Duterte’s Response to the Coronavirus: ‘Shoot Them Dead’
The Philippines president’s order to kill quarantine violators amid coronavirus chaos tests democracy yet again in his country.
MANILA, Philippines—Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is bringing his uniquely brutal brand of leadership to combating the coronavirus.
On March 24, police in San Isidro forced alleged curfew violators to sit under the sun, and the local government’s Facebook page posted a photo of them, saying, “Everyone violating the curfew will be placed here.” (Such treatment is legally classified as torture under the Anti-Torture Act of 2009.) A few days earlier, officials in Santa Cruz, Laguna province, locked five youths inside a dog cage for the same violation. Further reports emerged of police beatings and shootings around the country. “Anyone out at the wrong time will be shot, you sons of bitches,” said a police officer on a radio report on March 26.
And on April 1, Duterte delivered an impromptu national address with a short and clear message: “My orders to the police and military … if there is trouble or the situation arises where your life is on the line, shoot them dead,” he announced. “Understand? Dead. I’ll send you to the grave. … Don’t test the government.” In his warning, Duterte called out the human rights group Kadamay, which he accused of instigating a protest against the government’s lockdown.
The speech followed weeks of criticism of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Two days later, a 63-year-old farmer was shot dead in Mindanao after reportedly refusing to wear a face mask. The police reported that the man had been drunk and attacked the health workers and the police with a scythe.
The incident was met with public outcry, with some Filipino citizens calling for Duterte to be ousted. Even his traditional base of supporters criticized the move. “When you have a government that prioritizes the mobilization of military and police force to respond to a health crisis, you can’t help but see the lack of sight in their priorities,” said Matthew Jzac Kintanar, a student active in online protests against the Duterte government from his home in Mindanao in the southern Philippines. “The government should prioritize mass testing, aggressive contact tracing, protection of front-liners, and economic support for all individuals, but instead we get threats.”
Duterte’s shoot-to-kill order is just one escalation in his increasing assertion of authority that is all too reminiscent of the president’s crackdown on illegal narcotics, which has seen more than 20,000 suspected drug offenders killed in three years, according to human rights organizations. The government has put the number of dead at about 6,000. The United Nations has called for an investigation into that crackdown.
Carlos Conde, a researcher at Human Rights Watch Philippines, said that beyond mistreatment at the hands of the authorities, the arrests have been counterproductive in reducing the spread of the coronavirus. “The most worrisome aspect of tens of thousands of arrests is that they are thrown into crowded jails and holding areas, which completely eliminates the possibility of social distancing,” he said.
What is happening in the Philippines has evoked new concerns about rising authoritarianism during the coronavirus pandemic. On April 1, in a statement, a group of 13 European Union member states said they are “deeply concerned” about the use of emergency measures to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, fearing that some powers could threaten “democracy and fundamental rights.” This came after Hungary’s parliament granted Prime Minister Viktor Orban sweeping new powers, and other states are considering similar measures.
But Duterte has been particularly blunt and brutal in his response. First came the Enhanced Community Quarantine, which placed Manila and the entire island of Luzon on lockdown on March 16, suspending domestic and international travel. Businesses were shuttered, with the exception of supermarkets and pharmacies, and police, military, and local government officials enforced a strict 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.
On March 21, the president’s office asked Congress to grant special powers to Duterte allowing him to take over privately owned utilities and businesses to address the effects of COVID-19.
After having his request refused, Duterte signed the three-month-long Bayanihan to Heal as One Act on March 25, granting him 30 powers including the ability to take over private medical facilities and public transportation, and giving him greater control of the executive branch, including government-owned and controlled corporations.
Lawyers have criticized the measure, insisting existing laws already offer the president such powers and emphasizing that it did not address the root cause of the health crisis due to Duterte’s lack of a comprehensive plan against the outbreak.
Meanwhile, the law punishes those violating restrictions with up to two months’ imprisonment or fines up to 1 million Philippine pesos, about $20,000. These punishments extend to individuals or groups found to be creating or spreading false information regarding the coronavirus crisis. The National Union of Journalists, a local press group, said that the provision makes the government the “arbiter of what is true or false” and will “end up criminalizing free speech.”
Politicians in the Philippines are equally defiant. Filipino Sen. Leila de Lima, who has been in prison since 2017 for allegedly violating the drug trafficking law, is no stranger to arbitrary authoritarianism.
“I personally experienced being the victim of the weaponization of the law to silence democratic dissent, a useful tool in the Tyrant’s Toolbox,” she said in a prison interview with Foreign Policy. De Lima said that there have been more arrests of curfew and quarantine violators (at least 17,000) than mass testings (3,000). “People are dying because governments are more concerned about retaining control and power, rather than protecting and serving and we are now one hungry mob away from a dictatorship,” she said.
Nor does Duterte’s approach appear to be working well. The Department of Health has recorded 5,660 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in the Philippines as of April 16, a leap from just three reported cases on March 2. The Philippines has the highest number of cumulative coronavirus cases in Southeast Asia as of April 15, according to the World Health Organization, followed by Indonesia and Malaysia. In the region, the Philippines has the second-highest number of deaths, 362, and the second-lowest recovery rate, just 435. The Philippines also has among the highest percentage of total COVID-19 fatalities among health care professionals in the world. The country has conducted the fewer tests than most other nations, 38,103 for a population of 109 million, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University,
Other types of punishments are also highly demeaning. On April 5, three members of the LGBTQI+ community in Pandacaqui, Pampanga, were “ordered to kiss each other and do a sexy dance in front of a minor,” Rappler reported, as punishment for violating the curfew, and the incident was streamed live on Facebook by the barangay captain, the highest elected official in the village. An anti-discrimination bill that would have penalized this type of behavior has languished in Congress for nearly four years.
Another Facebook live post shows detainees in Pandacaqui forced to sign bail papers with sweat, while being threatened with paddling.
Perhaps the most notorious incident to date concerns a protest by residents in Sitio San Roque, Quezon City, who were asking for food aid on April 1. Twenty-one people were arrested with bail set at 15,000 pesos (almost $300) each. With 80 percent of San Roque earning minimum wage around 500 pesos a day and most residents unable to work during the lockdown, such a fee is impossible for many.
Human rights organizations and labor groups have expressed outrage and indignation at the violent arrests. The Asia Pacific Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines called for the release of the 21 protesters, who, as of April 6 were still in police custody. “The Philippine authorities should urgently investigate reports of barangay (village) officials committing abuses,” said Amnesty International Philippines on April 8. And the labor group Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino said, “to arrest hungry and desperate people is a new low for this administration.”
As a result of such brutality, the tide of public sentiment is beginning to turn. Over the past two weeks, the hashtags #StopTheAttacks, #BasicSocialServicesforthePoor and #MassTestingNowPH circulated on social media. A growing sentiment among the Philippine public is that the more the Duterte administration focuses on heavy-handed, militaristic responses, the less attention is directed toward health solutions. People are waiting for the government to deliver on its promises of assistance for health workers and emergency cash aid for 18 million low-income families of which more than 1.5 million have lost all sources of income.
The International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines said the crisis will increasingly take a heavy toll on the poor. “We support the efforts of empowered people’s movement in the Philippines’ to make the Duterte government accountable for: every poor person’s life lost due to denial of health care services and protection from Covid-19; every front-liners who died and are at risk due to the massive shortage of adequate facilities and equipment,” the coalition wrote in a statement.
Eliza Romero is the coordinator at the Malaya Movement, a U.S.-based alliance to advance democracy and human rights in the Philippines. She said that her organization supports the increasing protests demanding the release of the San Roque residents and condemning the government’s response to the coronavirus.
“The shoot-to-kill order will just encourage more extrajudicial killings and vigilantism,” Romero said. “It will give private citizens and barangay captains impunity to commit more human rights violations with the protection of the law while normalizing carnage.”
The forum Kalusugan, Hindi Diktadura! (Health, Not Dictatorship!) organized an online rally with speakers from advocacy organizations on April 1. They pushed a social media rally spreading the hashtags #DUTERTERESIGN and #OUSTDUTERTENOW, and the message “Solusyong medical, hindi militar” (Medical solutions, not military), which began trending on Twitter.
Amid the government’s militarist approach, Filipinos have taken the situation into their own hands; citizen-led relief operations, information campaigns, and donation drives are providing hundreds of community-driven solutions to a faltering government response. They call it the Citizens’ Urgent Response to End Covid-19 (CURE COVID), an initiative made up of various organizations and sectors such as the National Union of Students of the Philippines that were active in calling for the release of the 21 San Roque residents.
“Duterte’s order is made more dangerous by the culture of impunity created by his administration. State forces will not hesitate to pull the trigger because they know that they have the support of the president,” said Jandeil Roperos, the deputy secretary-general of the student group.
Filipinos are wary of dictator-like actions, which hark back to the notorious Marcos years before the 1986 People Power Revolution. “The fact that the Philippines was already under a state of de facto martial law long before the enhanced community quarantine is testament to Duterte’s Marcosian tactics,” Roperos said. “His war on drugs, the extrajudicial killings, the political persecutions, and red-tagging of activists and critics are a few examples of these tactics and proof that democracy is endangered. The whole country held its breath when he asked for more powers precisely because of him being hell-bent on recreating Marcos’s dictatorship.
“Filipinos have been pushing back against the system that oppresses them for a long time. The recent dissent against Duterte’s incompetence has contributed to the growing social unrest. Duterte’s fall from power, if he fails to change trajectories, is inevitable.”
“This pandemic gives him more leeway to abuse rights and endanger democracy,” Conde, the Human Rights Watch researcher, added. “The martial-law like atmosphere, the clampdown on criticism, coupled with past actions against the media and critics, all make a democratic slide possible.”
More than three decades ago, it was the much-acclaimed People Power that ultimately toppled the Marcos dictatorship in February 1986 as hundreds of thousands of Filipinos rose up to challenge the president.
And if Duterte is not careful, history may repeat itself, said the student protester Kintanar: “This pandemic has brought out the absolute worst of this government. People are tired, angry, and fed up at how we are being treated. Filipinos have shown the world people’s power. We have ousted two presidents before. I’m sure that if the need arises, we will not hesitate to do it again.”