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Shifting to MGCQ a short-sighted and desperate move without containing pandemic

By IBON Communications

Research group IBON said that lifting COVID-related restrictions to boost the economy is a short-sighted and desperate move amid continuing failure to contain the pandemic. The group agreed that the government’s excessive quarantine restrictions since last year are behind the economy’s unprecedented and continuing collapse. IBON however said that easing restrictions will not spur recovery without a real fiscal stimulus while risking the more rapid spread of COVID-19.

Economic planning secretary Karl Kendrick Chua recently advised Malacañang to put the entire country under modified general community quarantine (MGCQ). The ‘less restrictive’ MGCQ will supposedly allow the resumption of business activities previously limited under the pandemic lockdown.

IBON pointed out that the proposal to ease restrictions comes while the number of COVID-19 cases has been increasing since the start of the year. The 9,161 cases in the first week of the year increased to 10,741 so far in the week February 4-10. Data for this most recent week may even still be incomplete because of delays in reporting. The group asked where the optimism that the coronavirus is contained is coming from.

IBON stressed that the administration needs to greatly improve its measures to contain COVID-19 instead of relying on its favored blunt instrument of protracted community quarantines. The group enumerated the measures needed as better testing, more aggressive contact tracing, selective quarantines of possible cases, and speedy isolation of confirmed cases. With the number of cases still increasing, easing restrictions without these measures in place risks COVID-19 spreading even faster.

At the same time, IBON added, shifting to MGCQ may not even spur the economy all that much because the government still refuses to spend on any real fiscal stimulus. The group stressed that significantly higher levels of government spending are needed to make up for the lockdown-driven collapse in consumption and investment. This is more so given the now record joblessness and widespread loss of incomes and savings.

Government first of all needs to contain the pandemic better, IBON said. On top of this, it simply has to spend more to help households and small businesses cope with record jobs and income losses and to recover from the economic shock, stressed the group.

The group pointed out how the record 9.5% contraction of the economy in 2020 was substantially due to how the Philippine government refused additional spending last year. In the first 11 months of 2020, its disbursements only increased by 11.6% which is not just below the originally programmed 13.6% increase for the year but even lower than the average 12.9% increase in spending over the period 2017-2019. 

IBON also highlighted how spending even slows this year with the Php4.5 trillion 2021 national budget just a 9.9% increase from the 2020 budget. As it is, the Philippine COVID-19 response is the smallest of the major countries of Southeast Asia at just 6.3% of GDP according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

IBON proposes the following to address people’s urgent needs and stimulate the economy:

  1. Php10,000 monthly emergency cash subsidies to 18 million poor and low-income families (poorest 75% of families) or Php10,000/month for up to three months or Php5,000 for six months. This amount comes to Php540 billion.
  2. Php100 emergency wage relief for workers (towards eventual implementation of a Php750 national minimum wage). Micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) can be supported to give this for three months with a Php101 billion fund.
  3. Php40.5 billion cash-for-work programs for the unemployed.
  4. Php78 billion financial assistance (zero/low interest rate and collateral-free loans) for informal earners.
  5. Php200 billion in financial assistance (zero/low interest rate and collateral-free loans) prioritizing Filipino-owned and domestically-oriented MSMEs.
  6. Php220 billion in agricultural support to increase the productivity of farmers and fisherfolk.
  7. Php200-billion COVID-19 health response and Php113-billion distance education to ensure quality education.

The group also stressed that the government can finance these if it really wanted to. IBON identified a universe of at least Php3.9 trillion in funds from which realignments can be made, Php1 trillion in emergency bonds and other government securities, Php391.9 billion in immediate revenues from progressive taxes especially a wealth tax, and at least Php333 billion more from a land value tax. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Pandemic preventing GRP-NDFP back-channel talks

The spike in new Coronavirus-19 (Covid-19) cases in Europe late last year frustrated plans for back-channel talks between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).

NDFP chief political consultant Jose Maria Sison said a planned trip by GRP emissaries to The Netherlands last December did not push through as many countries in Europe implemented extended lockdowns.

“What (labor secretary) Bebot [Silvestre Bello] said that he and (former Pangasinan Representative and GRP Negotiating Panel member) Nani (Hernani Braganza) planned to come over was true,” Sison said.

Sison confirmed that the planned back-channel talks are with the permission of GRP President Rodrigo Duterte and with the mediation of Royal Norwegian Government Special Envoy to the Philippine Peace Process Idun Tvedt.

During the online Ninth Ecumenical Church Leaders’ Summit on Peace on Thursday Bello revealed that back-channel talks are ongoing between the parties.

Bello said that Duterte is again “very much inclined” to revive the negotiations he scuttled in June 2017.

The former GRP chief negotiator said he is confident formal negotiations can resume within Duterte’s last 16 months in office.

Interim NDFP chief negotiator Juliet de Lima for her part told the online forum that the planned back-channel talks would resume discussions on an interim peace agreement (IPA) that includes agreements on social and economic reforms.

IPA discussions shall also include possible coordinated unilateral ceasefire declarations as well as modes for their implementation, de Lima said.

From lows of 108,000 new daily cases last July, new Covid-19 cases spiked in Europe from November last year to January this year, peaking at upwards of two million new cases daily in mid-November.

European countries have since re-imposed strict lock downs and health protocols.

Sison said no new date has yet been set for Bello and Braganza’s possible trip.

Braganza also told Kodao that until vaccinated, it would be difficult for him and Bello to plan the trip.

Mahirap umalis na walang vaccination. Iba-iba rin ang rules hinggil sa quarantine,” he said. (It is ill-advised without being vaccinated. Rules regarding quarantines are also different.) # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Reds assure safe passage of anti-Covid vaccines into guerilla zones

The New People’s Army (NPA) will ensure unimpeded passage of anti-coronavirus vaccines in its guerilla base and zones, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) announced.

CPP information officer Marco Valbuena said the NPA will ensure that transportation of vaccines will be provided a humanitarian corridor into areas under the control and influence of the guerrilla army.

The CPP statement is in response to President Rodrigo Duterte’s appeal Monday night to allow COVID-19 vaccines to be transported “freely and safely” in far-flung areas once they become available.

“The [CPP] must guarantee that the vaccines, in the course of their being transported to areas where there are no city health officers and medical persons…please leave the medicines alone,” Duterte said.

“I am asking you now to observe that rule because that is for the Filipino people…Kindly observe the rules of humanity,” Duterte added.

“It is a matter of principle for the NPA to respect all humanitarian undertakings that benefit the masses,” the CPP replied.

The CPP however suggested that the transportation, distribution and inoculation drive of Covid-19 vaccines especially in the interior areas be handled by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Philippine Red Cross and other civilian humanitarian agencies.

The CPP said personnel of said agencies are properly trained and have the facilities to undertake such missions.

“Non-Red cross vehicles that will be used as Covid-19 vaccine transporters must be clearly and properly marked with a red cross over [a] white background,” the group said.

The CPP also strongly suggested that the vaccines not be transported in military vehicles, especially those which are not properly marked and carrying armed soldiers.

“Over the past year, the AFP has been carrying out combat and psywar (psychological warfare) operations behind the veil of implementing Covid-19 restrictions,” Valbuena explained.

Using the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to transport and handle vaccines will not encourage people to be vaccinated especially in many areas in the countryside where people are traumatized by military garrisoning of their communities and helicopter gunships firing missiles, he added.

The CPP complained that peasant civilians are worried that the AFP might use the vaccination drive for counterinsurgency and demand “surrender” before vaccine.

The Manila government said that the first batch of anti-Covid19 vaccines may arrive next week and the first inoculations may start within February. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

2020 Yearender: Economic lessons from Jose Rizal

by Sonny Africa

Wrapping up a cataclysmic year, Jose Rizal’s legendary quote is something for the Duterte administration and its economic managers to reflect on: “Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.

The worst economic collapse in Philippine history and in Southeast Asia is mainly due to the government’s stumbling pandemic response and lackluster economic measures in 2020. If, again, there is more bluster than action in 2021 then real recovery will be much farther away than it should be.

Big promises

The economic managers announced a grandiose “4-Pillar Socioeconomic Strategy Against COVID-19” in April. The “Grand Total” of Php1.17 trillion was equivalent to 6.3% of gross domestic product (GDP) and sought to give the impression of grand action. This number was extremely misleading though.

There was significant double-counting. Supposedly Php338.9 billion in government spending on emergency support and health measures was counted alongside Php615 billion in borrowing – almost half of which debt was not even really going to be spent on COVID response. Another Php220.5 billion in additional liquidity and tax relief was also added.

The latest package released in October corrects some of these deceits while introducing new ones. The “Grand Total” is now an imposing Php2.57 trillion equivalent to 13.8% of GDP. The borrowing was removed while emergency support and health measures increase to Php558.8 billion. Emergency support now includes supposedly Php132 billion in credit guarantee and loan programs for small business.

The value of the package is particularly inflated by Php1.31 trillion in additional liquidity from Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) measures, Php459 billion in estimated incremental loans to MSMEs, and Php61.3 billion in foregone tax revenues especially because of corporate income tax cuts under the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises (CREATE) bill.

These are still misleading. The additional liquidity and incremental loans cited do not mean actual investments or economic activity. Smaller businesses are not borrowing because of collapsed aggregate demand and uncertain market conditions – the “incremental loans to MSMEs” are just an illustrative extrapolation from a Php45 billion capital infusion to government financial institutions. Banks meanwhile are becoming more risk averse with non-performing loans already nearly doubling to 3.2% of total loans in October from 1.7% in the same period last year.

The big numbers seem to be designed for press releases and media briefings to convince the public that the Duterte administration is undertaking herculean efforts to boost the economy. The reality is very different.

Tiny action

Measured against the economic devastation from poor pandemic containment – including over-reliance on long and harsh lockdowns and under-investment in effective testing, tracing, quarantines and isolation – government efforts border on the trivial. The most recent official estimate of -9% real GDP growth in 2020 means that the economy will be Php1.74 trillion smaller than in 2019.

There has not really been any stimulus which, to mean anything, has to involve significant additional spending beyond pre-pandemic levels. The government originally projected Php4.21 trillion in disbursements in 2020. Upon the pandemic, planned disbursements increased only slightly by Php121.4 billion to Php4.34 trillion or just a 2.9% increase.

Measured in current prices, GDP in 2019 was Php19.52 trillion which means that additional government spending in 2020 will be equivalent to just 0.6% of GDP in 2019. The economic managers refuse to spend more because of their fixation on being creditworthy to foreign debtors. The stingy non-stimulus is due to their narrow-minded fiscal conservatism.

How to reconcile this with the Php500.7 billion figure allotted for COVID-19 response as of mid-December – consisting of Php386.1 billion under Bayanihan 1, Php6.6 billion under Post-Bayanihan 1, and Php108 billion under Bayanihan 2? Most of this spending comes from existing budget items – either discontinued programs/projects (Php306.7 billion), existing special purpose funds (Php109.3 billion), regular agency budgets (Php21.2 billion), and unutilized automatic appropriations/excess revenue collections (Php63.5 billion).

The Bayanihan 2 funds released also do not even seem to have been spent yet including for vital cash assistance. The social welfare department supposedly has Php6 billion budget for around 1.2 million beneficiaries. As of mid-December, only Php931 million has actually been disbursed to just 142,058 beneficiaries.

It is likewise with labor department emergency assistance of Php16.4 billion for around 800,000-1.4 million formal workers under CAMP, 500,000 informal workers under TUPAD, and 200,000 OFWs under AKAP. Only 350,000 workers have been reported to get assistance as of the first week of December.

The rigidity and obsession with creditworthiness unfortunately carries over into the New Year. The recently approved Php4.5 trillion national government budget for 2021 is 9.9% larger than the 2020 General Appropriations Act (GAA). This increase is smaller than the historical annual average increase of 11.1% since 1987. It is actually even smaller than previous budget increases of the Duterte administration in 2017 (23.6% increase) and 2020 (13.6%). So, again, there’s no stimulus there.

Devastating consequences

The Duterte government’s inadequate efforts are behind the extreme economic collapse and excessive suffering of tens of millions of Filipino families. The biggest blunder is the failure to contain COVID-19 – economic activity will remain repressed as long as the pandemic is raging. The administration diverts from this original sin whenever it invokes the false dichotomy between health and the economy.

The stingy fiscal response and inappropriate monetary measures come on top of that. The lockdowns and continued physical distancing have most of all caused household incomes, business investments and aggregate demand to collapse. These warrant a much larger fiscal response especially in terms of emergency assistance to households to improve their welfare and boost consumption spending in the economy.

Yet the economic managers were stingy in providing cash assistance under Bayanihan 1 – at the height of the draconian lockdowns – and only deign to give token amounts under Bayanihan 2 and in the 2021 national government budget. The trillion peso liquidity infusions gave the illusion of meaningful intervention but, with domestic and even global demand so weak, were really just pushing on a string with little or no results.

Measured as a share of GDP, the Philippines has the smallest fiscal response in Southeast Asia – which, along with the poor health response, goes far in explaining its experiencing the biggest economic contraction in the region. The economy is smaller today than it was in 2018, and will likely only return to its size last year at the earliest by 2022.

The insistence of the economic managers that the economy was going strong coming into the pandemic harkens to glory days that never were. Economic growth has been slowing in every year of the Duterte administration from 6.9% in 2016. This fell to 6.7% in 2017, 6.2% in 2018, and 5.9% in 2019. Average annual employment growth of 1.2% in 2017-2019 is the lowest in the post-Marcos era.

The number of employed Filipinos in 2020 has fallen to its lowest in four years. The 39.4 million reported employed Filipinos in 2020 (average for the whole year) is 2.6 million less than in 2019, and even less than the 41 million reported employed four years ago in 2016.

There were probably at least 5.8 million unemployed Filipinos and an unemployment rate of 12.7% as of October 2020, more than the official count of just 3.8 million if the nearly two million invisibly unemployed for dropping out of the labor force due to the pandemic shock are also counted. There were more unemployed Filipinos in 2020 at any time in the country’s history.

Domestic unemployment is bloated by displaced overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). The labor department reported over 680,000 OFWs seeking emergency assistance as of end-November. Deployments have also drastically collapsed with the 682,000 OFWs leaving in the first nine months of the year a huge 60% less than the 1.7 million deployed in the same period last year.

Household incomes are collapsing. Family incomes are only measured every three years with the last time this was done being in 2018. At the time, 17.6 million Filipinos were estimated to fall below the low official poverty threshold of about Php71 per person per day. In a worst case scenario of incomes contracting 20% without emergency cash subsidies, the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) estimates the number to rise to as much as 29.7 million.

As it is, extrapolating from BSP Consumer Expectations Survey data, as much as 2.6-3.2 million households have had their savings wiped out by the pandemic economic shock. These are the vulnerable families whose income and livelihood losses were so large as to eat up their savings that were so low to begin with.

Lessons for 2021

The plight of tens of millions of Filipinos adversely affected by the pandemic and poor government response is not helped by the administration insisting that all is well.

The government could have pre-empted complete economic decline with a more rapid and effective health response as in Vietnam and Thailand. This remains the most urgent concern today. Unfortunately, despite relatively large numbers of COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and quarantining are lagging which means the coronavirus is still spreading. The vaccine-driven strategy is also not reassuring with emerging controversies around procurement, potential distribution bottlenecks, and self-serving preferential inoculation.

Economic distress in 2020 could also have been mitigated by a larger and better economic response of more emergency assistance, bigger support for MSMEs and domestic agriculture, and larger government spending on social infrastructure and services. These could also have been paid for with a more creative debt and finance mobilization strategy.

Instead, the Duterte administration’s poor health and economic response has resulted in the destruction of large swathes of service-oriented informal sector livelihoods, hundreds of thousands of displaced workers, reduced wages and benefits, worsened insecurity, MSME closures, and record joblessness. The wealthiest families and biggest corporations on the other hand will easily weather momentary income losses, with many even seeing their profits and market shares increase.

And yet despite a meager economic response, the budget deficit is soaring to record highs because of the collapse in revenues and continued misprioritization of infrastructure, militarism and debt service. Government debt is moreover bloating not to finance COVID-19 response but mainly to pay for unchanged government spending mispriorities.

The biggest economic lesson of 2020 is clear – the government has a vital role in economic development especially in times of crises. COVID-19 hit the entire world and the difference was in how each country dealt with it. The public has a right to decent governance which civil society groups and many other concerned Filipinos have been asserting throughout the year, many even at great risk to their lives and liberty.

Sustained administration disinformation and diversionary tactics seek to hide a plain fact: the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic and economy is behind the worst economic collapse in the region and in Philippine history. The coming year can be better only if the people keep working at changing the government and governance for the better.

As Rizal of course also asserted: “There are no tyrants where there are no slaves.” #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

More LGBTIQ+, sex worker rights defenders attacked during COVID pandemic

There are more violence against LGBTIQ+ (lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer +) and sex worker rights defenders as the COVID-19 pandemic rages, an international human rights group revealed.

Ireland-based Front Line Defenders  said 50 human rights defenders (HRDs) protecting LGBTIQ+ communities and sex workers in 13 countries had been at risk between April and August 2020 when the pandemic had been at its worst.

“The results were stark. Activists around the world reported an increase in physical attacks, sexual assault, arrests, raids on their homes, and harassment by security forces during COVID-19,” the group said in a report last December 17, International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

“Almost every week since COVID-19 began, we’ve received photos of violent attacks on the homes of LGBTIQ+ HRDs,” Erin Kilbride, researcher and author of the report, said.

The report said that apart from the virus itself, state responses to the pandemic have affected queer and sex worker communities in ways that worsen class, gender, sexual and racial injustices.

As they responded to emergencies, HRDs from these groups faced increasing risks of arrest, physical attack, and psychological trauma, Kilbride wrote.

Frontline Defenders cited Tanzania where it investigated a spate of attacks on activists’ homes after it became known locally that they were housing LGBTIQ+ people or sex workers at risk of homelessness, hunger and police violence on the streets.

Aside from the east African country, Frontline Defenders conducted fact-finding missions in Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and El Salvador and interviewed respondents Tunisia, the United States, Ireland, Thailand, Malawi, the Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Zimbabwe, and Eswatini.

Also documented in the report are mass arrests at the offices of LGBTI rights organisations; closure of

HRD-run medical clinics; sexual harassment and detention of transgender HRDs at security checkpoints; homophobic and transphobic defamation portraying HRDs as spreaders of COVID-19; and severe psychological trauma over their inability to fully respond to the many dire needs of their communities.

 “The HRDs who gave their stories to this investigation are enduring violent attacks, raids on shelters, arrests, and rampant stigmatization for peacefully demanding access to food, shelter and healthcare for their communities during the pandemic,” the report said.

The group reported that activists around the world have turned their homes into emergency shelters for homeless members of the LGBTIQ+ and sex workers sectors, but have themselves endure severe physical, sexual and psychological trauma for helping their communities survive the pandemic.

“LGBTIQ+ and sex worker rights defenders have continued their critical, life-saving work during COVID-19 despite immense threats to their physical and psychological health. In addition to human rights advocacy and emergency response work, they are filling humanitarian gaps left by corrupt governments and discriminatory pandemic response programmes,” Front Line Defenders Executive Director Andrew Anderson said.

“Now more than ever, we affirm our call to end attacks on marginalized defenders doing life-saving work on the ground,” he added. # (Report and photo by Raymund B. Villanueva)

Duterte gov’t fails to meet its human rights obligations amid the pandemic

by IBON Media & Communications

The Philippine government is a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The covenant obliges the government to take measures to prevent or at least mitigate the impact of the pandemic. Its gross failure to do so is leading to unprecedented but preventable suffering for millions of Filipinos.

The country’s poorest and most marginalized are being left behind by the COVID-19 response of the Duterte administration. On the other hand, wealthy creditors are protected and large corporations including foreign investors are getting their profits boosted.

COVID-19 spreading

The Duterte administration’s inability to contain COVID-19 is the clearest sign of its failure to address the pandemic. In Southeast Asia, Vietnam and Thailand show that an effective government response is possible. Yet the Philippines, adjusting for population size, has the second most number of COVID cases next to small city-state Singapore, and the most number of deaths.

The Philippines has over 4,000 cases per million population (more than double the regional average of around 2,000), and nearly 80 deaths per million population (more than triple the regional average of 26). This is despite the longest and harshest lockdowns and quarantine measures in the region.

Emergency aid falling

The government’s refusal to give meaningful aid is causing unparalleled suffering. The latest labor force survey reported 3.8 million unemployed Filipinos and an unemployment rate of 8.7% in October. IBON however estimates the real number to be at least 5.8 million, with an unemployment rate of 12.7%, if those who were forced out of the labor force by the pandemic or discouraged by the obvious lack of work are also counted. Earlier, private opinion surveys already reported 7.6 million families going hungry.

At least 12-13 million Filipino families, or the poorest half of the population, are facing economic distress because of the pandemic and the worst economic collapse in the country’s history. The administration’s Bayanihan 2 however gives emergency aid to at most around 3.3 million families, who are even getting just half as much cash subsidies as supposedly given under Bayanihan 1.

This is because the economic managers refuse to spend on emergency aid for poor and vulnerable families and only allowed a token Php22.8 billion under Bayanihan 2. This is a far cry from the Php238 billion in aid under Bayanihan 1 which has already been used up by beneficiary households. It is even worse in the proposed 2021 national government budget where pandemic-related aid falls to just Php9.9 billion.

As it is, with only nine days left in the effectivity of Bayanihan 2, the social welfare department has only given one-time emergency subsidies to a mere 64,839 beneficiaries at an average of just Php6,720 per family. The labor department meanwhile has only given CAMP support to around 350,000 workers.

The Duterte administration’s so-called emergency assistance is so small that it is just a token measure to give the illusion of responding. Tens of millions of Filipinos are not getting any help causing millions to go hungry and sink deeper into poverty.

Corporate profits rising

The government is also making inequality worse. While millions of poor families are neglected, large corporations including foreign firms are going to get hundreds of billions of pesos in additional profits over the coming years from big corporate income tax cuts.

Disregarding the critical need for revenues to respond to the pandemic, the economic managers pushed their Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises (CREATE) Act and even dishonestly presented this as a COVID-19 stimulus. This is a willful violation of the obligation to mobilize the necessary resources for responding to serious health and economic distress from COVID-19.

Rights being violated

The proposed 2021 budget also violates human rights. The state has an obligation to devote the maximum available resources to combat COVID-19 and the economic crisis in the most equitable manner.

However, the 2021 budget fails to allocate resources in a way that prioritizes the public health crisis and the economic burdens the poor are facing. The proposed 2021 budget spends less on health and on emergency aid than in 2020. On the other hand, the budgets for infrastructure, military and police, and debt servicing all increase. Next year’s budget does not protect poor and vulnerable groups nor mitigate the impact of the pandemic on them.

The Duterte administration’s contempt for human rights is complete. It violates civil and political rights with its systematic political repression and killings of activists and alleged drug offenders. With its neglectful pandemic response, it also violates the social and economic rights of tens of millions of Filipinos. The country is even further away from the full and equal enjoyment of the social and economic rights enshrined in the ICESCR and even in the 1987 Philippine Constitution. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

For two mothers, justice harder to reach amid pandemic

Two mothers share how it feels to be prisoners of misery. On top of the uncertainties brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, Marites Asis agonizes over how the justice system has treated her daughter and her late granddaughter, baby River, while Barbara Ruth Angeles has to endure the loss of a daughter to sickness while seeking justice for her son, who’s been in jail for months.

By Aie Balagtas See / Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

The wheels of justice are grinding exceedingly slow for Marites Asis and Barbara Ruth Angeles.

Marites is the mother of Reina Mae “Ina” Nasino, an urban poor leader who was arrested in Manila in November 2019. Ina learned she was pregnant weeks before her transfer to Manila City Jail and gave birth to baby River on July 1, only to be separated from her newborn after a month.

Marites became worried not only over Ina’s freedom and safety, but also over baby River’s health. River, who was dependent on formula milk and donations from the milk bank, was confined at the Philippine General Hospital after contracting pneumonia in September. Baby River’s death sparked public outrage as Ina was not allowed to visit the hospital and was given only six hours to say goodbye to her baby.

Painter Barbara Ruth Angeles has a similar story. It’s been months since she last saw her son Inno, who was arrested on what she said were trumped-up drug charges in Quezon City in 2018. To add to her misery, Inno’s older and only sister died of bladder problems in August.

Inno was not able to say goodbye.

Barbara Ruth has yet to properly mourn the sudden passing of her eldest child as she is busy earning a living while finding ways to free Inno. Barbara Ruth is also busy taking care of her 12-year-old granddaughter, who is now an orphan.

Marites and Barbara Ruth are free but mired in misery that could only be cured by the delivery of justice.

Here are their stories, in their own words.

Marites Asis, illustrated by Alexandra Paredes. (PCIJ)

Justice is heavy handed for Reina Mae Nasino and baby River

By Marites Asis (as told to Aie Balagtas See)

I found out that my daughter Ina was pregnant the same time Covid-19 struck. I felt the weight of heaven crash down on me.

I couldn’t give an interview without crying. At night, I even cry myself to sleep. You’d think I was crazy.

I learned about my daughter’s pregnancy in February, a few weeks before the police were set to transfer her to Manila City Jail.

That’s why when lockdowns were imposed, I was anxious. You need social distancing, but they’re cramped in a dormitory that houses 111 people.

It seemed risky for my daughter to be pregnant and at the same time detained in jail, where she could catch the virus.

I was asleep when Ina was arrested [on Nov. 5, 2019]. Someone went to my house at about 5 a.m. and told me about Ina’s arrest. The person said she was taken to the CIDG (Criminal Investigation and Detection Group) office in Manila Police District (MPD). In short, I rushed to MPD around 5 a.m.

I was hysterical.

I went to Ate Vicky, my older sister, the woman who raised all of us, including Ina. We consider her our mother.

Ate Vicky said we should go to MPD. At MPD headquarters, however, they did not allow us to see Ina immediately.

Investigators were asking them if they really owned those guns.

I was furious.

The police planted evidence against Ina. I know my daughter. They planted guns and grenades. During the arrest, the cops covered their faces with pillows. Who in his right mind would do that to our youth?

It hurts so much to see your child in jail.

You couldn’t even go out because of coronavirus. You’re stuck at home. Anxious and worried.

Before coronavirus hit, I would visit her in jail every day. I never missed a visit until visitation rights were cancelled last March.

With the lockdown in place, I felt helpless.

I always wonder how my daughter is doing. Is she eating well? Can she take a shower in private or do they take showers in groups?

I pity my daughter.

Because of the virus, we could not see each other, especially when she was still pregnant. Covid-19 exacerbated my pain.

She said maybe I could see her again in October.

It’s difficult. It’s really, really difficult. I couldn’t sleep at night. I would always think of her. She would talk to us through video calls, and we were happy to see her tummy grow.

But I felt so guilty. I couldn’t take care of my own daughter.

Ina was supposed to give birth on July 10 but she gave birth nine days early, on July 1.

I didn’t even see her at the hospital.

I was asleep. A jail personnel called me at midnight. She instructed me to go to Fabella Hospital as Ina was about to give birth.

I rushed to Ate Vicky once again. Together we went to Fabella, hoping we could be by my daughter’s side on that important day.

When we got there, the hospital administration said visitors were not allowed because of their Covid-19 protocols.

Anyway, the hospital said Ina had given birth.

Ate Vicky and I went back to Fabella on July 3 to bring diapers and water for the baby.

The security guards said my daughter was still there. They didn’t allow us to see her, so we asked if they could hand the package over to Ina.

On our way home, about noontime, Ate Vicky’s phone rang. It was Ina. She said the baby was crying because she could not produce milk. The baby was hungry.

It baffled us because we thought she was still in the hospital. Ina said they returned to jail on July 2.

No one told us. We just found out. That gave us another bout of sharp pain.

The security guards played us for fools!

We attended to Ina first. When we reached the city jail, we were told the baby was already given formula milk.

Then we stormed Fabella Hospital to confront the guards. We demanded that they return the diapers and water. Those belong to us.

They didn’t even want to return the water and diapers, so I complained at the hospital’s information center.

I last saw Ina when she handed the baby to us on [Aug. 13].

We barely met her. We were not supposed to see Ina. I just asked the warden if I could have a glimpse of my daughter.

How do I feel? I’m filled with pain. I can witness the suffering of my child.

I felt that Ina and my granddaughter did not want to be separated from each other.

How I feel about Ina is the same with how she feels about my granddaughter.

I don’t know why they treated her that way. As a mother, I felt hurt. I don’t know how to explain it. She is not convicted yet.

It was painful to watch them [policemen and jail guards] surround my daughter. It’s okay if they made her wear PPE (personal protective equipment) because she needed to go back to jail. But to handcuff her? As if it’s not a wake.

I have yet to move on.

I skip social media posts that remind me of what happened because they bring back memories of when she was handcuffed at the wake. She was looking at her child. She was not able to come close to her infant’s coffin.

Then there’s the memory of men with high-powered guns barging in to inspect the room and the toilet because they were afraid of getting outfoxed.

You see? They did not give us the chance to bond.

That day, I ran out of tears to cry. All I could do was call them out.

I didn’t have any tears left to cry after seeing my daughter’s situation.

It was difficult to cry because I was enraged. I asked them to leave the room because we didn’t need guns there.

They didn’t have to guard the burial. There were so many of them that they outnumbered the mourners.

I tried to appeal to their hearts. I told them we knew it was an order and we couldn’t do anything. Just the same I hoped they realized it was a burial and a mother would be separated from her child.

I only wish they had thought of that.

During our last conversation at the cemetery, Ina told me: “Ma, it’s okay to put the baby inside the niche.”

Ina held my hand twice: during the wake and during the burial.

She told me: “Ma, give me your hand.” She held it tight.

She was trying to tell me that I needed to be strong. I told her: “Be strong, we will fight back.”

Postscript:

I’m okay. But it’s not easy to forget because the trauma is still there. I can go to work now.

Ina said it’s not yet the end of everything.

I filed a legal complaint over what they did during the baby’s wake and burial. How will I attain justice if I don’t complain? This should serve them a lesson because they must not treat other people the way they treated us.

Baby River died of pneumonia on Oct. 9. The court gave Reina Mae a couple of three-hour furloughs to bid her child goodbye. The first was to visit the wake, the second was to bury her child.

Not even an inch of her skin was able to touch River’s coffin. She was made to wear a full hazmat suit during the visits because of the threat of Covid-19. She was in handcuffs most of the time and was surrounded by heavily armed government forces.

Their family was never given a chance to grieve.

Barbara Ruth Angeles, illustrated by Alexandra Paredes.

Legal shortcuts in the drug war:From ‘palit-ulo’ to ‘amin-laya’

By Barbara Ruth Angeles (as told to Aie Balagtas See)

My son Inno will enter into a plea-bargain agreement. I don’t have any choice left. I have to take him out of jail.

My son does not want it, but I have no choice. How else are we going to set him free? That was why we opted for “amin-laya” (plea bargain).

The advice came from lawyers and BJMP (Bureau of Jail Management and Penology) personnel. They said it’s his first offense anyway.

I’m worried for my son, of course, as entering into a plea bargain means having a permanent criminal record. It’s similar to being convicted already, although he is innocent.

But my son’s case has been pending in court for two years. Within that period we only had about four hearings even if the court had released a monthly schedule.

Reset. Reset. Reset.

Since my son couldn’t prove his innocence in court, I told him that once he’s free, it’s up to him to prove to himself that he’s not what the government had accused him of.

Besides, the cops offered this solution to us before, and they promised us they wouldn’t oppose it.

I can take better care of my son if he’s with me. I can tell him, “Don’t go out, don’t go with these people.”

I just want this problem to end. We’re all suffering because of it.

Then, there’s the pandemic. The BJMP does not tell us the exact number of inmates infected with Covid-19. It’s difficult because it’s congested there.

Actually, I had to take risks and buy my son a P15,000 kubol (hut) so he could have his own space, and that’s just plywood about a quarter of a meter in size.

It is very expensive inside city jails. You’re aware of this: If you are poor, you will starve to death inside our jails.

Since visitation rights are suspended, my son and I communicate with each other through phone calls. Imagine this: to get in touch with me, he needs to buy call cards worth P100 for P300. The BJMP asks you to buy the call cards from them.

I won’t tell you the exact amount that I spend on my son but his budget for a week is my budget for two weeks.

I don’t know what else could happen. That’s why I said, “Son, just plead guilty.”

My son was arrested on May 3 (2018). Arrests of drug suspects spiked during that period because of the drug war “quota”. I learned about that so-called quota from the BJMP personnel. They blamed it for their population boom.

Go back to the day Galas police station was raided over an extortion case. That’s how we learned Inno was there.

At first, we had no idea that Inno had been arrested. We looked for him in barangay halls and police stations. We reported him as missing because we couldn’t reach his phone.

I kept crying.

My daughter and I searched everywhere. I thought he was killed because deaths related to bike theft were rampant those days, so we scoured hospitals and funeral parlors.

I posted about our search for Inno on Facebook. One of my school batchmates advised me to report it to 8888. I reported it to the Duterte hotline 8888 but it was not able to help us.

On May 4, Galas Police Station was raided over an extortion case involving its anti-narcotics team.

A police investigator called me and said: “Go to Galas Police Station immediately. Your son is here. Bring food and clothes.”

I was shocked. How did he end up there?

No one entertained me at the police station until I lost my cool.

Someone from GMA News told me to get a good lawyer.

At that time, hiring a private lawyer cost P300,000. Our case got delayed because we couldn’t find one. Some were too old. His grandmother found someone but I think he’s from Aklan.

We couldn’t grasp what was happening. We were desperate to find a lawyer. It was mental torture. We weren’t used to this. It was the first time someone in the family got involved in a court case.

The most enraging part was my son didn’t violate any law.

You know, initially, the police didn’t even have a record of his arrest.

I talked to detainees and some policemen at Galas. I learned that the SAID (Station Anti-Illegal Drugs Division) cops were supposed to kill Inno as a replacement for big fish that they’re extorting money from.

The policemen in Galas said my son was intended for “palit-ulo.” (Palit-ulo, which literally means head-swapping, is a scheme in which a drug suspect gets freedom in exchange for ratting out on his or her suppliers.)

They said it was for a “zero-zero.” You know zero-zero?

That meant they would kill him.

The policemen tortured my son.

I have evidence, including the medico-legal report, and X-ray and CT scan results.

At the hospital, the doctor said he had fractured ribs. They also saw a “metallic forensic” in his left leg.

The doctor did not want him to leave, but Galas police did not allow him to be operated on. Despite his fractures and injuries, Galas turned him over to the city jail.

We lost the chance to have him treated. His wounds eventually healed in jail.

You asked how I’m doing?

It’s the first time someone asked me that question.

Well, I’m not… I’m not okay. I try to do my normal routine but emotionally, no, I’m not okay. My daughter died in August while my son is in jail. She’s my eldest and the only one I could rely on to deal with this problem.

We were able to get hold of the CCTV [showing Inno’s illegal arrest] because of her.

I still couldn’t accept that my daughter had passed away.

Inno was not able to say goodbye. They had not seen each other for two years.

She was sick but was not confined. Her resistance was down and I was afraid that she might catch the virus in the hospital.

My daughter left behind three children. The eldest child, an 11-year-old girl, does not have a father. I’m taking care of her.

My granddaughter is already worried that her life will fall apart if something happens to me. I told her, nothing’s going to happen to me because I still have a purpose in life.

I have faith in the Lord.

I never questioned God for everything that I’m going through. I know he will not give me these trials if I cannot overcome them.

I’m trying to be strong for my son and for my granddaughter. If I falter, who would be strong for them?

But it’s difficult.

Postscript:

I think my daughter is guiding me. I feel better now. I started painting again 40 days after her death.

I used to paint with dark colors, colors that you can associate with death. This time, I’m using positive and vibrant colors. My artwork seems alive.

Do I have peace of mind?

No. I can only have peace of mind when my son is finally with me. –PCIJ, December 2020

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Aie Balagtas See is a freelance journalist working on human rights issues. Follow her on Twitter (@AieBalagtasSee) or email her at aie.bsee@gmail.com for comments.

Inspired by The Marshall Project’s Life Inside, Marites’ and Barbara’s stories are part of PCIJ’s series on the criminal justice system, which includes first-person accounts from ​current and former detainees and their family members​.

Kodao publishes PCIJ reports as part of a content-sharing agreement.

PH labor market rebounding but not recovering – IBON

In reaction to the statement of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) upon the release of the recent labor force survey, research group IBON said that the labor market rebounding as lockdown restrictions are eased should not be mistaken as ‘recovery’. More than people returning to work, the term should mean returning to the same levels of employment as before. Recovery can only happen with substantial economic stimulus including sufficient government financial assistance or emergency subsidies to workers affected by the pandemic, IBON said.

The official unemployment rate according to the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) is 8.7% or about 3.8 million unemployed in October 2020. NEDA compares the October unemployment figure with those of previous quarters (10% in July and 17.6% in April) to show as a sign of recovery.

But IBON noted that the number of employed fell by 2.7 million to 39.8 million in October 2020 from 42.6 million in October last year. The group also noted that labor force participation rate (LFPR) has fallen to a remarkably small 58.7% in October 2020, causing the labor force to shrink by 933,000.

IBON estimated a different unemployment figure.According to the group, if LFPR in October 2020 stayed at its 61.4% level in October 2019, the labor force would be around 45.6 million, which is 1.98 million more than officially reported.

IBON added this 1.98 million, which it referred to as invisibly unemployed, to the officially reported 3.81 million, bringing the real number of unemployed to 5.79 million and the real unemployment rate at 12.7 percent.

The group also said that though underemployment rate fell to 14.4%, this does not indicate that the quality of work has improved. This is most likely, IBON said, because many of the employed have stopped searching for work due to pandemic conditions and lack of job prospects with many small businesses closing down.

The group pointed out that the inability of the economy to recover thus affecting job creation is hugely due to the lack of a substantial economic stimulus. This pertains to government spending that can arrest economic decline through increased or revitalized economic production and strengthened consumers’ purchasing power.

But government’s response is too little for such a huge economic decline, IBON said. The Php165.5-billion Bayanihan 2 is niggardly for urgent attention areas such as health system recovery, financial aid to vulnerable sectors and support for agriculture and small businesses. IBON also hit the 2021 proposed national budget, that except for tokenistic allocations, is no longer providing socioeconomic relief to workers and financial assistance to agriculture and MSMEs.

Meanwhile, government’s economic managers are determined to retain the huge Php1.1 trillion budget allocation for infrastructure development as their main stimulus program and to propose corporate income tax cuts through the passage of the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises (CREATE) bill.

Recovery cannot happen with such government neglect of labor and the economy, IBON said. Scrimping on meaningful economic stimulus prevents the health system to cope with the pandemic and the workers to return to work. It also leaves behind the more basic economic sectors of agriculture and domestic manufacturing in creating more meaningful jobs, IBON added.

The economy may indeed recover from its collapse. But like such ‘recoveries’ of the past when no meaningful government intervention took place, it would take a while, if at all, for jobs and incomes to be fully recovered and improved, said the group. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Govt stinginess worsens Filipinos’ suffering and PH economic collapse

Govt stinginess worsens Filipinos’ suffering and PH economic collapse

November 10, 2020

by IBON Media & Communications

The -11.5% growth, or contraction, in gross domestic product (GDP) in the third quarter, confirms that the Philippines is on its way to becoming the worst performing economy in Southeast Asia in 2020. The economy is saddled by the Duterte administration’s refusal to spend on aid for Filipino families and support for small businesses so needed amid the pandemic.

A fiscal response commensurate to the crisis at hand is critical but the economic managers are tying the government’s hands. The government package’s demand-side effort is grossly insufficient and even undermines its supply-side measures.

The Php3 trillion in government spending in the first three quarters of 2020 is only a 15.1% increase from the same period the year before. While this is larger than the 5.5% year-on-year increase in the same period in 2019, it is still much less than the corresponding 23.6% increase in 2018.

It remains to be seen how much more spending the administration can manage in the fourth quarter of 2020. The Bayanihan 2 law is supposedly the government’s main response to COVID in the remaining months of the year.

However, as of the president’s last report to Congress at the start of November, it appears that at most just Php28.4 billion has been spent so far. With only a little over a month left in the law’s effectivity, this is just 20.3% of Bayanihan 2’s Php140 billion in appropriations and just 17.1% of its Php165.5 billion including its standby fund. The report mentioned Php76.2 billion in allotments and releases which appears relatively large.

However, the same report did not mention any actual disbursements in major items especially for aid or support to small businesses or agriculture. These items with allotments released but not reported spent include: Php6 billion for the social amelioration program (SAP); Php13.1 billion for the COVID-19 Adjustment Measures Program (CAMP), Tulong Panghanapbuhay sa Ating Disadvantaged/Displaced Workers (TUPAD) and Abot-Kamay ang Pagtulong (AKAP) programs; Php9.5 billion for public utility vehicle (PUV) programs; and Php12.1 billion for the agriculture stimulus package. While there is supposedly Php8.1 billion for small businesses, only Php893 million worth of loans were reported.

There is also little real stimulus in the proposed 2021 budget. The proposed Php4.51 trillion budget is a 9.9% increase from the 2020 budget. This is however smaller than the 13.6% increase in the programmed 2020 budget from the year before, and even smaller than the historical annual average 11.1% increase in the national budget over the 35 years of the post-Marcos era. The Development Budget Coordination Committee (DBCC) actually projects an even smaller 5.3% increase in 2022 which will be less than half the historical average.

The DBCC initially projected the economy to have -5.5% growth in 2020. To achieve this, GDP will have to grow an impossible 6.6% in the last quarter of the year which is all the more impossible with the administration refusing to give meaningful aid to millions of distressed families and small businesses including in the country’s vast informal sector.

Additional direct cash assistance to households is already pitifully small under Bayanihan 2 and virtually non-existent in the proposed 2021 budget. The record joblessness and collapse in family incomes because of the government’s poor COVID response compels much larger support to alleviate wide and deep suffering.

The economic managers also keep insisting that the CREATE law’s corporate income tax cuts will most of all benefit micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). This is untrue. Large taxpayers account for an overwhelming 72% of all corporate collections as of 2019 which means that large firms will be the biggest beneficiaries of CREATE. Moreover, many MSMEs are also unregistered and in the informal sector so will not really benefit from any tax cuts under CREATE.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects the economy to contract with -8.3% GDP growth in 2020. This is the worst GDP performance in the region with other countries either contracting less or even registering positive growth: Thailand (-7.1%), Malaysia (-6%), Cambodia (-2.8%), Indonesia (-1.5%), Singapore (-6%), Brunei (0.1%), Lao PDR (0.2%), Vietnam (1.6%), and Myanmar (2%).

Even the IMF’s projected 7.4% GDP growth rebound in 2021 will still not be enough to bring the economy back to its level last year in 2019. As it is, the 2020 Philippine economy is going to be as small as it was three years ago in 2017, and with GDP per capita approaching as low as it was in 2016.

The Philippines’ COVID response is the smallest among those announced by the region’s major economies, according to the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) COVID policy tracker. This earlier reported the Philippines’ response as equivalent to just 5.8% of 2019 GDP which is smaller than in Singapore (26.2%), Malaysia (22.7%), Thailand (16%), Indonesia (10.9%), and Vietnam (10.1%).

Months into the worst economic collapse in the country’s history, the Duterte administration’s obsession with creditworthiness and the myth of a fundamentally strong Philippine economy is preventing it from taking the measures needed for real and rapid recovery. Its insensitivity is placing the burden of rebound and protracted recovery on millions of poor families and distressed small businesses. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

OFWs demand increased budget for protection and welfare amid Covid-19

An organization of migrants called on the Philippine government to ensure social protection and welfare services for overseas Filipino workers (OFW), Filipino migrants and their families by increasing funding for these programs in the proposed 2021 National Budget. 

In an online petition on change.org, Migrante International pointed out that in the proposal, only Php 8.6 Billion from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) is allotted to fund programs that seek to assist and support OFWs and migrants in distress. 

The group said that despite the negative effects of the coronavirus pandemic on Filipinos abroad, the proposed 2021 budget of Php1.2B for the DFA’s Assistance to Nationals Program (ATN) and Legal Assistance Fund (LAF) is only the same as in the 2020 budget.

It also said that while the proposed budget for OWWA has significantly increased to Php7.4B, the amount will still be inadequate to serve the thousands of OFWs who remain stranded overseas and awaiting repatriation due to the pandemic.

Migrante International said there are thousands of OFWs who lost their jobs who have yet to receive any financial assistance from the government.

Under the AKAP program, the financial assistance for displaced land-based and sea-based Filipino workers program of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), only 280,000 OFWs were granted financial assistance out of the estimated 1 million OFWs who were displaced in the past seven months. 

“The proposed budget does not take into account the increased support needed for the millions of Filipino migrants who have been displaced and severely affected by the COVID19 pandemic and who are in need of financial and livelihood assistance, welfare support, repatriation assistance and comprehensive health services,” Migrante International said.

“[T]he proposed budget will potentially leave hundreds of Filipino migrants every year who are victims of labor exploitation, human trafficking, illegal recruitment, gender-based violence, and discrimination neglected for lack of adequate funds to support their cases,” the group added.

The group also asked the government to provide immediate financial assistance in the amount of Php10,000 to all Filipino migrants, OFWs and their families affected by the pandemic by allotting an additional Php 7.2B to the DOLE AKAP Program. 

Migrante International said additional funds are also needed for hiring more personnel, legal advocates, interpreters, and other critical resources to effectively improve services and social welfare and protection for vulnerable migrants. 

The group also demanded that the government fully subsidize OWWA services and programs and stop the collection of OWWA membership dues from OFWs.

“To recover from the pandemic, the people, especially overseas and local workers, farmers and the poor need an expenditure program that heals and unites,” Migrante International said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)