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Why do we keep on begging China for friendship?

By Rosario Guzman

In the face of the Filipino people’s growing anxieties about COVID-19 and life after the lockdown, president Duterte keeps heaping praises on China.

The Duterte government was reluctant at first to restrict travel and tourism from China and the operations of Chinese Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs) because such moves to contain the virus would allegedly hurt China’s feelings. In the next presidential speeches, the government seemed to have flip-flopped from its cavalier attitude towards the pandemic, but it has not stopped uttering assurances to China.

That the Philippines remains to be by China’s side as China battles COVID-19. Or that China will help the Philippines overcome the health crisis and that president Duterte can directly send a personal note to Chinese president Xi Jin Ping. A you-and-me-against-the-world expression of devotion that is repeated ad nauseum.

In the most recent display, returning presidential spokesperson Harry Roque even got a little chummy – referring to the Philippines-China relationship as “BFF” (“best friends forever”), and that naturally China will prioritize the Philippines in giving COVID aid and funds.

It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth as the country continues to grapple with economic uncertainties and government’s lack of direction six weeks into the lockdown.

But is it even valid to cling on to China, or to any other country for that matter, for our survival as a nation post-COVID? Even without COVID-19, it is already insane as it is for the Philippine government to obsessively hold on to failed neoliberal policies and to rely on foreign capital for development. It would take some sobriety to tackle the question, but looking at the global economy and the seismic changes that have been happening is the sensible way to begin.

The world is coming down

China indeed remains the world’s leading merchandise trader and second to the United States (US) in trade of goods and services in the overall. But the slowdown in global trade that has been quite evident since 2016 on the back of a protracted global economic recession is weighing down on the world’s economies and leading traders. This has only been aggravated by the US-China trade war escalating at the end of 2018, which is hurting aggregate import demand, as well as the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic emanating from Wuhan, China at the end of 2019 whose impact on world trade is still unfolding.

World merchandise trade volume had a significantly lower growth of 2.9% in 2018 than the 4.6% growth registered in 2017 that raised false hopes of a return to better days. The slowdown in trade was accompanied by weaker output growth – the world gross domestic product (GDP) grew at exactly the same rate as trade (2.9%) compared to a minimally higher growth of 3.0% the year before.

The numbers turned uglier in 2019 – with the combined effects of the trade tensions in the first half clearly felt and the jitters in the second half over the possible lethal spread of COVID-19 across geographic and economic regions. The slowing world merchandise trade finally declined by 0.1% in volume in 2019. Likewise, in dollar values it fell by 3% to US$18.89 trillion, whereas it registered a 10% increase due to higher energy prices just the year before. The global GDP got even weaker with a preliminary growth figure of only 2.6% for 2019.

Projecting the full impact of COVID-19 on trade, the World Trade Organization (WTO) is looking at a further decline in 2020 by 12.9% in an optimistic scenario or by 31.9% in a pessimistic scenario. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects the global GDP growth in 2020 to fall to -3%, which is a major revision over a very short period. This crisis is going to be far worse than the global financial crisis, the IMF has said, and the worst since the Great Depression.

Palace photo.

China is symptomatic

The world is watching China with apprehension. The country has high demand for raw materials and intermediate goods and serves as a final-stage export platform for global production chains. But even before the number of COVID cases started climbing at the start of 2020, China’s GDP growth of 6.1% in 2019 was already slower than the 6.7% rate in 2018. It was in fact the country’s slowest growth in 29 years.

The National Bureau of Statistics of China reported a 6.8% year-on-year decline in the first quarter of 2020. It is the first contraction at least since 1992.

China experienced a deceleration in merchandise trade volume, from 8.0% in 2017 to its moderate growth of 5.2% in 2018. The value of exports slowed sharply at 0.5% growth in 2019 from a 10% rise in 2018, while the value of imports fell by 2.7%, the first decline in three years. In the first two months of 2020, exports plunged by 17.2% year-on-year, while imports shrank by 4%, amid factory shutdowns and travel restrictions to contain the virus.

China’s trade surplus and capital formation are its sources of economic strength to rise as an outward investor. In 2018, China ranked 2nd globally, next to Japan, in terms of foreign direct investment (FDI) outflows, and 3rd, next to the US and Netherlands in terms of FDI outward stock. But like global trade and the global economy, global FDI flows were in three consecutive years of decline, falling by another 13% in 2018. China’s FDI outflows slid further by 18%, the second year for China, based on UNCTAD data.

China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) reported a lower figure of 9.6% decline in 2018, pointing out that China’s FDI fall was still significantly lower than the world figure of 29% according to MOFCOM. It does not change the general picture, however, no matter how Beijing paints stability. Outward FDI is falling anywhere else in the world, and it is 40% smaller today than its post-global financial crisis peak in 2015.

The China Global Investment Tracker of the American Enterprise Institute, an alternative to MOFCOM data, which tracks Chinese investment and construction around the world with a threshold of US$100 million, is seeing a dramatic fall in China’s outbound FDI of about 40% for 2019 that will be similar to 2011, with Chinese investment returning to a domestic rather than global phenomenon.

The problem is China cannot simply work from home. It has been infected with the unbounded, reckless desire of expansionism – it has to continue going global.

Palace photo.

BFF?

The Philippines is not even among the top 15 trading partners of China. It is also not a significant destination of Chinese investment.

Hong Kong (PRC) receives about 60% (US$86.9 billion) of China’s net FDI, followed by the US (US$7.5 billion), Virgin Islands (US$7.1 billion), Singapore (US$6.4 billion), and Cayman Islands (US$5.5 billion). It is obvious how China uses Hong Kong as an intermediary to take advantage of Hong Kong’s liberalized agreements and competitive currency before investing somewhere else, or of “double dipping” wherein Chinese investors return to the mainland as “foreign investors” and take advantage of additional fiscal incentives.

It also appears that Chinese investors, like many global investors, have sought safe havens such as the Virgin Islands and Cayman Islands as times get rough. Removing these and Hong Kong for the meantime would show that the top 10 recipients of China FDI in 2018 were the US, Singapore, Australia, Indonesia, Canada, Germany, Vietnam, South Korea, United Kingdom, and Thailand. The Philippines does not figure anywhere in the line-up.

On the other hand, some 56 countries along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which the Philippines is part, captured 12.5% of China’s total outward FDI in 2018. BRI investment has been particularly pronounced in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Meanwhile in Southeast Asia where China’s state-owned enterprises have particular interest, Cambodia is the favorite.

Narrowing our map now to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Philippines captured 11% of China’s investment in the ASEAN in 2019, which is practically a fair share if China’s investment would be divided equally among the 10 member-countries.

In short, we may be among China’s friends, but we are not the best, and forever has not even started.

On the other hand, among the Philippines’ trading partners, China ranks 4th in terms of contribution to exports value, next only to US, Japan and Hong Kong (which is a trading port of many other countries apart from the mainland). Indeed, China is the country’s biggest supplier of imported goods, accounting for about one-fourth of Philippine import value, which shows a one-sided trading relationship. Exports to China in the first month of 2020 had a tepid 7% increase, while imports from China continued to increase at double-digit rate (16.4%), a trend that started in 2016.

Singapore, US, Japan and South Korea have remained the country’s top investors, with their combined net FDI of US$963.49 million in 2019. Inflow from China was US$106.16 million. Even if we add US$28.69 million (assuming 60% of what is coming from Hong Kong, since not all Hong Kong FDI is from the mainland), China would still come fifth. Surely there has been a dramatic rise in Chinese investments of 1,751%, from only about US$10.77 million in 2016 to its peak of US$199.38 billion in 2018, but net FDI from China has started to taper off and declined by 47% in 2019.

There has also been a phenomenal increase in Chinese official development assistance (ODA) loans from US$1.5 million in 2016 to US$364.9 million as of 2018. But Chinese ODA still pales in comparison with Japan ODA of US$6.2 billion or even USAID of US886.4 million.

In other words, even in un-reciprocated relationships that our liberalized and subservient economy has become so dependent on, China is not even the best master.

What then is the fixation on China all about?

There can only be one reason for China – it is unstoppable. Since building its internal strength and setting its sights on the endless possibilities in the global economy, China itself has been fixated on itself.

Its expansionist momentum has surged in the last two decades, perfecting its “go global” strategy and embarking on its biggest and most ambitious ever BRI as well as Made in China 2025, moving away from being the world’s factory to producing high-technology products and services. Beijing has been aggressive and at the same time cautious in its policy approach, which gives it confidence that it won’t crash as hard as its economic rivals.

It may be recalled that China held up well during the 2008 global financial crisis, compared to the slow recovery of the European Union and the US. Although today is different – China being the epicenter of the pandemic – China does its best to sustain the image of stability.

International observers have also pointed out that Westerners are finding it much more difficult than Asians to overcome the hardships arising from the health crisis. The observation could just be China’s own messaging echoed through its own propaganda machinery. In any case, China is sustaining the narrative.

This narrative has been copy-pasted in the language of lauding China’s ability to deal with the crisis, official restraint on China bashing and discrimination especially on social media (even setting up laws to penalize “fake news and rumors” about China and COVID-19), and loyalty to China to the point of endangering lives, as The Diplomat has observed across Southeast Asian governments. The Duterte administration has submitted to this propaganda line and has been most explicit about the fear of retaliation from China as expressed by none other than the health secretary.

For the Duterte government, there are two apparent reasons. One could simply be self-serving – that the Duterte administration, the most traveled to China, be able to maintain the business deals and transactions with Chinese firms. No matter how loose and small, these are big enough gains for its entourage of businessmen and cronies.

But the second reason is more on economic survival. The Duterte administration has yet to really jump-start its Build, Build, Build (BBB) infrastructure program and to capture the promise of China’s overflowing construction capital. Of the 100 flagship projects worth Php4.3 trillion, China accounts for only 17% of the number of projects and 16.3% of the cost, while only one of these projects is in the implementation stage. The economic managers are torn between revamping BBB and reallocating its budget for COVID-19 and leaving BBB unscathed. The fact remains, BBB is untenable now more than ever.

On endlessly praising China, the Duterte administration may not have really internalized China’s rhetoric, but it is clearly desperate. The Philippine economy is on its fourth year of slowdown, and the economic managers are still relying on foreign capital for pump-priming instead of building our industrial and agricultural core. The Philippine economy is down with the lingering illness of backwardness that has only been aggravated by neoliberal policies, yet government cannot think of a cure other than to be on its knees. #

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

By Prof. Edberto Malvar Villegas, PhD

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

Covid 19 in the Philippines

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

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

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

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

Photo by Joseph Cuevas/Kodao

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Joseph Cuevas/Kodao

The Neo-liberal Policies and US Overproduction

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

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

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

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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.

PH 0 of 6 in WHO condition for ending COVID lockdown

By Sanaf Marcelo

A community medicine expert said that the Philippines scores zero out of six in the World Health Organization (WHO) list of conditions for ending coronavirus lockdowns.

University of the Philippines College of Medicine Assistant Professor Gene Nisperos told an online forum organized by the health group Second Opinion PH last Thursday, April 23, that the Philippines is failing to meet any of the conditions set by the global health organization for lifting lockdowns aimed at reversing the pandemic.

Nisperos said the way heath workers continue to be at risk indicates how the Philippines is so far failing to turn the tide against the disease.

“The Department of Health (DOH) has reported that there are 1,062 health workers infected by the COVID-19 which, at 13%, is the highest in Asia,” Nisperos said.

In its Covid-19 strategy update published last April 14, the WHO said the following must be met before governments could think about lifting their imposed lockdown:

1. Disease transmission is under control;

2. Health systems are able to “detect, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact”;

3. Hot spot risks are minimized in vulnerable places, such as nursing homes;

4. Schools, workplaces and other essential places have established preventive measures;

5. The risk of importing new cases “can be managed”; and

6. Communities are fully educated, engaged and empowered to live under a new normal.

“We must admit that our country is one of the countries that have a weak health system even if the Department of Health keeps denying it,” Nisperos added.

Sean Velchez, a nurse at the Philippine Orthopedic Center, said that it looks like the government is still on Day One of its lockdown even if the enhanced community quarantine in wide areas throughout the country has already passed its 38th day.

‘We in the hospitals are mainly dependent on the PPEs and medicine donations from the private sector because the government cannot provide enough protective equipment for the health workers,” Velchez said.

 The two health workers urged the DOH to take the lead role in directing the country’s response to the pandemic and cease from simply listening to directives from politicians.

DOH should be more proactive and must have the plans and recommendations for this to fight COVID-19, they said.

Gov’t extends ECQ to May 15

Meanwhile, Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque announced that the government has decided to extend the ECQ to 15 more days when the first extension expires on April 30.

Roque said President Rodrigo Duterte is extending the ECQ on the National Capital Region, Central Luzon and Southern Tagalog to May 15.

Roque said Duterte agreed with the recommendations submitted by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases to also extend the lockdown on other high-risk areas in Luzon, such as Pangasinan, Benguet, Mindoro island, Albay and Catanduanes.

ECQs are also being imposed in Antique, Iloilo, Cebu and Cebu City, Aklan and Capiz in the Visayas and Davao del Norte, Davao City and Davao de Oro in Mindanao. # (With reports from R. Villanueva)

Gov’t Php1.5T COVID-19 response strategy bloated, misleading

by IBON Media

The Duterte administration continues to be misleading about its COVID-19 response strategy, research group IBON said.

A closer look shows that the government is not actually spending as much as it claims, the group said. This casts doubts on its real efforts to battle the pandemic, especially when it comes to the most vulnerable Filipinos.

The Department of Finance (DOF) recently announced that Php1.49 trillion would be allotted towards the administration’s 4-pillar socioeconomic strategy against COVID-19. 

The 4-pillar program is supposed to ensure emergency aid to the poorest and vulnerable Filipinos, medical resources to fight the pandemic, fiscal and monetary actions to keep the economy afloat, and an economic stimulus plan.

“The Duterte government is still being intentionally misleading about its COVID-19 response measures – which makes one doubt what else about the COVID-19 crisis they’re being untruthful about,” IBON executive director Sonny Africa said.

Africa noted the DOF claiming on its website that the “total budget” of the 4-pillar strategy is now at Php1.49 trillion.

He said this gives the impression that the government is spending Php1.49 trillion to respond to the pandemic.

In truth, it aims to spend just Php366.9 billion, and allocate Php133.7 billion for loan programs (Php13.7 billion) and credit guarantees (Php120 billion), he said.

The Php366.9 billion includes only Php316.2 billion in social assistance which barely covers what IBON estimates is at least Php297 billion needed for every month of the lockdown, said Africa.

The balance of Php50.7 billion is for the health response and is hopefully enough to deal with the worst public health crisis in the country’s history.

Africa also pointed out that the Php1.49 trillion budget – which gives the impression of huge spending for COVID-19 response – is bloated by items that should not even be counted as part of this supposed budget.

Among these is the Php142.8 billion in tax cuts, deductions and forgone revenues. These are not actually spent even if they are income losses for the government, he said.

The reported Php233 billion in estimated additional liquidity in the financial system from cuts in interest rate and reserve requirement cuts should not be considered spending, said Africa.

It is also not even sure how much of this will actually go to any kind of COVID-related response, he added.

The Php610 billion in additional financing from foreign lenders (Php310 billion) and the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas purchase of government bonds (Php300 billion) are also not spending as such.

Africa said that it would even be double-counting if any of this goes to the targeted Php366.9 billion in spending or the Php133.7 billion in loan programs/credit guarantees.

Africa said that the Duterte administration’s inability to properly cost its COVID-19 response measures is a direct result of its still not being clear what exactly its plan is. This despite being nearly six weeks into the lockdown already.

“The government can be honest about this and the efforts it is taking, instead of, almost maliciously, trying to cover this up by dazzling the public with huge figures in the trillions of pesos,” Africa said. #

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Kodao republishes IBON reports as part of a content-sharing agreement.

BM: Kasiyahan sa likod ng paglilingkod

Dumating kahapon, Abril 20, ang ika-limang batch ng mga gulay mula sa Benguet. Mabilis itong nirepack ng mga volunteers ng Bayang Matulungin sa kanilang opisina sa Quezon City.

Ayon kay Tatay Louie, isa sa mga volunteers, masaya at nakakawala ng pagod ang pagbabalot ng mga gulay sapagkat marami ang matutulungan nito. Dagdag pa niya, hindi raw kayang tumbasan ng anumang salapi ang kanilang kasiyahang nadarama.

Ipinamagi ang mga ito sa mga barangay sa Quezon City kasama rin ang Caloocan at Maynila. Kabilang sa mga napamahigaan ay ang Brgy. 181, Caloocan City, Maisan, Sampaloc, Manila, at Brgy. Old Balara, Brgy. Payatas, Brgy. Tatalon, at Brgy. Pansol sa Quezon City.

Bidyo nina Jo Maline Mamangun, Jola Diones-Mamangun, at Reggie Mamangun

Health group demands mandatory mass testing for all health workers

By Joseph Cuevas

The Alliance of Health Workers (AHW) demanded from the Duterte administration and the Department of Health (DOH) the implementation of free mandatory Coronavirus mass testing for all health workers in public and private hospitals and health facilities.

In a statement, AHW president Robert Mendoza said they disagree with the statement issued by the DOH last Tuesday that only patients and healthcare workers who exhibit mild, severe and critical symptoms would be prioritized in the expanded mass testing.

Mendoza said that as front liners health workers should be checked regularly and must be coronavirus free since they are the ones taking care of patients.

“We are very much worried and alarmed about the health condition of our fellow heath workers. Mostly, those health workers who died were infected due to lack of personal protective equipment, aggravated by 12 hours duty a day for 7 to 8 days,” Mendoza said.

AHW photo

“The government must immediately distribute PPE to ensure and protect health workers, hire and train more additional permanent health workers, and increase the public hospital budget,” he added.

Mendoza also urges DOH to immediately issue directives to conduct free mandatory mass testing among hospital workers in public and private hospitals and health facilities to help contain the spread of the virus as well as immediately implement medical interventions.

AHW also asked the government to implement mass testing at the barangay level and provide proper orientation and protective gear to all barangay health workers (BHW) accompanied by a nurse to do the house to house inspection to ensure that all COVID-19 patients will be traced and treated.

DOH reported that there are 766 health workers who tested positive, 339 of whom are doctors while 342 are nurses.

Twenty two health workers have succumbed to the disease.

The Philippines has recorded 5878 cases of the coronavirus disease, 387 of which resulted in deaths, giving the country the worst record in Southeast Asia and the highest percentage of health worker fatalities in the world. #

Philippine Jails are a Covid-19 Time Bomb

The Philippines has the most crowded correctional system in the world. It’s only a matter of time before the virus enters and spreads in prison and jail facilities. Humanitarian groups have called for the early release of elderly and sickly and nonviolent, low-risk detainees.

BY AIE BALAGTAS SEE/Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism

ON APRIL 1, the police brought to a jampacked detention center at the Quezon City Police District headquarters 21 residents of a poor community who had been arrested for breaking quarantine rules. 

 When they got there, the detainees were not tested for the coronavirus nor were they isolated from other inmates. “The police just took their body temperature using a thermal scanner and that was it,” said lawyer Kristina Conti, who represented them.

Since none of them showed Covid-19 symptoms, said Conti, they were locked up without being required to undergo a 14-day quarantine. 

Because the detention cells were already full, the 16 men were kept outside a 5×5 meter cell for male detainees that already housed nearly a dozen other inmates. Later they were moved to another cell, all of them crammed in a 3×4-meter space. The women were placed with other female detainees in a separate cell. 

 “Social distancing, of course, is impossible,” Conti said. At night, the inmates slept side-by-side on the same cold floor. They didn’t have easy access to toilets, making frequent handwashing difficult. The jail did not provide rubbing alcohol, masks or soap, although some donors sent some supplies. 

 Police lockups like those at the Quezon City police headquarters in Diliman are temporary holding areas for suspects undergoing investigation or awaiting court orders that would send them to more permanent detention centers. 

On March 14, just before the Metro Manila lockdown, the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology (BJMP) suspended the transfer of these suspects to the 467 district, city and municipal jails under its jurisdiction. 

 This means that suspected offenders will have to be kept indefinitely in small lockups in police precincts that do not have clinics nor doctors and nurses on staff. Most of these also do not have enough toilets or showers to service the influx of new inmates.

 As of last week, more than 20,000 had been arrested for quarantine and curfew violations. Most have been released and will face charges once the health crisis is over. Some 4,000 are currently being detained in police lockups and are awaiting transfer to city jails.

 “If the police continue to arrest, their detainee population will continue to grow and will make their situation worse,” said Raymund Narag, an associate professor at Southern Illinois University and an expert in Philippine jails. “Our police detention centers are extremely congested and do not have the capacity to segregate, much more isolate, infected individuals.”

LOCKED UP. Detainees at the Manila Police District Station 5.
File photograph: Rick Rocamora. This image appeared in Rocamora’s 2018 photobook Human Wrongs, a six-year project that documented life inside Philippine detention centers.

Health risks of overcrowded jails

Narag was once a prisoner himself, having spent six years at the Quezon City Jail before he was found innocent of involvement in a fraternity rumble that resulted in the death of one student.

“The Philippines has the most crowded correctional system in the world,” he said. “It is only a matter of time before infections creep into the very congested jail and prison facilities.” 

Like other prison advocates around the world, Narag is calling for the release of nonviolent, low-risk, and bailable pretrial detainees as well as vulnerable, elderly, and sickly convicts. 

Both the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Human Rights Watch have also asked the government to release nonviolent prisoners, saying overpopulated prisons, jails and lock-up cells make them fertile grounds for spreading infectious diseases. 

“The early release of the most vulnerable detainees (elderly, sick) and those with minor offenses is an option that could be taken by the Philippine government,” said ICRC spokesperson Allison Lopez.

OVERCROWDED. Detainees sleep cheek by jowl at the Quezon City detention center. File photograph: Rick Rocamora. This image appeared in Rocamora’s 2018 photobook Human Wrongs, a six-year project that documented life inside Philippine detention centers.

According to the BJMP, jails across the country are running at 500% overcapacity. In March this year, these jails had 134,748 detainees nationwide, a 40% increase since 2015, largely because of the surge of detainees from the government’s anti-drug campaign.

Even before the pandemic, poor jail conditions have already resulted in the death of 300 to 800 inmates annually in recent years, according to BJMP doctor Paul Borlongan. In 2018 alone, 40 prisoners died each month in different BJMP jails in Metro Manila, said Narag.

The 21 residents who were arrested on April 1 came from Sitio San Roque in Quezon City’s Barangay Bagong Pag-asa, which has six recorded Covid-19 cases. Earlier that day, the residents had gathered near the Trinoma mall along North EDSA to demand government aid because they were hungry.

After five days in detention, all 21 were released on bail on Monday afternoon. They returned to their shanties in Sitio San Roque, where some 6,000 families live in crowded settlement of tiny, wooden and cinderblock homes.

A patchwork of detention policies

Lt. Gen. Guillermo Eleazar, the deputy police chief for operations, is aware that locking up new inmates poses a threat to the safety of the prisoners and the jail staff. 

The police does not want to congest the jails any further, he said, and would prefer to release violators after 12 hours. But they also need to abide by the national government’s orders and with the desire of many local officials to get quarantine and curfew violators off the streets.

The result is a patchwork of policies depending on what local governments mandate. In the city of Manila, Eleazar said, violators were freed immediately after cases had been filed. But some cities like Navotas complained “that people will not learn their lesson if the police release them.” When the police warned that a steady stream of new inmates could wreak havoc on detention centers, Navotas used schools as a temporary lockup.

NAVOTAS CITY JAIL DETAINEES. The Philippines has the most crowded correctional system in the world. File photograph: Rick Rocamora. This image appeared in Rocamora’s 2018 photobook Human Wrongs, a six-year project that documented life inside Philippine detention centers.

Senior Supt. Baby Noel Montalvo, BJMP’s director for Health Service, said that even before the pandemic, most of those transferred to their jails were already “sick or severely ill or have symptoms of respiratory infection.” Accepting new detainees, he said, will only increase the risk of infection and compromise the safety of inmates. 

The Philippines has a three-tiered prison system. The police lockups are the lowest tier. Jails run by the BJMP are for those awaiting trial, are currently being tried or serving short jail terms. Convicted prisoners who are serving sentences of three or more years are sent to facilities run by the Bureau of Corrections (Bucor).

The police, the BJMP and Bucor are using different approaches to dealing with the pandemic. The BJMP implemented the strictest measures—no new detainees and an absolute lockdown that required jail guards to stay inside jails until the quarantine is lifted. In-person visitation was restricted, and the “paabot (pass over)” privilege, where jail staff receive packages from outsiders and deliver them to specific inmates during ordinary lockdowns, was cancelled. 

 The lone exceptions are the jails in Northern Mindanao, where the courts are issuing commitment orders that send detainees to jails. 

SICK IN PRISON. Detainees at the infirmary of Manila City Jail. File photograph: Rick Rocamora. This image appeared in Rocamora’s 2018 photobook Human Wrongs, a six-year project that documented life inside Philippine detention centers.

Less stringent at Bilibid

Bucor is less stringent in its seven facilities, including the national penitentiary known as Bilibid. Visitation rights were cancelled but the paabot system remains in place. Guards are allowed to leave prison and penal colonies after their tour of duty, which usually lasts for a week.

Unlike the BJMP, Bucor, with a current inmate population of 49,584, is still accepting new prisoners. Spokesman Gabriel Chaclag said the latest addition arrived in late March. Newly arrived detainees are evaluated for a week or two before they join other prisoners.

Bucor officials came under Senate scrutiny last year because of the alarming number of prison deaths in the national penitentiary. Henry Fabro, the chief of the Bilibid hospital, said one prisoner there dies each day. Officials blamed overpopulation for the deaths.

Chaclag insisted that social distancing was “possible” within Bucor compounds, unlike in other jails. He could not explain why that was the case, saying only that prisoners were “old enough” to decide how to implement social distancing among themselves. “Because of the information drive, they took it upon themselves to maintain their distance from one another. They no longer eat or pray together,” he said.

The risks, however, are not just that the prisoners will infect each other. Eventually, jail and prison officers will have to go home, take a rest, and recharge. When that happens, corrections staff will be exposed to the coronavirus and risk infecting the prisoners when they return. As one jail official told Narag, “One miss, we all die.”

Meanwhile, jails are preparing for the inevitable. Bilibid has prepared nine buildings for Covid-19 patients. Cities are setting aside isolation areas for infected inmates. In some, there is space for only one person; in others, isolation facilities can take 100 to 300 patients.

Money rules in Manila City Jail

The Manila City Jail has set aside an old building formerly used by tuberculosis patients as an isolation area. In addition, dorms and offices are disinfected daily, with inmates cleaning their own spaces to avoid contact with the staff. 

There are 14 dormitories in the jail, all of them so overcrowded, they could not possibly take any more. The facility was built for 1,100 inmates but currently houses 4,888.

Lawrence, a former Manila City Jail detainee who asked that his full name not be revealed, said money and power rule these dormitories. Those with the means pay dorm leaders so they can sleep in private cubicles called kubols. Lawrence said a kubol measures around 2×2 meters. They are “not big but provide enough space so you can stretch your arms and feet.”

Others less fortunate take turns sleeping or sleep in crouched positions, spilling out into hallways and corridors because of the lack of space. 

KUBOL. Private cubicles for rent in Manila City Jail. File photograph: Rick Rocamora. This image appeared in Rocamora’s 2018 photobook Human Wrongs, a six-year project that documented life inside Philippine detention centers.

Lawrence stayed in Dormitory 3 for two years. At night, he recalled, one has “to tread carefully” to avoid stepping on bodies that were like landmines on the floor. “If you accidentally step on an inmate, you will get whipped several times,” he said. The number of lashes depends on the power and position wielded by the offended party.

 Access to bathrooms is another luxury. “High-ranking detainees” like Lawrence can use bathrooms with showers and properly functioning toilets. Poor inmates use common toilets that even visitors are not allowed to use “because the stench gets so bad, it’s really embarrassing.” Common bathrooms have no doors, he said. They have tubs called “swimming pools” which inmates fill with water. Toilets are holes directly connected to drainage canals.

 In 2016, when Lawrence was first jailed, there were only 127 detainees in Dormitory 3. He left behind 605 dorm occupants in 2018, most of them facing drug charges. Despite the lockdown, arrests of drug suspects continue.

 For all the worries about the prisoners’ health, Interior Government Secretary Eduardo Año, who supervises BJMP, said jails are “the safest place right now.” Prisoners, he said, risk exposure to the virus if they were released. 

 “All prison detention cells are COVID-free,” he said in a statement. 

 Up to now, however, no jail guards or inmates in any of the Philippine jails, prisons and police detention centers, have been tested for Covid-19. #

= = = =

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.

Rick Rocamora is an award-winning documentary photographer and author of four photo books; Filipino WWII Soldiers: America’s Second Class Veterans, Blood, Sweat, Hope and Quiapo; Rodallie S. Mosende Story, Human Wrongs, and Alagang Angara, a book that highlights the legislative achievements of Senator Ed Angara that continues to benefit our people and nation after his passing. His work is part of the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Arts, U.S. State Department Art in Embassies Program, and private and institutional collectors. His work is widely exhibited in national and international museums and galleries, published in print and online and aired in various broadcast news outlets. In the Philippines, his work had been exhibited at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Ben Cab Museum, Vargas Museum, and Ateneo Art Gallery. His exhibition, Bursting at the Seams: Inside Philippine Detention Centers won national and international awards for Filipinas Heritage Gallery of the Ayala Museum. Before pursuing a career in documentary photography, he worked in sales, marketing, and management positions for the US pharmaceutical industry for 18 years. — PCIJ, April 2020

‘Why is the government picking fights at the UN?’ PH rights defenders ask

GENEVA, Switzerland—A group of Filipino rights defenders here criticized the approach being taken by the Philippine government to the ongoing 43rd session of the UN Human Rights Council they said “consistently challenges recommendations made by UN experts.”

The Ecumenical Voice for Human Rights and Peace in the Philippines (EcuVoice) delegation said that in its two oral interventions this week, the government challenged the report of both UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism Fionnuala Ní Aoláin and UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michel Forst “in a rather impertinent tone.”

“We are amused and amazed with the way the Philippine government is comporting itself in this arena of international dialogue and diplomacy by directly challenging not just the reports but the Special Rapporteurs themselves,” EcuVoice delegation co- head Cristina Palabay said.

“Madam Special Rapporteur, you have addressed in your report the need for due diligence policies within the UN system to ensure that practices on countering terrorism and extremism are compliant with international human rights law. However, do you also see the need for a similar due diligence review by the UN and international organizations to ensure that funding support are not channelled by organizations towards actors professing terrorism?” the government Mission said.

The government also challenged some of the concerns raised by Aoláin by saying her suggestions “merit a more serious thought and debate, to ask in particular, if these concerns can hold their weight against realities on the ground.”

Aoláin in her report concluded that many violent extremism prevention programmes worldwide are directly contributing to human rights violations and may even foster radicalization instead of preventing it.

Aoláin also encouraged the entire UN to review its entire counter-terrorism architecture to better protect human rights and the rule of law when they support and member countries’ programmes.

“But look at how the government acts so defensively at well-intentioned reports that it reacts so vociferously, violently even, to general recommendations that are not particularly directed at the Philippines. Such defensiveness often betrays guilt,” EcuVoice head Atty. Edre Olalia said.

Earlier last Wednesday, the government also challenged UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michel Forst’s report by telling him to investigate human rights defenders instead, EcuVoice said.

EcuVoice said Presidential Communications Operations Office secretary Martin Andanar set the tone last week for the government’s stance at the ongoing sessions by trying to mislead the international community with his “ludicrous if only it is not perilous” spins and slants on press freedom.

“Because the entire world now sees the many thousands of dead bodies on Philippine streets killed by the so-called war against illegal drugs and disapproves official hate speech and reprisals against critics and dissenters, it is apparent that the Duterte administration has chosen that the best defense is an offense in the UN,” Olalia said.

EcuVoice spearheaded the submission of several reports of human rights violations under the Rodrigo Duterte government to the 43rd UNHRC Regular Session in this city in accordance with the Iceland-led resolution of July 2019 calling for investigations in the Philippines.

Commission on Human Rights chairperson Chito Gascon is also expected to attend the sessions here next week and to file his agency’s report on the state of human rights in the past 44 months of the Duterte administration. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

[Disclosure: Aside from covering the regular session, the reporter, himself a victim of red-tagging, intended to present an oral intervention as an alternative and human rights journalist.]

Govt methodology underestimates number of poor Filipinos—IBON

Research group IBON said that the government methodology to count the poor grossly underestimates Philippine poverty. The recently released 2018 poverty statistics can be taken to mean those in extreme poverty but IBON says that many other poor Filipinos are left out.

The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) explained that Republic Act 8425 of 1997, or the Social Reform and Poverty Alleviation Act, defines “poor” as “individuals and families whose income fall below the poverty threshold as defined by the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) and/or cannot afford in a sustained manner to provide their minimum basic needs of food, health, education, housing, and other essential amenities of life.”

The number of poor are counted as the number of Filipinos whose incomes fall below the poverty threshold or the minimum amount needed to meet basic food and non-food needs. Using official data on provincial food bundles and prices, the methodology first computes the subsistence threshold or the minimum amount a family needs to meet basic food needs. The subsistence threshold is then assumed to be 70% of the poverty threshold where the balance of 30% is assumed enough to meet basic non-food needs.

The number of poor are estimated using family income data from 180,000 sample households from the provinces and highly urbanized cities. Filipinos whose incomes are below the poverty threshold are those officially counted as poor.

However, poverty estimates according to this methodology are unbelievably low and unrealistic. The monthly poverty threshold is just Php10,727 for a family of five. This is just around Php71 per person per day at Php50 for food needs and Php21 for non-food needs.

These low standards explain the reported fall in the number of poor Filipinos. Poverty incidence, or the percentage of poor families to total families reportedly fell from 23.3% in 2015 to only 16.6% in 2018, and the number of subsistence or food poor Filipino families from 6.4 million in 2015 to only 3.4 million in 2018. NEDA hailed government’s poverty reduction measures for successfully getting poverty alleviation on track.

IBON however said that the methodology uses unrealistically low standards and is detached from daily poverty realities.

The food or subsistence threshold, for instance, the group said, conservatively assumes a “least cost” food bundle. It is unrealistic to expect that all families have ready access to this lowest-priced or cheapest food, the group argued. Moreover, the food bundle is based on so-called “revealed preference” which is presumably based on actual spending. Yet IBON said that this is not necessarily a desirable food bundle and may just reflect the food that Filipino families are forced to buy or make do with given their poverty or limited budget, such as the notorious pagpag or recycled garbage food.

These mean that the subsistence threshold estimated is over-optimistically low and not necessarily of the needed quality for decent eating.

Estimating non-food expenses, meanwhile, does not take into account the actual cost of basic non-food items, IBON said. The cost of non-food needs is merely assumed to be a certain ratio to food needs. However, the cost of many non-food needs has been rising rapidly for instance due to the privatization of utilities and social services. Non-food needs include clothing and footwear; fuel, light, and water; housing maintenance and other minor repairs; rental of occupied dwelling units; medical care; education; transportation and communication; non-durable furnishing; household operations; and personal care and effects. Thus, this also too conservatively assumes that non-food needs are available at illusory low prices.

IBON stressed that poverty has many dimensions and while income is a convenient indicator this is only one of them. The current low Php71 poverty threshold should be adjusted to be more realistic and reflective of the true potentials of the economy, said the group. As it is, PSA data indicate that around 12.4 million families or about half of the population is trying to survive on Php132 per person per day. On the other hand, chief executive officers of the country’s biggest corporations can earn the equivalent of as much as Php60,000 or more per day.

IBON said that a more realistic and higher poverty threshold will send a strong signal of the government having ambitious anti-poverty targets and genuinely seeking to eradicate this. On the other hand, persistently low poverty thresholds and illusory reductions in poverty will only result in persistent neglect of the needs of the many.#

KODAO ASKS: Dapat bang panagutin si Duterte sa mga paglabag sa karapatang pantao?

Ginunita noong ika-10 ng Disyembre ang ika-71 na Pandaigdigang Araw para sa Karapatang Pantao kung kailan kinondena ang mga paglabag sa karapatang pantao ng gubyernong Rodrigo Duterte.

Tinanong ng Kodao Productions ang ilan sa mga dumalo sa kilos-protesta kung dapat bang managot si Duterte sa mga human rights violation sa ilalim ng kanyang gobyerno. (Bidyo ni Joseph Cueva/Kodao)