Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s singular policy in almost four years in office is the kill order.
State security forces have killed more than 10,000 suspected drug pushers and hundreds of activists without due process under Duterte’s watch.
Now the president has vowed the same for critics of a one-month quarantine program aimed at stemming the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Hours after hungry residents and police clashed on the capital’s now empty main highway, Duterte rolled out new orders for a lockdown beset by charges of inefficiency, corruption, and brutality.
“Shoot them dead,” the president ordered state forces during a surprise televised address on April 1. “Do not test the government. We are not weak.”
“Do not be a hero,” he fumed at innovative young mayors who have shamed central government with their efforts to mitigate the lockdown’s impact on constituents.
The pushback from citizens was just as fierce.
Half a million #OustDuterteNow tweets trended globally on Twitter as legislators, academics, activists and a slew of once silent celebrities took turns bashing the government’s misplaced priorities.
“It is not the people intimidating the government, Mr. Duterte,” said doctor and medical anthropologist Gideon Lasco. “It is the other way around — and Filipinos will resist.”
On the third week of the lockdown, the national social welfare agency, one of many line agencies now occupied by retired generals, had only spent US$430,000 on food and non-food items for 4,753 families, not even ten percent of the capital region’s poor.
Supplies are low, Duterte grudgingly admitted, because the government did not expect the contagion to spread so fast.
It was a startling admission after weeks of draconian measures to keep people inside their homes due to COVID-19’s viral impact.
The disease has already killed 96 people, including 17 doctors and a nurse. It has infected more than 2,000 others, including the Armed Forces chief of staff, the interior secretary, and dozens of governors, mayors and other public servants.
“Hunger knows no law and does not fear death,” said Dr. Tony Leachon, who served in government health services for more than a decade.
“Time to reflect on the execution. Let’s care for them. Kindness matters,” he said.
But aside from bullets and jail, and a demand for total obedience, Duterte had no alternatives to 5.6 million vulnerable families — 30 percent of Metro Manila’s population — who live in communities with a high prevalence of health problems, including malnutrition.
The president railed at corrupt politicians, claiming they were withholding, delaying or diverting aid.
Leaders of grassroots governance bodies took to Facebook to protest the accusation and Duterte’s premature announcements.
Nino Dionisio, a council member in a Quezon City village, said their annual calamity fund could not cover the expanded list of beneficiaries.
“You tell people we will feed them for a month. Where will we get the money? You tell them cash for work is already with us. We don’t know where the money is or how to access that program,” he said.
Grassroots councils have limited staff, paid at little more than minimum wage.
These days they repack and distribute relief, disinfect the community, do curfew patrols, and care for COVID-19 positive patients who cannot be accommodated in hospitals.
“People are risking their lives and working hard, then you give pronouncements that raise expectations, and we don’t have the answers to our constituents’ questions and demands,” Dionisio said, a plaint echoed by scores of peers across the country.
Duterte demands patience from the poor.
“The money will arrive. The food will arrive. You will have to be patient and wait for this. You will not die of hunger,” he told the hungry.
His knee-jerk reaction to the crisis was to strip elected officials of their relief authority, centralizing everything under the Department of Social Welfare Department, ostensibly to rid the relief process of corruption.
He claimed the agency had the data. It doesn’t. It only has a list of indigents already receiving unconditional cash transfer aid.
The agency now wants all other aid applicants, including informal workers and contractual labor, to fill up forms for assessment. That task has also been passed on to same overworked village officials Duterte slanders with general claims.
His generals will determine who lives and who dies. The dirty work of cash distribution still falls on the local governments he has cursed as corrupt.
The morning after Duterte’s rants, human rights lawyer Chel Diokno said the National Bureau of Investigation is now going after citizens who air negative sentiments about the government’s lockdown performance.
Yet most of the news these past few days show national officials belatedly adopting what critics have been egging them to do for weeks — from mass testing to safe quarantine places, to mobile kitchens, to setting seniors free from confinement.
All the slurs and threats in the president’s arsenal can’t hide the truth: Duterte is inept, dishonest, and irrational in the face of crisis.
If there is anything Filipinos believe these days, it is that silence is not an option.
Inday Espina-Varona is an award-winning journalist in the Philippines. She is a recipient of the “Prize for Independence” of the Reporters Without Borders in 2018. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.