MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has extended one of the world’s longest and strictest Covid-19 lockdowns until June, a controversial move that is out-of-step with regional easing trends and promises to intensify the nation’s economic and human suffering.
Now set to run for 11 weeks, or 80 days, the soldier-enforced “collective quarantine” of the capital Metro Manila and other large cities will be longer than the 76-day lockdown of Wuhan, China, the origin of the global pandemic.
The lockdown has arguably done more damage to Filipino livelihoods, with more than one million jobs expected to disappear. Emergency rule has also taken a toll on the nation’s standing as democracy, raising questions if curbs on civil liberties will ever be restored.
Duterte’s extended lockdown has coincided with a concerted clamp down on independent media and critical voices, including its perfunctory shutdown on flimsy legal grounds of the ABS-CBN News network, the Philippines’ largest broadcaster.
According to the Philippine National Police (PNP), up to 41,000 people have been arrested for violating “Enhanced Community Quarantine” (ECQ) regulations in major cities, with overall violations reaching 156,000.
The Philippine government has yet to provide a precise rationale for extending a tortuous lockdown in one of the world’s most densely-populated cities.
Around two-thirds of the country’s 11,876 cases and three quarters of its 790 deaths have been concentrated in the urbanized Metro Manila area, according to official statistics.
But while cases are still rising, the confirmed numbers are far lower than in European nations that are now starting to emerge from their virus lockdowns as well as neighbors such as Singapore (26,000).
To be sure, there are reasons to be skeptical of the government’s figures, given the much-delayed introduction of mass testing.
In mid-May, as the lockdown extended into a second month, Duterte’s administration admitted that it failed to reach even its fairly modest target of 8,000 tests per day. Experts believe that figure should increase to at least 30,000 tests a day in order to have a realistic assessment of the situation.
So far, the Philippines has tested just over 188,000 people in a country of 100 million.
The economic impact of the lockdown, which was initially scheduled to end by April, has been devastating on all fronts, pushing the Philippines’ into recession for the first time since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.
Gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by .2% in the first quarter of this year, a massive collapse from the 6.7% growth recorded in the previous quarter. Second quarter figures are expected to be even more devastating, with economists projecting a 3.4% economic contraction this year.
If so, it will mark the worst economic crisis since the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, under which the country fell into a major debt crisis that caused economic contraction. It also marks a sharp reversal of a decade of sustained fast economic growth, averaging at around 6% throughout the 2010s.
“The lockdown had a big impact on Covid cases but it also impacted the economy,” spokesman Roque said in a briefing.
“Government resources are limited, so we have to generate resources for the long-term fight against Covid. In the future, if without economic interventions, the result would be more harmful than the effects of Covid.”
The Duterte government appears to be pre-empting that economic decline and the potential for it to spark instability by curbing civil liberties, as authorities clamp down on critics in the name of battling “misinformation.”
Under the “Bayanihan to Heal As One Act”, Duterte has been given broad special powers to “move, decide and act freely for the best interest of the Filipino people during this health crisis.”
A major source of concern, however, is Section 6(6) of the special powers law, which grants extraordinary leeway to the government on how to define misinformation and regulate the flow of information amid the ongoing crisis.
The implementation of the broadly defined new regulations has been largely selective, targeting primarily critics of the government. Since April, the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) Cybercrime division has issued a flurry of subpoenas and arrest warrants against netizens.
More recently, it arrested teacher Ronnel Mas from the northern city of Dagupan for a social media post offering a bounty of US$1 million for anyone who is willing “to kill Duterte”, a satirical commentary on the president’s offer of a similar amount as prize money for a Covid-19 vaccine discovery.
The netizen was charged with incitement to sedition, which carries a heavy penalty if found guilty. Another man, from the central Philippines city of Aklan, was arrested for a similar post, offering twice the previous amount for the president’s assassination.
NBI Director Eric Distor said the NBI is “serious in carrying out its mandate to pursue cases involving threats to security or assaults against the person of the President as well as of the Vice President, Senate President, Speaker of the House of Representatives and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.”
A more disturbing case, however, was the arrest of a 41-year-old salesman, Reynaldo Orcullo, from the southern Agusan del Norte province who simply called the president, affectionately known as ‘Digong’, as “crazy” amid growing frustration over the extended lockdown.
Authorities maintain that they are not targeting critics of the administration. But some see a Covid-19 double standard emerging for those who support and oppose the president. The NBI recently filed subpoenas against Senator Koko Pimentel, who violated his personal quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19 last month.
Critics note the PNP has yet to charge Metro-Manila police chief Debold Sinas, who held a large birthday party recently in clear violation of social distancing regulations. To quell a public outcry, authorities have promised an internal probe.
But it seems unlikely to most observers that the police chief charged with cracking down on Duterte’s critics will be subject to the same sort of punitive treatment, particularly as the pressure builds around the nation’s extended lockdown.