Unravelling Duterte’s Iron Hand in the Time of COVID-19

© for the photo: Verna Viajar

In the first half of June, Metro Manila remained under a modified form of quarantine wherein schools were closed and certain establishments began to open at 50 percent capacity, and people returned to work. However, although workers are allowed to go to work, only 50 percent of public transportation is permitted to operate. Every day there are 250,000 workers who depend on public transportation, but with no coherent strategy from the government, the workers were advised to walk or ride a bicycle for their commute.

Despite the hard lockdowns, infections have not been stopped and indeed are still rising. Due to low testing capacity, slow processing of results, weak contact tracing, and lack of medical equipment, it has been difficult to determine who is infected, where they are, and how they will be cared for. Data on the rate of infections remains murky as the Department of Health have thousands of unconfirmed positive cases due to a huge backlog in test processing. As of 29 May, the reports show that the official count of infections numbers 15,588 people and 921 deaths. But including the backlog of positive cases there were 22,000 positive cases of COVID-19 in the country by the end of May. It is forecast that infections will reach 40,000 by the end of June. No real-time data from the Department of Health is available to the public.

Easing the lockdown may provide a lifeline to the dying economy but it remains to be seen whether it will be paid for with people’s lives. To date, the Duterte government has not fully rolled out a comprehensive strategy to rein in the coronavirus contagion in the Philippines. The Duterte government instead is placing all its hope in the early discovery of a vaccine and seeks assurances from China that it will be the ‘priority’ recipient of the COVID-19 vaccine from their pharmaceutical companies.

Harsh Lockdown for Hungry People

“Strict measures are the new normal” was the battle cry of the Department of Health and of the Duterte administration when he imposed a Luzon-wide lockdown. Luzon is the largest island in the Philippines and also where the political centre of the country—the National Capital Region, or Metro Manila—is located. Flanked by an all-male cabinet and generals, Duterte declared on television a total lockdown from 15 March which ordered everyone to stay indoors, closed all schools, paralyzed public transportation, and caused the economy to come to a standstill as people were even prohibited from going out to buy food on certain days. At least 2.5 million Filipinos became unemployed due to the severe lockdowns.

The Philippines enforced the strictest and longest lockdown in Asia, longer than the lockdown in Wuhan, China, the epicentre of the virus. The Nikkei Asian Review reported that the Philippines has the “strictest lockdown in Asia, but ineffective vs. COVID-19”, and that Duterte has “brought down public mobility by 85 percent in transit stations; by 79 percent of retail and recreation; and by 71 percent in workplaces”. However, the report further stated that the harsh lockdowns have not been effective in stopping the contagion but instead have been used to consolidate Duterte’s authoritarian rule.

Filipinos have decried the repressive measures and the incompetent health response against the pandemic, as shown by the fact that the Philippines has the highest fatality rate at 5.9 percent and the lowest recovery rate at 23.1 percent in Southeast Asia. This is compared to the regional average fatality rate of 2.34 percent and recovery rate of 37 percent. The country also has the lowest testing ratio in Southeast Asia, at 1,379 per million as of May 2020. The Philippine government also admitted that there has been no mass testing conducted since the beginning of the outbreak, which caused massive uproar with people questioning exactly what had been accomplished after the three-month lockdown.

It will be remembered that Duterte initially scoffed at the outbreak of coronavirus in China in February. He rejected the call of health officials to shut down travel from China to the Philippines. In the first week of March, two Chinese people from Wuhan died in the country due to the coronavirus, and thus began the local transmission. Since then, the response of the Duterte administration has been too little too late. The first casualties of the COVID-19 epidemic in the Philippines were healthcare workers (e.g. doctors, nurses) due to lack of testing kits and personal protective equipment (PPE). The Philippines has the highest fatality rate of health workers at 16 percent of all deaths from COVID-19 . Considered to be among the essential workers, as well as the heroes of the day amid the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare workers in the Philippines are called “frontliners”.

Consolidation of Authoritarian Rule      

From the start, the Duterte government has treated the pandemic like a law and order crisis rather than a public health emergency. The chief enforcers of the government’s National Action Plan against COVID-19—through the Inter-Agency Task Force which has no epidemiologists as members—are headed by three retired generals, namely Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Presidential Peace Adviser Carlito Galvez Jr., and Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano. Since 2016, Duterte has appointed more than 50 retired military generals to the government, 20 of them in his cabinet. Enforcement of the lockdown has been implemented in the strictest sense, such that after one month of lockdown, more than 120,000 people had been apprehended like criminals and punished inhumanely; cramming them into dog pens, leaving them out in the scorching sun, and for the unlucky ones, being beaten up, locked up in jail, or shot. On 29 April, the United Nations rebuked the Philippine government over its “highly militarized response to community quarantine violators“ in a statement that asserted that emergency powers should not be used to silence dissent, control the people, nor perpetuate the ruler’s power in office. This comes on the heels of Duterte’s statement ordering the police and the military to shoot quarantine violators, in one of his nightly presidential briefings.

A week after locking down the country, Duterte was given emergency powers to swiftly release 200 billion pesos to fund the COVID-19 national action plan. However, the law has been used to quash dissent and the freedom of speech of those protesting online and offline against the government. Duterte has been using the military and the police state apparatus, such as the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), to pursue critics of the government—regardless of their stature—in the midst of the pandemic. As ‘social distancing’ and community lockdown became the norm, social media became the space to voice dissent from an increasingly frustrated and hungry people. However, the long arm of the law has pursued those that posted criticisms against Duterte. Activists serving food on the streets and ordinary people posting critical comments to the government have been arrested in a systematic crackdown from Duterte’s police state.

The high-profile arrest of an ordinary teacher who had posted a sarcastic tweet that said he would pay 50 million pesos to anyone who could kill the president, drew a huge reaction from the public protesting against curtailment of the freedom of speech. No law can justify his arrest given that there was no complainant, and according to the lawyers it was unlikely that an ordinary teacher would possess 50 million pesos. Another person, a poor man in Mindanao, was arrested by the NBI for cursing Duterte in an online post, despite the fact that the president regularly curses everybody during his public speeches. In this crisis period, the Duterte government is experiencing insecurity in handling the health crisis given the heavy criticism from the public. These arrests were meant to send a chilling message to the public that they cannot criticize Duterte.

Perceived as limiting freedom of the press, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) through the Solicitor General (the lawyer of the government), ordered a major broadcasting network, ABS-CBN, to be closed down on 5 May 2020. The closure of this major broadcasting network is perceived as limiting the exposure of critical news on the incoherent policy responses of the government against COVID-19. Furthermore, at a time when the country needs to focus on addressing hunger and health issues, the government took advantage of the lockdown to deepen its authoritarian grip on power by silencing critical news. Duterte vowed last year to close down the network by not issuing a new franchise after ABS-CBN aired investigative news articles linking the Duterte family with alleged prominent drug traffickers.

Coincidentally, Ferdinand Marcos also ordered the closure of ABS-CBN in 1972 at the height of his dictatorship. Marcos was the elected president in 1965 but declared martial law in 1972 and stayed in power until 1986. His family amassed more than USD 10 billion, deposited in Swiss banks, during his 20-year authoritarian rule. The closure of this media station is the third such incident of Duterte lashing out at the media for being critical of his actions; the other two being against Rappler, an online news network, and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a major broadsheet newspaper in the country.

Online Protest Movement Unravels   

As people stayed at home with more time on their hands and an unassuaged fear of the pandemic, many have expressed their frustrations online on social media. The heavily-criticized militarization and incoherent health emergency response have unmasked the Duterte government’s incompetence, spurring a groundswell of protest on social media. Calls to #OustDuterteNow have been trending nationwide, seemingly posted by ordinary people. Politically organized groups have launched campaigns to take down social media sites used by Duterte’s propaganda trolls. People demanding transparency and competence have influenced the government to backtrack on some authoritarian policies and declarations. One of the most prominent examples of online uproar was caused by the VIP COVID-19 testing provided for prominent politicians despite the lack both of testing kits and mass testing for ordinary people. The intense protests which subsequently exploded on social media put the Department of Health on the defensive, resulting in politicians apologizing in public and backtracking to belatedly follow the medical protocols. Given the limited testing kits, medical protocols state that only suspected and probable cases shall be tested.

The double standard of the implementation of rules during community quarantine also drew heavy criticism online and on traditional news networks. Massive online criticism was levelled against a prominent senator who knew he was COVID-19 positive, but nevertheless broke quarantine protocols, went to a grocery store, and accompanied his pregnant wife to the hospital for a regular check-up. He was not apprehended or arrested, in contrast to what the police did with ordinary quarantine violators. The senator had to make a public apology and the NBI had to file a case against him. The most recent violation of quarantine protocols once again drew the ire of netizens when the police chief of Metro Manila celebrated his birthday with more than 50 people, despite the universal prohibition of mass gatherings. Despite widespread calls for him to be fired, Duterte defended him because of their friendship. Ironically, the police chief is also the principal implementor of quarantine protocols in Metro Manila.

Since then, the police chief’s birthday party (called ‘Mañanita’), has been the target of creative online protests to expose double standards in enforcing quarantine policies which apparently do not apply to Duterte loyalists. ‘Mañanita’ is a Spanish term derived from “Mañana” or “tomorrow” which signifies a Filipino tradition of greeting the birthday celebrant at dawn or before sunrise through singing and having collective breakfast. Online uproar and protests once again flooded social media when the Anti-Terrorism Act swiftly passed in both the Senate and the Lower House of Congress on 1 June 2020, while the country battles the COVID-19 pandemic. As of the time of writing, the Anti-Terrorism Act has already been sent off and just needs Duterte’s signature within 30 days for it to be enacted into law. Duterte certified the law as urgent, which angered netizens anew, as they have rather been demanding COVID-19 mass testing, sufficient health care response, and government assistance for those who lost their livelihoods due to the lockdowns. Reeling from the possible implications of the anti-terror bill—which defines terrorism broadly and may be used to silence dissent—activists, lawyers, students, artists, as well as religious groups, universities, and trade unions all flooded social media to express opposition to the bill. Influential business groups issued statements against the bill and the recent conviction of a journalist for cyberlibel. The online movement against the anti-terror bill was able to convince 20 legislators to retract their ‘yes’ votes on the bill and prompted the Department of Justice to review the constitutionality of the bill.

The growing discontent online has now become a cyber war with mass cloning of Facebook accounts appearing, threatening activists opposing the anti-terror bill as well as journalists reporting on the groundswell of opposition. Despite attacks from Duterte’s troll farms online and possible arrests by the police offline, the protest movement against Duterte called for demonstrations on 12 June 2020, Philippine Independence Day. Themed as “Grand Mañanita”, thousands—including trade unionists and human rights defenders—showed up to the protests held on the grounds of the University of the Philippines and its neighbour, the Commission on Human Rights. The “Grand Mañanita” theme purports to criticize the police chief who remained unpunished despite violating quarantine rules by celebrating a Mañanita party. 

Deepening of the Authoritarian Grip Amid the Pandemic

Whilst the ill effects of the lockdown rage on in the Philippines, on a global level, the COVID-19 pandemic unequally affects the lives and livelihoods of people at the top, middle, bottom, and at the edges of society. The virus has already ravaged more than a quarter of a million lives across the globe and the death toll is still rising as of the time of writing. Half of the world’s population or roughly four billion people are in some form of self-isolation or community lockdown. However, in the Philippines and elsewhere in the world, the unequal impact of restrictions upon the poor and the rich is exposed, as well as lockdowns being used to normalize and intensify police violence. Looking at the trends in the US, Mexico, Brazil, Serbia, and even France, the pandemic offers opportunities for abuse from authoritarian regimes and democracies alike: “In times of crisis, checks and balances are often ignored in the name of executive power”.

In Southeast Asia, Richard Heydarian noted that authoritarian-leaning leaders from the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia have used the crisis situation to silence critics and consolidate their grip on power. Heydarian is a Filipino and Asia-based academic and columnist, as well as author of the 2017 book “The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy”. According to Heydarian: “What we see across the region is a pattern of growing restrictions on the flow of information; a hardening crackdown on independent voices; and increased marginalization of opposition and democratic forces”. In relation to this, this article reminds us of Juan Linz’s four characteristics of authoritarianism,[1] namely: limited political pluralism; legitimacy is based on emotion; minimal social mobilization due to suppression of dissent; and vague or shifting definition of executive powers. However, Linz’s regime typologies are blind to the presence of resistance movements in authoritarian regimes. 

Such is the case in the Philippines. The pandemic has deepened the authoritarian grip of right-wing leaders to safeguard their positions and weather the storm of public dissent, as well as prevent their unmasking as being incompetent and incoherent in response to a lethal public health emergency. However, as popular discontent expands in response to the government’s militaristic and slow response to the pandemic, Duterte’s increasingly authoritarian responses have exposed his government’s political defensiveness and insecurities. The online protest movement has unravelled the authoritarian-populist government of Duterte built upon a flimsy house of cards dependent on the whimsical nature of popular will. As the lockdown began to ease in June, it will be interesting to see how the online protest movement transforms into real-life resistance.


[1] Juan Linz, Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000, p. 159.