Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in campaign mode in a file photo. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

In a bid to stem a Covid-19 epidemic and enforce a dithering capital lockdown, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was granted emergency powers today (March 24) to contain the viral spread by his legislative allies who dominate the national Congress.

The new emergency measures will give the president additional powers to, among other things, realign public funds, direct the operation of private hospitals and directly oversee Metro-Manila’s soldier-backed lockdown operations which have so far proved porous.

The Philippines has confirmed 462 Covid-19 cases with 33 related deaths. Fears are growing, however, that the lethal disease may be more widespread due to a lack of extensive testing.  

Amid fears of abuse by the authoritarian-leaning leader, with some critics warning he may use his new powers to impose nationwide martial law, the bill emphasized that the president should “exercise powers necessary and proper” to implement the lockdown only “for a limited period and subject to restrictions.”

The final version, approved by both Senate and the House of Representatives, watered down the original language, including provisons that would have allowed for the “take over of public utilities and private businesses.”

The Filipino president has nonetheless been granted new extraordinary powers backed with a 275 billion peso (US$5.4 billion) emergency subsidy program and augmented public health campaign to fight the Covid-19 threat.

Soldiers stand guard in a military headquarters before being deployed to secure a Metro-Manila lockdown on March 14, 2020. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

Duterte’s supporters claim that special powers are necessary to streamline ongoing efforts to assist emergency public health measures, enforce strict social distancing, sustain a month-long lockdown of Metro-Manila and prevent disruption to the national economy.

Since rising to power in 2016, the tough-talking Duterte has repeatedly signaled his desire to impose national martial law to establish greater law and order and address the country’s myriad challenges.

In late-2017, after declaring martial law across entire southern island of Mindanao in the name of fighting terrorism, the Filipino president called for a “revolutionary government”, known to experts as a “self-coup”(autogolpe), to suspend normal constitutional procedures.

The proposal, however, was flatly rejected by the country’s defense establishment, which reiterated its commitment to a constitutional democracy.

Last year, Duterte again raised the issue amid growing criticism by opposition and civil society groups about his authoritarian tendencies and a controversial, lethal drug war. 

Months later, amid an escalating showdown with water concessionaires and businessmen critics, Duterte once again reiterated the threat, stating a revolutionary government may be necessary to “correct everything” in the country.

The epidemic threat, his critics fear, may have finally given the president the special powers he clearly craves.

A woman wears a mask as a precautionary measure against the spread of Covid-19 in Manila, March 13, 2020. Photo: AFP/Maria Tan

Upon declaring a de facto lockdown of Metro-Manila last week, euphemistically termed by his implemening officials as “enhanced community quarantine”, Duterte changed his tone by denying that the extraordinary measures were a pretext for imposing martial law.

“But it’s a lockdown. There is no struggle of power here…It’s just a matter of protecting and defending you from Covid-19. That’s about it,” the leader said at a nationwide briefing at Malacanang palace with military and police officials visibly perched behind him.

“It has nothing to do with the power of the military nor the power of the police nor my power and these guys beside me. It’s just an issue of protecting public interest and public health,” he added.

Duterte sought the additional powers as local government officials, businesses and netizens openly complained about a lack of government coordination, diminishing supplies and a lack of palliative measures to assist troubled businesses and citizens who live hand to mouth.

The new law, originally entitled the Bayanihan Act of 2020 by Malacanang, was adopted by both houses of Congress after the Senate renamed it as the “We Heal As One Act” to win public support for the potential rights-curtailing order amid an unprecedented health crisis.

To allay public fears, Senate President Vicente Sotto III denied that Malacanang was seeking full-blown “emergency powers”, even if  the Palace’s original draft explicitly used the term. The legislature later replaced the term “emergency powers” with “authority” to dampen possible criticism.

Senator Pia Cayetano, a Duerte ally, was quick to come to Duterte’s defense. “To those who are concerned about the special authorities we will give the president through this bill, let me remind you that we are now in an emergency situation,” the veteran senator said via her social media outlets.

A government worker disinfects a high school amid concerns about the spread of Covid-19 in Manila, March 9, 2020. Photo: AFP/Maria Tan

“The government has to have the ability to make decisions fast, including the allocation of 200 billion pesos for the poorest Filipinos,” she added.

The special subsidies and augmented health services fund has yet to go through detailed scrutiny by lawmakers, who they say have not yet been provided with an itemized breakdown of the proposed new expenses and acquisitions.

At the same time, many are questioning whether giving Duterte emergency powers will improve the effectiveness of the government’s handling of the crisis.

“The grant of emergency powers, as proposed by the Senate and House bills, may not be the solution to the Covid-19 pandemic at this time,” said the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) in a statement signed by prominent human rights lawyer Jose Manuel Diokno and Metro-Manila regional coordinator and former Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te.

“Notice should be taken that other countries have not resorted to passage of extraordinary measures to combat the pandemic, choosing instead to rely on evidence-based strategies and scientific solutions,” the FLAG statement said.