A woman waiting for relief goods to be placed on chairs designated for households in a low income community in Metro-Manila. Photo: EPA via AFP Forum

MANILA – As a Covid-19 lockdown reaches its first restrictive month in the Philippines, there are rising reports of abuse and brutality against violators of the “enhanced community quarantine,” a soldier-enforced clampdown that is squeezing the urban poor hardest.

This should come as no surprise in an already traumatized nation that has borne witness to literally thousands of extrajudicial killings under President Rodrigo Duterte’s scorched earth war on drugs, a campaign that has also disproportionately hit the poor.

In late-March, the tough-talking populist leader gave “shoot to kill” orders against anyone perceived as stirring up trouble or resisting officials enforcing the lockdown, causing his top lieutenants to scramble for explanations to temper an ensuing public panic.

In recent weeks, local officials and mid-ranking bureaucrats across the country have cracked down on quarantine violators and critics with increasing impunity, viewed by some as a center-to-periphery Covid-19 driven transmission of Duterte’s authoritarian tactics and tendencies.

Warrantless arrests are rising against quarantine critics, with subpoenas filed against netizens airing legitimate public concerns about pressing issues such as food shortages. Quarantine and curfew violators, meanwhile, have been subjected to publicly humiliating punishments.

In Paranaque City, on the outskirts of Manila, quarantine violators have faced “torturing” punishment, with many forced to sit on plastic monoblock chairs under a scorching hot season sun.

One of the victims complained to local media that “there are people like me who need to go outside to work so we can eat something for the day.”

A detention facility in the Philippines. The country maintains some of the most overcrowded jails worldwide. Photo: Twitter/CNN

Netizens were quick to point out that the punishment violated the Anti-Torture Act of 2009, a local law that bars “harmful exposure to the elements such as sunlight and extreme cold.”

“Police and local officials should respect the rights of those they arrest for violating curfew and other public health regulations, which can be done while still allowing the Philippines government to take appropriate measures to combat Covid-19,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, a rights lobby.

In Laguna province’s Santa Cruz City, quarantine violators have faced even crueler punishment, with some held in literal dog cages, according to images circulated widely on social media. Human Rights Watch has been among those to criticize the city’s detention tactics.  

Among the most controversial punishments, however, was reported in Pampanga north of Manila, where LGBTQI violators have faced especially humiliating punishments, including incidents where they have been forced to perform lewd acts in public.

“They made us copy moves from Tiktok but we couldn’t do it because they were laughing at us and we were ashamed,” one of the victims, 22-year-old Jessica Mallari, complained after being apprehended with a friend. The official “said if we wanted to go home, we would have to kiss. When we didn’t do it, he told us we had to do 20 push-ups. It was past 10 pm.”

Rights groups are up in arms. “These abusive practices should not be swept under the rug by local authorities under the pretense of ‘implementing curfews’ and ‘just following orders,’” said Butch Olano, executive director of Amnesty International’s Philippines chapter.

“Incidents of humiliation and abuse have been reported since the start of the community quarantine, such as putting curfew violators inside dog cages; beating up people with sticks; and, most recently, sexually humiliating members of the LGBTQI+ community,” Olano added.

Curfew violators held in a cage usually used for holding captured stray dogs in Parasabayan, Philippines, March 20, 2020. Photo: Facebook/Human Rights Watch

Philippine authorities have yet to undertake mass testing to reveal the full extent of the nation’s Covid-19 outbreak, which nonetheless already ranks among the worst in the region based on official statistics of 4,400 cases and 247 deaths as of April 12.

Civil society groups are warning of a more “catastrophic” situation and “prison emergency” if Covid-19 starts circulating in detention facilities. Almost half of prisoners are pre-trial detainees and the majority are low-level offenders. Those numbers are growing with the rising number of quarantine-related arrests.

Bureau of Corrections facilities, which hold convicted criminals, report a 310% congestion rate, while the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology, which oversees pre-trail detainees, acknowledges a 450% congestion rate, making social distancing in the facilities impossible.

Drawing on experiences in other Covid-19 affected nations, where thousands of prisoners have been temporarily freed amid the pandemic, local civil society groups have called for the Philippine government to implement similar humanitarian measures, so far to no avail.

“Given the high congestion and mortality rates of the prison system, should the national government wait before the deadly Covid-19 unleashes even more catastrophic consequences inside Philippine jails?” said Fides Lim, spokesperson of KAPATID, a rights advocacy group representing the families of political detainees.

Philippine Interior Secretary Eduardo Año has claimed that prison is the “safest place right now” due to a recent Covid-19 motivated suspension of outside visitations.

“They will be more vulnerable and exposed to the virus if they are released at this time,” Año said in a statement in late March.

Prisoners lie to sleep in an overcrowded courtyard of the Quezon City jail in Manila, March 27, 2020. Photo: AFP/Maria Tan

From its inception, critics say, the lockdown has been both ill-conceived and prejudicial to the interest of millions of poor Filipino families.

Days after Duterte’s announcement of the “community quarantine” policy, which was later upgraded to a more restrictive “enhanced community quarantine” backed by emergency powers, there were no clear guidelines on travel restrictions or curfews.

This left up to three million Filipinos who work in Metro-Manila but reside in neighboring provinces in a law-breaking quandary.

For days, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos were cramped into dwindling and overwhelmed provincial buses and taxis headed for the provinces before the lockdown took hold.

Countless residents of Manila managed to leave the city, raising the risk of spreading the epidemic to the poorest regions of the country where there are minimal health services.

There are still no special public transportation mechanisms for tens of thousands of health workers and blue-collar laborers who must commute across the city on a daily basis to their life-saving jobs.

Nor is there any reliable and affordable transportation for emergency services, especially for poor Filipinos who don’t own their own private vehicles.

Security personnel hold up placards reminding people to stay at home amid concerns of the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Manila on March 31, 2020. Photo: AFP/Maria Tan

When a liberal mayor, Vico Sotto, suggested that three-wheeled taxi-motorbikes, which are ubiquitous in slum areas and poorer neighborhoods, be used for basic emergency transport, Duterte threatened him with disciplinary action and potential ejection from office.

The youthful mayor later even received a subpoena from the National Bureau of Investigation, which accused him of violating the quarantine rules.

In contrast, Mayor Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter, has introduced exactly the same measures as Sotto to help communities in southern Davao City, Duterte’s hometown, where there are reportedly fast rising numbers of infections. 

Two weeks into the lockdown, the Philippine legislature handed the authoritarian president special emergency powers and billions of dollars in relief funds with only limited oversight by a largely pliant Congress.

Under the “Bayanihan to Heal As One Act,” Duterte is authorized to oversee the operations of private hospitals and key sectors of the economy under broader powers to “move, decide and act freely for the best interest of the Filipino people during this health crisis.”

But those broad and arbitrary powers have lent themselves to abuse. Section 6(6) of the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act” gives the president draconian powers to crack down on false information or fake news about the Covid-19 crisis, neither of which are clearly defined in the law.

Offenders under the law face a penalty of two months’ imprisonment or fines ranging between 10,000 pesos ($200) to one million pesos ($20,000). The measure has allowed for the warrantless arrest of scores of netizens, many of whom have merely criticized the government’s emergency response over social media.

Meanwhile, millions of Filipino families are now struggling just to survive as Duterte’s government implements the longest and perhaps most abusive Covid-19 lockdown of any capital city in the developing world.