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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)

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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.

STATEMENT: Arrest of relief volunteers is also an attack on free expression

The rabid state forces are at it again: just this weekend, Bulacan police apprehended six volunteers of Tulong Anakpawis-Sagip Kanayunan, along with former Anakpawis Rep. Ariel Casilao, who were on the way to a relief drive in Norzagaray, Bulacan. The manner that the police presented the circumstances of the arrest to the public also had a not-so-subtle message: publishing and distributing materials that are critical of government could now land people in jail.

Based on social media posts made by official accounts of the military and the police, one of the bases for these charges were the copies of Pinoy Weekly, a founding member of Altermidya Network and a multi-awarded alternative newspaper, which were seized from the relief volunteers and misrepresented as “anti-government propaganda materials” as the newspaper bore stories about how the hashtag #OustDuterte trended on Twitter even before the onset of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ).

To bluntly portray this article in Pinoy Weekly as basis for filing sedition charges is tantamount to haphazard violation of the constitutionally-protected freedom of the press and expression. Altermidya Network unequivocally denounces this move as sheer abuse of power. We ask, why are government forces targeting volunteers undertaking COVID-19 relief efforts? And how problematic is it to use credible publications like Pinoy Weekly to substantiate trumped-up charges?

More press freedom violations have been recorded in past weeks. Northern Dispatch (Nordis) correspondents Paola Espiritu and Sherwin De Vera have been red-tagged by troll accounts, branding them as a member of the Communist Party of the Philippines. The same is the case with Pokus-Gitnang Luzon correspondent Pia Montalban. Other freedom of expression violations have been recorded, even against common citizens who merely posted critical messages on social media.

The recent spate of red-tagging and brazen use of authority against the alternative media and the people’s growing voice of dissent speak volumes of how the Duterte administration – and its emboldened security forces – are facing the COVID-19 pandemic not only with apparent incompetence, but also under a self-serving, and despotic brand of governance.

Many experts have pointed out how misguided the Duterte administration’s response is as regards the public health emergency. Instead of offering swift, clear-cut, responsive medical solutions, the state has invariably ramped up its militarist moves. Instead of flattening the curve of the pandemic, the administration’s state forces are bulldozing our fundamental rights.

But the public will not back down and quietly accept this situation. The alternative media is united with the Filipino people in keeping our guards high, ever vigilant on the creeping fascism that the Duterte administration is espousing to paint over its gross incompetence in facing this crisis.

We may be living in abnormal times. Yet we must continue unwaveringly asserting our rights and the shrinking space for public opinion. We cannot allow another creeping pandemic – the affliction of a mounting autocracy – to spread unabated.

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

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The author is the executive director of IBON.org

NDFP condoles with Bello for the death of sister due to Covid

The National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) Negotiating Panel condoled with Department of Labor and Employment secretary Silvestre Bello III for the “untimely death” of his younger sister due to the coronavirus disease Saturday, April 18.

In a letter, the NDFP said it shares in the grief of Bello and urged him to stay strong in fulfilling his peace advocacy and mission to help Filipino workers, including overseas workers.

Bello was the chairperson of the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) Negotiating Panel from 2016 to 2018. He had been a member of various government negotiating panels since the time of the Fidel Ramos government.

The labor secretary confirmed the death of his “favorite sister” he described as someone who heeds his advice.

“Catharine is my favorite. She listened to me. [She was] the first to die among 10 children,” he said.  

The victim was admitted to the hospital last March 25 and was diagnosed positive of Covid-19.

Bello said they thought Catharine was on her way to recovery and were surprised to learn of her death.

In their letter of condolence to their government counterpart, the NDFP said it is of urgent importance that all forces do their respective utmost to combat the spread of the virus, save lives and to safeguard the rights and welfare of the people as the pandemic runs loose throughout the country.

“The death of your sister shall not be in vain as we exert our common effort, as members of our respective negotiating panels, to help secure the release of all political prisoners from their vulnerable conditions in prison on humanitarian and medical grounds,” the letter reads.

“This is the cry of the times as more and more countries respond to the call of the UN Secretary General and the World Health Organization for the release of prisoners,” it adds.

The letter was signed in behalf of the NDFP Negotiating Panel by its chairperson Fidel Agcaoili, chief political consultant Jose Maria Sison, and senior adviser Luis Jalandoni. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Life doubly harder in Marawi shelters as coronavirus grounds aid groups

Marawi residents find it hard to follow precautions against the novel coronavirus disease when relief goods are limited and water trucks are reducing trips. Local authorities say they do not have enough resources to feed the people for an extended period. They need outside help.

BY CARMELA FONBUENA/PCIJ

RESIDENTS trooped to the small mosque at Area 1 Temporary Shelter in Marawi City’s Sagonsongan village for the Friday prayers on March 27. They were aware they were violating instructions from the barangay chairman to observe physical distancing, a precaution against the highly contagious novel coronavirus disease that has killed at least three fellow Maranaos.

“They prayed side by side, but they were all wearing masks,” said Saipoding Mariga Mangotara, one of about 17,000 Marawi residents still living in shelters three years after the siege that flattened the city center and destroyed their homes.

The mosque-goers had a plea to Allah. They prayed for the virus to go away so that quarantine measures, which had made life even more difficult, would end.

The disease has killed over 50,000 and infected more than a million people around the world by the first week of April. The Philippines confirmed more than a hundred deaths and over 3,000 infections during the same period, but experts said the country’s poor testing rate means there are thousands more undetected cases.

Marawi City Mayor Majul Gandamra ordered all village chiefs to strictly impose “enhanced community quarantine” measures on March 19, grounding Mangotara and his neighbors inside their 24-square-meter homes.

Quarantine measures such as military and police checkpoints have hurt people’s livelihoods, including those of about 1,500 tricycle drivers and an undetermined number of “pedicab traders” who earned their living going around barangays to sell fish and vegetables.

They’re no longer allowed to go outside the shelters to earn money to buy food. Those who do have money have found it difficult to pass through checkpoints to reach the markets. There are sari-sari stores, but residents are afraid the owners will soon shut them down to keep the supply for their own families.

“We’re like chickens in a coop. We can’t get out. It’s hard because we’re running out of food. We don’t have income. We can’t buy,” said Mangotara.

Residents at the shelter got food packs from the local government, but a few kilos of rice and canned goods would last only a few days. Private donations, which have helped them get by since their displacement in 2017, have arrived in trickles since the quarantine. Even feeding programs have stopped because of crowding.

Saipoding Mariga Mangotara and wife Geraldine inside their home at Area 1 temporary shelter in Marawi City’s Sagonsongan village. File photo: Carmela Fonbuena

No more fieldwork

The quarantine has grounded most, if not all, aid and development groups operating in Marawi City, even if they’re exempted from the lockdown measures along with health workers and other emergency front liners. Task Force Bangon Marawi field office manager Felix Castro Jr., who oversees activities in the shelters, said there were no requests from the usual groups and foundations to visit the shelters lately.

Marawi residents have been asking for assistance but it’s hard for everyone to move, said Charlito Manlupig, chairman of Balay Mindanaw Foundation, an organization helping communities in Marawi and other parts of Mindanao.

“There’s zero movement among the different aid groups, as far as I know. Almost all partner international agencies have pulled out. No one is allowed to do field work,” Manlupig said.  

It’s a challenge for many temporary shelters, evacuation sites, and vulnerable communities throughout the Philippines that rely on aid groups and foundations.

“I can confirm that though not ended, most of our field activities have been significantly reduced due to the pandemic,” said Allison Lopez, spokesperson for the local chapter of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Lopez said the ICRC felt it was important to take precautionary measures to make sure its staff would not inadvertently bring the virus to vulnerable communities.

That meant postponing projects such as cash-for-work programs in Lanao del Sur and Zamboanga del Sur, as well as the distribution of food and household items to displaced people in Agusan del Sur. “These three projects alone cover 1,000 people,” said Lopez.

It’s the same at Oxfam Philippines. Humanitarian manager Rhoda Avila said they, too, have suspended field work for two weeks since the lockdown.

Oxfam was able to install handwashing facilities in some areas before the lockdown, but was forced to postpone a project to install water pump facilities in a conflict community in Maguindanao.

Families in transitory shelters in Marawi City put up sari-sari stores to augment their income.
File photo: Carmela Fonbuena

Scared of disease and hunger

Authorities have vowed to protect the Marawi shelters in case of a wider outbreak. Asnin Pendatun, cabinet secretary of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao, said they were closely watching Lanao del Sur, where Marawi City is located, because it had the most number of COVID-19 infections.

All six cases in the region as of March 31 were residents of Marawi City and Lanao del Sur. Three elderly cases have died, two were admitted to the Amai Pakpak Medical Center in Marawi, and one was quarantined at home.

This graphics is posted the Facebook page of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Interagency Task Force on COVID-19.

But authorities were still tracking attendees of a religious gathering in Malaysia from Feb. 27 to March 1, which was linked to clusters of coronavirus cases in Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei, Pendatun said. There were at least 10 attendees from Lanao del Sur.

Zia Alonto Adiong, Bangsamoro parliament member and spokesperson for the Lanao del Sur COVID-19 task force, said they were wary of undetected cases in the province. “The scarcity of test kits is a problem. We don’t know the exact number of cases, who they are, and where they are. We don’t have the data. It definitely affects the degree of response of the local government units,” he said.

Adiong was worried about asymptomatic cases, too. “They might look healthy but they are carriers of the disease. There has to be mass testing,” he said.

Displaced residents are equally scared.

In March, occupants of Bahay Pag-asa shelters in Buadi Itowa village became agitated. A resident had just returned from Metro Manila – the epicenter of coronavirus outbreak in the country – and developed a fever.

People knew she had been to Greenhills Shopping Center in San Juan, the site of the first known cases of local transmission, and feared she had brought the virus to their community. Panicked residents sent her to Amai Pakpak Medical Center. She later tested negative.

“We were really scared. We thought she caught the disease. There was a misunderstanding. We were all relieved to learn she had tested negative,” said Johanna Abdelfattah, a resident who also serves as community organizer for Balay Mindanaw Foundation.

Hunger is a force much stronger than the virus, however. Two weeks into the quarantine, fears of getting infected were overshadowed by a problem literally closer to the gut – how to get food on the table.

Some have turned fatalistic. “People here say we will die when Allah says it’s our time to die,” said Mangotara.

LGU’s burden

To make the quarantine work, it’s important to guarantee residents they will get food, water, medicines and other necessities, Balay Mindanaw area manager Charmaine Mae Dagapioso Baconga said.

“The people are scared. The people are bored. It’s hard to control their movements. Some people are complaining because it’s really been hard. They’re afraid to get the disease, but they also worry about their livelihood,” said Baconga.

Mayor Gandamra said the city would not be able to feed its people for an extended period without outside help.

“Definitely, we cannot sustain the distribution of food packs if coronavirus drags on and the quarantine measures are extended. We are not the same as the cities in Metro Manila. We are not like Quezon City that has billions of pesos in income,” he said.

Transitional Shelter Sites, as of April 2, 2020

For a population of about 200,000 people, Marawi City only has P2.5 million in its calamity fund each month, which translates to about P870,000 in emergency funds it can spend for coronavirus response. “We’ve been spending way beyond [our budget]. Fortunately, we still have savings,” Gandamra said.

The Bangsamoro regional government has sent food packs to indigents and persons under investigation (PUIs) and persons under monitoring (PUMs) for the disease, hoping to keep them in their homes. “We are coordinating with the province to be able to deliver food packs in batches,” said Pendatun.

As for the national government, the Department of Budget and Management said on April 2 that P100 billion had been released for the distribution of cash aid to poor families all over the country.

Gandamra said city officials were still checking the guidelines to see if residents in the shelters were qualified, as not all of them were beneficiaries of cash transfers under the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program.

Gandamra and Adiong were counting on private aid groups to find a way to continue assistance to displaced residents of Marawi.

Rice, water supply, medicines

The mayor hopes donors prioritize rice, as fears of a shortage have made it difficult to stockpile on the staple.

“There are provinces that do not want other local government units to buy from them. They are keeping their supply for their own people. We understand they’re protecting themselves, but there will be areas that will not have rice if the situation gets worse,” Gandamra said.

Water supply was always a problem, but coronavirus has made it worse. Water trucks that used to fill up their tanks were reducing trips lately, making it harder for residents to follow hygiene rules and handwashing instructions, Mangotara and Abdelfattah said.

Castro said there was a temporary disruption because the Marawi task force had to issue clearances to let truck drivers pass through checkpoints in Iligan, where many of them lived. He said water distribution would continue, but admitted that supply was not always enough.

There are water pumps in Sagonsongan and Bahay Pag-asa, but Abdelfattah said the queues were often long and supply was unreliable. The pumps broke down frequently because of overuse, she said.

While rains have allowed residents to collect water, they are also a cause of illnesses. “The sun is out one minute, then it rains the next. It’s hot, then cold. People have asked for medicines at the first sign of colds or fever because they’re afraid it might be coronavirus. The barangay has run out of supply,” said Abdelfattah.

Now that dry season has arrived, water pumps are badly needed as there are no rains to augment water supply. Balay Mindanao was unable to transport water pump facilities for communal gardens at Bahay Pag-asa because of the suspension of domestic air travel, Abdelfattah said.

Abdelfattah knew her neighbors envied her because she had a job at the foundation. “I tell them I will not hesitate if it’s in my power to make their lives better. But I also have to be careful with what I say to them because I cannot give them false hopes. I can only do so much right now,” she said.

Three years since the siege, displaced Marawi residents were still struggling to rise again. Coronavirus is poised to set back gains they have made.

“Coronavirus has made our lives doubly harder… I hope none of us will get it. I cannot imagine what’s going to happen to us.”

= = = = = = =
 
Carmela Fonbuena is a freelance journalist based in Manila. Follow her on Twitter (@carmelafonbuena) or email her at elafonbuena@gmail.com for comments.
 — PCIJ

Duterte report shows govt COVID-19 response is insufficient, insensitive

by IBON Media

Research group IBON said that that the Duterte administration’s first official report on COVID-19 efforts only underscored just how government response to the worst public health crisis the country has ever faced is slow, insufficient, and insensitive.

The group said that the report failed to show clearly what the government’s plan is and even just what is being done.

Pres. Duterte submitted to Congress the first official report on COVID-19 response efforts. These weekly reports are required under the Republic Act (RA) 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act and are supposed to monitor how the emergency powers granted to the president are utilized. 

The reports should include all response actions carried out by the president in the preceding week, as well as an accounting of the funds used for these. The report submitted, however, covered efforts since the start of the military lockdown.

IBON said that it is now the third week of the lockdown, and the report exposed how government efforts are slow, insufficient and leave out much-needed measures particularly towards bolstering the health sector and urgent socioeconomic relief.

It also showed government’s insensitivity to overwhelmed and unprotected health workers, and millions of Filipinos left with little or no means to meet their families’ basic needs during the lockdown.

As of Tuesday, March 31, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the country has risen to 2,084 with 88 dead from 138 cases and 12 dead as of March 15.

Undermanned and overburdened hospitals strain health workers and unduly exposed them to COVID-19. The Philippine Medical Association has already reported 17 doctors dying while battling the virus.

The government has already acknowledged the poorest 18 million households in the country needing assistance.

Meanwhile, IBON estimates 14.5 million dislocated workers and informal earners, and up to 7.5 million low-income families vulnerable to shocks to their livelihood just in Luzon.

IBON said that government measures to bolster health response and protection for health workers are severely lacking. The report only mentioned the Bureau of Customs (BOC) releasing just 48 boxes of personal protective equipment (PPE), six ventilators, and 97,600 test kits.

The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) produced 500,000 face masks.

The group noted that the report did not mention such critical tasks like increasing the number of health workers and mass testing. It did not include giving any additional hazard pay, setting up isolation or quarantine facilities, and medical assistance for indigent patients.

Apart from mentioning six ventilators, nothing else was said about expanding facilities and equipment for the treatment of COVID-19 patients, said the group.

With regard to socioeconomic relief measures, IBON said that this is coming down in trickles if at all to the most vulnerable Filipino families. Based on the report, the group noted that of the 18 million households that government acknowledged as needing assistance: only 0.04% (6,314 beneficiaries) received cash, food, and non-food aid from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), while only 1.1% received 194,467 food packs prepared for maybe two to three days.

There was also no mention of emergency support for the 5.6 million senior citizens nationwide.

Meanwhile, millions of Filipinos whose livelihoods and earnings have been affected are also neglected.

IBON noted that only 8,641 or just 0.08% of the up to 10.7 million affected workers nationwide received Php5,000 in COVID-19 Adjustment Measures Program (CAMP) financial assistance under the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE).

Only 51,293 or just 1% of up to 5.2 million affected informal earners nationwide became beneficiaries of DOLE’s Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers (TUPAD) work-for-pay programs.

However, there was no report of any financial assistance given by the Department of Agriculture (DA) to the country’s 9.7 million farmers, farm workers and fisherfolk.

IBON said that the lack of or minimal efforts on COVID-19 crisis shown in Pres. Duterte’s first official report bodes ill for the country. It only reflects the disorganized, confusing and chaotic government response so far.

The group said that the pandemic in the country can be contained and overcome if the government replaces its militarist population control-biased approach.

Its measures should instead prioritize virus tracking and surveillance, substantially build the public health system, and address the socioeconomic needs of the population, especially the most vulnerable.

Immediate steps can include health interventions such as mass testing and monitoring, and substantial provision of PPE and other support for health frontliners. Urgent socioeconomic interventions can include the immediate and substantial provision of emergency relief packages, unconditional cash transfers, wage subsidies, and financial assistance, among others, said the group. #

(Kodao reposts IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.)

Stranded OFWs urge lifting of HK travel ban; quarantined Pinoy seafarer’s daughter seeks medical repatriation for dad

Hong Kong domestic worker Eleveneth Baldero said she fears losing her job due to the travel ban imposed by the Manila government to the Chinese territory. Contractual workers like her may be fired if unable to return back to their employers on time as Philippine authorities have prevented Filipino citizens from travelling to Hong Kong and the rest of China.

“My contract is set to expire on 6 March that is why I’m really worried. Financially, I am running out of money to sustain my stay here in the Philippines. This is why I really need to return back to Hong Kong,” Eleveneth said in a press conference held at the Migrante International office in Quezon City last Monday, 17 February.

Eleveneth and other migrant workers demanded that the Rodrigo Duterte government lift the corona virus disease-19 (COVID-19) travel ban it imposed last February 2 and grant exemption to returning migrant workers, students and residents. 

Rowena Lee was unable to hold back her tears thinking about her recuperating mother in Hong Kong recently discharged from a hospital from another ailment. “This is a very big problem for us since my 75-year old mother in Hong Kong still needs medical attention and I really want to return so I can be with her. She is all by herself,” Rowena said.

Rowena took a short leave from work 28 February and is being prevented to return to Hong Kong by the travel ban. Aside from worrying for her mother and her job, she is also anxious about bills and house rents that she needs to pay. “Our family needs us. It will be very hard for us if we get forced by the situation to borrow money just to extend our stay here. I am pleading to the government to lift the travel ban so we can return to our normal lives. We are struggling because we are not earning anything here,” she said.

Tess Aquino is a permanent Hong Kong resident and had been for 23 years. Aquino went home to the Philippines last 15 January for her annual leave and was set to fly back on 9 February. She heard about the travel ban on last 2 February and received an email notice from Philippine Airlines informing her about her flight’s cancellation. “I have attempted all possible ways to return back to Hong Kong. I was told by my company to try travelling to Hong Kong via Vietnam. Travel agencies refused to book my flight because of the travel ban and I was told that I will only be wasting my money because even if I make it to Vietnam, they would still not allow us to get to our final destination which is Hong Kong. For now, my company allowed me to temporarily work as home-based but for how long? I don’t think our employers will wait for us forever if this continues,” she narrated

Former Filipino Migrant Workers’ Union (FMWU-Hong Kong) chairperson Feliza Guy Benitez explained that overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Hong Kong are usually given two-week annual leaves, an opportunity they take to visit the Philippines. The leaves are often non-extendible.  “If OFWs get terminated because they exceeded the 14-day leave, it will be hard for us to get back again to zero just to process all the application papers and the government won’t even pay for it,” Benitez said.

(Migrante Hong Kong photo)

Urgent appeal

Benitez said 131 Hong Kong-based Filipino organizations already issued their Urgent Appeal Joint Statement calling on the Duterte government to lift the ban.  The statement estimated that there are around 25,000 overseas Filipino workers who have been unable to leave the country because of the ban. “We all feel that the travel ban which was imposed without a warning or consultation is unjustified and oppressive. It was decided upon without a comprehensive understanding of how it would affect us, and was not even in line with health protocols set by the World Health Organization. The abruptness by which it was carried out also belied the concern for Filipinos abroad that President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed in numerous speeches and interviews,” the statement reads.

The statement added that an additional 1,000 OFWs are affected by the travel ban consisting of Filipino residents, students and small business proprietors in Hong Kong. “Health-wise, we also feel safer in Hong Kong where we are assured of excellent public health care at little or no cost to us. Some of us who have private medical insurance get the added bonus of being treated at private hospitals, also for free,” the statement said.

Feliza Guy Benitez, another Hong Kong OFW, decried the state of public health services in the Philippines. “People who need medical attention are safer in Hong Kong because of their advanced healthcare system. It will be harder for OFWs to settle back here in the Philippines because of high unemployment, low wages and contractualization,” Feliza Guy said.

The group also complained about the “miniscule amount of compensation offered by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) to qualified OFWs. “Each stranded OFW was offered Php10,000 compensation from the OWWA Fund, an amount that would not even pay for the expenses they had to bear after being stranded at the airport. Moreover, non-OFWs were given no help at all, when many of them don’t even have houses in the Philippines, and have to pay for food and lodging while waiting for the ban to be lifted. They are also in danger of suffering even more if they lose their jobs, as they pay high rents and other expenses such as school fees for their children in Hong Kong,” the appeal said.

“When I went to OWWA, I was told that I am not covered because they are only processing compensation up to 16 February. I really do not know whether I will still receive any compensation from the government,” Eleveneth said.

Surrendering right to government assistance

The OFWs also object to proposals that they sign a waiver freeing the government from any responsibility should they decide to proceed with their travel to Hong Kong. Tess said the waiver is “problematic because it is going to free the government from its responsibility towards us OFWs.”

Migrante Philippines rights and welfare coordinator Lao Castillo added, “The waiver requirement is tantamount to obliging OFWs to surrender their right to receive government assistance. It is a dangerous precedent especially in times of conflict or crisis situations.”

Pinoy seafarer in trouble

Meanwhile, Victoria Lavado, daughter of the Filipino seafarer on the cruise ship Diamond fears her father and around 500 other Filipino seafarers who were placed under quarantine in Japan after 10 foreign ship crews which include 1 Filipino contracted COVID-19. “It took a long time before they received safety masks and they are still forced to work as if it is business as usual. There is no separate quarantine area for those who are already infected and they can still mix with other crews despite the risks. This is why I was really worried when I found out from reports that there are already 30 to 60 crews who are getting infected with COVID-19 daily,” Victoria said.

“We really want the Duterte government to work on medical repatriation for my father and for the other Filipino seafarers. The government must find a way to provide quality medical services for them here in the Philippines which is unfortunately notorious for its poor public healthcare and medical facilities,” Victoria added.

The group United Filipinos (UNIFIL)-Migrante Hong Kong’s said that the OFWs predicament may only be blamed on the government’s labor export policy that has been in place for so long. “If there are only adequate employment opportunities here in the Philippines, there could have been no need for us to leave the country. The government is now telling us that we cannot return back to our work. This is almost akin to taking away our lives.,” UNIFIL said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)