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Tanks vs coronavirus

The Philippine government’s approach to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic has been two-pronged: on the one hand, it has tried to follow the World Health Organization’s formula of “test, trace and treat,” and on the other, to impose varying degrees of “community quarantine,” a euphemism for lockdowns.

While both are aimed at reducing the spread of the deadly disease, the stark reality is that cases have been steadily climbing since the lockdowns began on March 16.

The obvious conclusion from the steady rise in COVID-19 cases despite nearly three months of draconian lockdowns (the longest in the entire world) and improvements in the capacity of health authorities to test suspected cases and treat confirmed ones, is that one or the other component of the government’s response—or both—has failed.

As far as the health component is concerned, while test kits have become more available, it appears to be half-hearted efforts by the Health department to conduct honest-to-goodness contact tracing that have allowed the disease to spread.

On the other hand, the lockdown restrictions may have prevented people in communities from going out from their homes into the streets, but their efficacy in reducing COVID-19 cases has yet to be conclusively proven by scientific studies or surveys.

The lockdowns, in fact, may have simply instilled fear among the citizenry that they could be arrested and detained and charged in court for defying rules and regulations, such was wearing of face masks, maintaining social distancing in public areas, and prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people.

The case of Cebu City in the central Philippines is instructive in this regard.

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The national government decided to deploy hundreds of fully armed Special Action Forces of the Philippine National Police to the city to enforce its return to the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), the harshest level among the set of restrictions on mobility.

The government justified the overwhelming show of force and the presence of war machines, including armored personnel carriers (APCs) equipped with .50 caliber machine guns, to patrol city streets to show government’s resolve to keep the contagion under control.

Cebu City Mayor Edgardo Labella said he sees no harm in the presence of tanks in the city, as these would help ensure discipline.

But Vice President Leni Robredo has slammed the deployment of the military and police in the city. “This is a health pandemic. Why are there tanks in the streets? The military has been very helpful, even towards our office, but I think we should take a more public health approach,” she said.

“My problem here is if the people see the tanks, they may ask, ‘Is this a war?’ The war is against COVID-19 and this will not be dealt with properly by sowing fear among the constituency,” she said.

Robredo explained that people will more likely cooperate with quarantine policies if they will understand their role in curbing the spread of the disease rather than sowing fear among them.

The ECQ in Metro Manila in late March also saw the deployment of armored personnel carriers in some parts of the city where COVID-19 cases were on the rise.

We believe the expanded role of the military and the police in lockdowns is an entirely unnecessary demonstration of the mailed-fist policy of the administration in dealing with a public health crisis.

The front-liners in the security sphere have been overzealous in implementing restrictions, sometimes effecting indiscriminate arrest and detention of ordinary citizen and even those participating in peaceful protest actions urging government for cash assistance to tide them over after losing their jobs.

The front-liners in the health sphere, on the other hand, have been doing their jobs well despite many limitations, among them the chronic underfunding of the health care system.

We reiterate: the main thrust of the response to the COVID-19 contagion should be focused on the health arena, with more epidemiologists and scientists, as well as doctors, nurses, medical technologists and support staff fielded in vulnerable areas, such as urban poor communities.

What the government is doing to justify strong-armed tactics by security personnel on the ground is to blame the people for lacking discipline and going out of their homes during lockdowns.

A former presidential spokesman recently suggested that the Duterte administration can impose martial law in the country because the coronavirus outbreak can be considered an “invasion,” one of the constitutional grounds for declaring emergency rule in the 1987 Constitution.

When his “novel” theory of a virus invasion was heckled and pilloried by many as ridiculous and the product of an over-fertile imagination, he tried to wiggle his way out of his brobdingnagian embarrassment by saying that he only wanted to stir public discussion on the issue.

Nobody believed him, and not long after he was replaced by a former human rights lawyer turned who had no qualms about defending to the hilt his boss’s dismal human rights record in the war on drugs.

But with tanks now patrolling the streets of Cebu City because of the “invasion” of the coronavirus, it is under de facto martial law at this point. Will this solve the COVID-19 threat, or simply compound the problem?

Ernesto M. Hilario writes on political and social justice issues for various publications in the Philippines. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of LiCAS.news.

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