The COVID-19 Crisis: Voices From Asia
This post is the first in an Asia Unbound series of voices from Asia on the COVID-19 crisis, and on its implications for Asia and for Asian views of the United States. The second can be found here, the third here, the fourth here, the fifth here, the sixth here, the seventh here, the eighth here, and the ninth here.
As of this week, the Philippines has one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in Southeast Asia. The country also has among the highest fatality rates in the region, underscoring the weakness of its increasingly strained public health system. The numbers are even more troubling when one considers that the country has yet to implement mass testing of any kind. The actual numbers of infected could be in tens of thousands, if not higher, making the Philippines one of Asia’s biggest hot spots.
COVID-19 is doing economic damage to the Philippines as well. The Philippine GDP growth has averaged around 6 percent annually for the past decade, but it could actually contract this year. As many as 1.2 million Filipinos could lose jobs as the economy dives, and as a lockdown limits economic activity. A $23 billion rescue package is being hurriedly put together, but even this relatively large amount may not be sufficient to avoid serious economic damage.
During a recent national address, the usually tough-talking President Rodrigo Duterte admitted that the “government is desperate now. I am desperate now.” In many ways, this tragic outcome was far from surprising. Across the world, Duterte’s fellow illiberal populists have bungled the initial phase of the crisis, the period when they had time to listen to medical experts and put measures into place to reduce the spread of the virus.
A common thread among illiberal populists has been a reckless initial dismissiveness towards the crisis, with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro as an extreme case of obstinate denialism. In the case of Duterte, his dismissive folly extended well into mid-March. During a March 11 speech at the Malacanag presidential palace, the president told the audience: “I’ve been told masyado naman takot itong corona na ito,”—“you folks are too scared of this coronavirus epidemic.” “Naniwala pala kayo. Sus”—“fools, don’t believe it.”
Meanwhile, Duterte moved slowly to implement travel restrictions on people coming to and from China, likely because of the Philippine leader’s worry about alienating Beijing, a key strategic patron, and concerns about affecting the inflow of hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens working in the online casino industry in the Philippines. Even when many Philippine legislators pushed for such travel restrictions, Duterte moved slowly on them, and still allowed some incoming flights from China.
Duterte even personally also ignored a strict “no touch” policy—meaning no one was supposed to touch the president—introduced by his security team to protect the seventy-four-year-old president, who has multiple underlying health conditions. Duterte even quipped that he prefers to hug, rather than shake hands, with females visiting the palace.
Meanwhile, many Philippine health authorities questioned the necessity of conducting mass testing, claiming it is “unrealistic”. They also failed to establish a robust nationwide infrastructure to combat the spreading epidemic—through pro-active testing, large-scale contact-tracing, and targeted quarantines of most affected areas—in the first three months of the year.
Only days after mocking those who took the crisis seriously, Duterte announced a month-long lockdown (March 15 to April 14) across Metro Manila and surrounding regions. For days, the exact contours of the lockdown—initially dubbed as “community quarantine,” then later upgraded to “enhanced community quarantine”—remained unclear. But panic buying ensued as soon as twelve million residents of Metro Manila realized that there would be restrictions on entry and exit from the national capital region and large parts of the country’s economy—including malls, restaurants, and public parks—would be shut down under a strict social distancing regime.
While many welcomed the lockdown as an effort to contain an epidemic outbreak, the Duterte administration bungled its initial implementation, as varying agencies made contradictory statements on curfews and travel restrictions in the national capital region and beyond. To be fair, the government’s struggles are not entirely of its own fault, given the country’s weak public health system. But Duterte didn’t help the situation by cutting the health budget in recent years.
Is this bungling of the initial COVID-19 response having an impact on Duterte’s popularity, or on his legacy? According to polls conducted prior to the lockdown, Duterte remains widely popular. Under current circumstances, conducting polls may have been logistically difficult, so it is difficult to tell for sure where public opinion stands on the issue. Online, Philippine netizens are expressing rising impatience and discontent with the Duterte administration’s response. Although Duterte has worked hard to silence dissent in the country, doctors are now publicly complaining about the lack of protective equipment, middle class Filipinos are openly complaining about the lack of financial support for certain sectors hit hard by the lockdown, and some poorer Filipinos are complaining about their desperate struggle to survive the lockdown with dwindling resources. Following small-scale protests by mostly poor residents in Manila about Duterte’s COVID-190 response, Duterte greenlighted “shoot to kill” orders to law enforcement and soldiers implementing the lockdown.
With the government extending the lockdown until the end of the month, public discontent and impatience is bound to increase, especially if the government fails to reassure the public that it is in control, such as by rolling out mass testing, showing a credible decline in infections, or extending policies that help poor Filipinos meet their basic needs during the lockdown. As the crisis continues, Duterte’s popularity and legacy could well suffer major damage.
While his position as president will likely remain secure for the foreseeable future—he is limited to one term and it is unlikely that anyone will try to bring him down before his presidency ends in 2022—the ongoing crisis has chipped away at Duterte’s claim to competence and of being a man of the people. If his popularity falters, it could dramatically affect his ability to shape, if not choose, his successor ahead of the 2022 elections. In recent years, the president has been grooming his daughter, Sara, as well as long-time assistant and current senator, Bong Go, as his potential successors.
Shaping the 2022 election is important in a country where in recent years many outgoing presidents face hostile successors, and—like former presidents Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo—have wound up under house arrest or in jail after leaving office for crimes allegedly committed back when they were president. Duterte’s controversial rule, which has coincided with thousands of extrajudicial killings and intense cleavages between him and the country’s leading businessmen, has created no shortage of enemies for him. If Duterte leaves office with his legacy in tatters, he could be extremely vulnerable to political persecution if not legal prosecution at home. Thus, the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in the Philippines, the economic shocks of which will echo for years to come, will impact not only Duterte’s legacy but also the post-2022 scenario in the Philippines’ rapidly evolving political landscape.
Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author of The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy.