Workers in hazmat suits disinfect a road in San Juan City, Philippines on March 19, 2020. Photo: NurPhoto via AFP Forum/Lisa Marie David

MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s lockdown of the nation’s capital to contain the Covid 19 outbreak is coming undone before it could take hold amid scenes of chaos and fears of food shortages that have undercut confidence in his government’s crisis management. 

The Filipino leader is now seeking emergency powers to sequester and commandeer private properties and resources to tackle the outbreak.

Congress members have tabled a bill that would give the president the power to realign public funds, direct the operation of private hospitals, oversee all lockdown operations, and  temporarily take over or direct the operation of any privately-owned public utility or business that affects the public interest in the fight against the Covid-19 epidemic.

Amid fears of abuse by the authoritarian-leaning president, with critics already warning of the possibility he may move to impose martial law, the bill emphasizes that the president should “exercise powers necessary and proper” to effectively implement the lockdown only “for a limited period and subject to restrictions.”

One week into Duterte’s so-called “community quarantine” of Metro Manila, home to more than 12 million residents, government agencies and officials continue to contradict each other on the guidelines governing the lockdown, including the precise hours and areas to be placed under curfew.

Rising disputes between national and local government units on key issues such as maintaining public transportation and whether to allow workers at food-producing companies to continue working have fueled the rising sense of confusion and dread.

The Philippine Chamber of Food Manufacturers Inc, or PCFMI, said in a statement reported by the local Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper that there may be gaps in their operations and supplies in the coming weeks.

“At the moment we can assure at least a few weeks to a month’s supply. Succeeding supplies heavily depends on how current issues are handled,” the PCFMI, which includes over 100 of the nation’s top food suppliers including the San Miguel Corp, Nestle Philippines Inc and Nutri-Asia Inc, said.

“We did not anticipate this situation so incoming of materials in the next coming weeks can be an issue,” the group statement said, signaling potential shortages.

Department of Agriculture Secretary William Dar has appealed to local government chiefs to keep food and commodity production and processing companies up and running, but has acknowledged that provincial authorities are the nation’s “real food security czars.”

Shoppers stand apart in social distancing measures while queueing outside of a supermarket in Manila, March 17, 2020. Photo: AFP/Maria Tan

Duterte’s government has asked food producers with stockpiles to draw down their production in order to ensure maximum social distancing to contain viral spread.

“While you are allowed to operate, we are making an appeal to those with huge inventories…To reduce the number of people plying roads and employees reporting for work,” Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez said at a press briefing in Malacañang on March 18.

“You can contribute a lot to the reduction of population going out of their homes. Ideally, stay at home. For those with one month, two months inventory of finished goods, I suggest you go on holiday,” he said.

The Department of Health (DOH), meanwhile, has acknowledged that it does not have a firm grasp on the actual number of Covid-19 cases in the country, due to a paucity of test kits.

The national health authority announced 77 new cases on March 21, the largest single-day rise to date that took the total to 307. There have been 19 Covid-19 deaths in the Philippines.

As the number of cases spikes, Duterte has upgraded the government’s disease containment policy to so-called “enhanced community quarantine”, with military checkpoints set up across Metro-Manila and beyond to enforce social distancing.

Amid concerns of a full-blown epidemic, with authorities warning that as many as 75,000 Filipinos could be infected without decisive government intervention, the quarantine has been extended to much of the country’s northern industrial heartland including areas of food production.

Soldiers inside a military headquarters before being deployed to enforce a Covid-19 lockdown at thoroughfares, in Manila, March 14, 2020. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

The evening-to-dawn (8 pm to 5 am) curfew now imposed in several areas of Metro-Manila has not been seen since the end of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship in 1986. Yet Duterte, widely portrayed by his advocates as a “decisive leader”,  has stumbled in his bid to reassure the citizenry.

Instead, the tough-talking president has bumbled from one meandering and barely comprehensible national address to another, raising alarm about his government’s credibility and competence to contain the now fast-spreading outbreak.

During a major national address on March 12, for example, he bizarrely ended a stream of consciousness rant, replete with top-level doubts and despondency, by praising China, the origin of the now global pandemic’s spread.

“You know [Chinese] President Xi Jinping, for all of his goodness to us, wrote me a letter and said that he is willing to help. All we have to do is to ask,” Duterte announced to the astonishment of his Cabinet members during a televised address from Malacanang, the presidential palace.

“Maybe there will be time if things deteriorate that I have to call on China to help. [Xi] said that they have managed the crisis very well in his country and he is very much willing to help if needed,” Duterte said in a mixture of Filipino and English.

The comments left many Filipinos dumbfounded amid growing anti-China sentiment in the country and beyond, with many accusing the Chinese Communist Party-led regime of fueling the global pandemic through a systematic coverup, suppression of whistleblowers and state-disseminated disinformation.

Chinese authorities have bid to stem that sentiment in the Philippines with the diplomatic and symbolic donation of 2,000 test kits and a promise of more medical assistance if the situation deteriorates further. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) toast during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila, November 20, 2018. Photo: AFP/Pool/Mark R Cristino

“The kits have not only been widely used in China’s battle against the epidemic and proven to be quite effective, but also been exported to more than 50 countries including Japan, Thailand, Brunei, Egypt, Peru and UAE,” a Chinese Embassy statement said.

It jointly donated the masks with the mainland-based China Mammoth Foundation humanitarian organization.

China’s donation, however, is a drop in the bucket compared to the nation’s growing health needs amid fears of rising intra-community transmission in recent days. Philippine health officials only have 4,500 test kits nationwide, including those donated by the World Health Organization.

At the same time, health authorities are massively “underreporting” the actual number of cases, according to leading opposition legislator Senator Panfilo Lacson.

The test kit shortage, critics say, highlights the Duterte administration’s lack of preparedness as the government implements increasingly desperate, draconian and ineffective measures.

For example, after initially announcing sweeping restrictions on all modes of travel to and from the Philippine capital, the government suddenly and inexplicably reversed course.

On March 18, the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) announced that the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases has allowed “all persons, regardless of nationality, except for Filipino tourists,” to enter and leave the Philippines “at any time”, though inbound foreign passengers are still “subject to strict immigration and quarantine protocols.”

A Filipino man in transit is tested for fever at a police checkpoint south of Manila amid a Covid-19 lockdownMarch 15, 2020. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/George Calvelo

After initial reports that Chinese-operated online casinos in Metro-Manila, known as POGOs, were allowed to continue operating during the lockdown, Duterte’s Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles was forced to announce that they were also included in the enhanced community quarantine.

Under the lockdown’s guidelines, only essential sectors and establishments such as hospitals and pharmacies are allowed to operate unimpeded. Netizens, however, have reported Chinese POGOs shifting to residential condominiums to circumvent the newly-imposed restrictions.

Many Filipinos believe that the large-scale entry of Chinese POGO workers, including through institutionalized illegal schemes exposed by the Senate, have contributed to the nation’s Covid-19 threat, further inflaming anti-China sentiment at a grass-roots level.

Meanwhile, Duterte’s national government and Metro-Manila city mayors have sparred over the shut down of public transportation, crippling millions of Filipinos who lack private vehicles and work in essential services including food delivery and healthcare.

Pasig Mayor Vico Sotto, a young charismatic leader who has emerged as a potential future presidential candidate, has criticized the national government for failing to provide a sustainable and realistic scheme for ordinary Filipinos under the current lockdown.

He has called on the government to exempt motorized tricycles, an affordable source of daily transportation for millions of Filipinos, from the public transportation ban.

Otherwise, Sotto said, countless Filipinos will need to walk miles to buy basic necessities and get to work. Many will also not have access to emergency transportation if needed, the mayor said.

A young girl wears a mask as she sits outside her home during a Covid-19 lockdown in Manila on March 18, 2020. Photo: AFP/Maria Tan

“I am not yet even considering the social and economic effects of prohibiting tricycles. We are talking about the potential damage to public health and a possible loss of lives,” Sotto said, accusing the government of not properly weighing the daily needs of ordinary citizens.

Malacanang, however, struck back, accusing the youthful mayor of grandstanding. “Let’s all stick to the common ground rules…we are doing everything so that everyone is equally protected,” Malacanang said.  

Ahead of Metro-Manila’s lockdown, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimated that the pandemic could cost the Philippines up to 250,000 jobs and billions of dollars in foregone production due to disrupted regional supply chains and shocks to the global economy.

The Duterte government’s lockdown will likely take that economic, social and human toll much higher.