaabot din ng daan-daang libo. Kasagsagan pa ng People Power I, at kahit pa marami nang nanamlay sa kilusan at bumalik sa gawi ng gitnang uring pagnanasa, mas marami ang nanatili sa hanay.

Nasa kilusang kabataan at estudyante ako noong 1987, kasama ng College Editors Guild of the Philippines. Sa panahong ito, pinapalawak ang pambansang kasapian. Binubuhay ang mga rehiyon at eskwelahang nawalan ng ugnay sa organisasyon. Pinapaigting rin ang ugnay sa iba pang organisasyong pangkabataan at iba pang sektor.

Malaki ang bulto ng nagrali. Ang daming magsasakang nangunguna sa rali, galing sa iba’t ibang lugar ng Luzon. Karamihan, nakatsinelas lang. Umabot ang rali hanggang sa sandaan ng Claro M. Recto at J.P. Rizal. Ito ang paanan ng tulay ng Mendiola, at ang maiikling kalsada ng Mendiola.

Nasa harap kami ng U.E., at ito na nga ang kahiya-hiyang unibersidad na ang harapan ay ginawang sine at mall. Walang dangal na ang pangunahing harap ng unibersidad na kilala sa disenyong art deco ay biglang naging mall. May Jollibee sa bukana rin ng kampus.

Bigla na lang may putukan sa harapan. Ang kalakhan ng nasa rali ay nagsipagdapaan sa kalsada. Nagtaka ako, nakisigaw ng “Makibaka, huwag matakot.” At ilang mabilis na sandali pa ay nagkakandakumahog ang mga tao sa pagtakbo paatras. Naririnig kong nagpapatuloy ang putukan. Sunod-sunod, parang armalite. Malakas at nakakapangilabot na ang amoy ng kumakalat na tear gas. Ang daming ginamit ng militar para umamoy hanggang sa tinatakbuhan naming sa Recto. Tumungo kami sa gilid ng kalsada sa aming pagtakbo. Sa Recto kasi, maliban sa unang palapag, ang ibang palapag ay nakalabas sa sidewalk. Inisip kong mas ligtas ito kaysa tumakbo sa mismong kalsada.

Kumaliwa kami ng karipas sa Morayta tapos ay sa isang institute sa kabila ng Quezon Boulevard. Doon nagtipon ang mga dinisperse sa rali. Nagkaroon ng komand na tumungo sa Liwasang Bonifacio. Hindi pa malinaw na marami na palang namatay at nangasugatan sa paanan ng Mendiola.

Larawan sa paggunita sa ika-33 na anibersaryo ng Mendiola Massacre kahapon, Enero 22.

Sa Liwasang Bonifacio, nagsimula rin ang programa. Kabado ang marami pero nagpatuloy pa rin ang nagsasalita sa ibabaw ng jeep. Biglang may pulutong ng militar na sumunod sa Mendiola. Patuloy pa rin ang pagbatikos sa dispersal ng nagsasalita. Nagsimula muli ang putukan. Hanggang dito ba naman ay sistematikong dini-disperse ang rali. Tumakbo kami sa likod ng Post Office, umabot sa likod ng National Press Club.

Mangilan-ngilan na lang kami at natagpuan namin ang aming sarili na nasa ibabaw ng nakadaong na barge sa Pasig River. Mahapdi na ang mga mata namin dahil sa dami ng tear gas na pinasabog para matiyak ang pangalawang dispersal. May nakaisip na sumalok ng tubig sa ilog at gamitin ito para basain ang panyo at ipantapal sa mata. Naisip kong hindi nga kami mamamatay sa putok ng baril, mamamatay naman kami sa tetano dahil sa dumi ng tubig. Pero ito o lalo pang humapdi ang mga mata.

Sumakay akong papunta ng Faura at doon ay sumakay ng jeep pauwi sa Mandaluyong. May komand na huwag matulog sa sariling bahay, bilang pag-iingat sa hindi natatanyang pangyayari. Nakitulog ako sa kaibigan sa Makati. Tinatawid ng bangka ang bahaging ito ng Pasig River para makarating sa bahay ng kaibigan ko.

Mainit ang sabaw ng nilagang buto-buto. At totoo namang sabaw na lang ang naging ulam ko dahil biglaan ang aking pagdating. Ikinuwento ko ang pangyayari sa kaibigan kong manunulat at siya man ay may balita batay sa nasagap niya sa radyo at telebisyon. Nakinig din kami ng radyo bago ako natulog sa sala.

Dalawang beses pang mauulit ang mahabang araw na may kinalaman sa Mendiola. Una ay ang libing ni Rolando Olalia mga anim na buwan pa lamang matapos ng matagumpay na People Power. Mula sa U.P. Chapel at bago ilibing sa sementeryo sa Mandaluyong, idinaan ang bangkay ni Olalia at ng kasamang pinaslang nito sa Mendiola. Ikalawa ay ilang buwan lamang matapos ng tinawag na Mendiola Massacre, inilibing naman ang pinaslang na lider estudyante na si Lean Alejandro. Mula U.P. Chapel, nagmartsa ang daan-daang libo sa Mendiola bago ihatid sa Malabon.

Ang Mendiola ay dambana ng kontemporaryong pakikibaka ng mamamayan. Dito sa kanyang paanan, namumulat ang daan-daang libong nakikibahagi sa kolektibong karanasan sa kilusang pakikibaka. Dito sila inaalay, namumulat, idinadaan bago ilibing, nagiging martir at anak ng bayan. Dito sinisingil ang tampok na simbolo ng estado. Ang maikling daan ng Mendiola—sa pagitan ng magkabilang dulo ng Malakanyang at sambayanan—ay ang saksi sa digmaang-estado. #