Pandemic Politics in the Philippines, Part 2



When the first community transmission of COVID-19 was confirmed on March 6th in Manila, President Digong Duterte declared a public health emergency and placed Luzon under Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) which banned mass transport and resulted in work stoppage in industries, and to prevent mass gathering for about a month. The declaration created unease and many tried to defy the lockdown. The sight of “pasaways” (people defying stay at home orders) clearly piqued law enforcement and the president, of the unruly and out of control crowd.


Duterte addressed the expanding threat by crafting a proposed legislation “Bayanihan Act of 2020” to cloak him with emergency powers. When Malacañang released the draft of the proposal, human rights lawyers and followers of VP Robredo went nuts asserting among others that Duterte doesn’t need emergency powers and that such request was a pretext to declaring Martial Law. They averred that Duterte already had all the powers in the Constitution to deal with the pandemic and there was no need to waste government funds through illegal schemes like the pork barrel and the disbursement acceleration program (DAP) formerly used by the Aquino administration.


While the Philippine democratic form of government was patterned before the United States, it did not adopt federalism as part its Constitution. Hence, some gaps on how government can deal with emergencies such as a pandemic. The 1987 Philippine Constitution granted emergency powers to the president in times of war (which this was not) and national emergency (which this was but must be granted by Congress). If granted emergency powers, the president can temporarily take over or direct the operation of any privately owned public utility or business affected with public interest.


The third option is for the president as the Commander in Chief, to call out the armed forces as may be necessary to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion … including suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or impose a nationwide or partial martial law. This third option clearly did not apply but was the bogeyman being used by the opposition to demonize what the president was trying to achieve.


Unlike in the United States where the president can invoke the Stafford Act for legal authority to unleash the federal government provide assistance to states during declared major disasters and emergencies; or invoke the Defense Procurement Act that grants the executive “war time powers” including taking over or mandating private industries to perform an act needed to deal with exigency at hand. The Philippines does not have such laws except to declare Martial Law. By seeking the emergency powers from Congress, Duterte made it clear he did not want to declare Martial Law.


So Congress granted Duterte the emergency powers when the “Bayanihan to Heal as One” was signed into law on March 24. The law authorized the government to realign any unobligated amount to help fund the emergency efforts, provide emergency subsidy for 18 million law-income households nationwide for two months, and the authority to deal with the health aspects of the pandemic including use of personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, testing, hospitalization, among others, for three months. In return, the president was to provide weekly update reports.


The administration’s implementation was slow and chaotic at the outset. Trying to navigate a bureaucracy in two weeks is a gargantuan tasks identifying/realigning funds, providing implementing rules for the Special Amelioration Program (SAP) down to the barangay level takes time but the lockdowns made many people impatient. Their lack of understanding (or patience) of how the bureaucracy works with the Department of Social Welfare (DSWD) initially given the funds then transferred to the local government units (LGUs) became irrelevant. Many of the complaints stemmed from local implementation including allegations of cronyism and favoritism to outright corruption. This was complicated by misinformation and a lack of national identification cards or data base that would have expedited release of the funds.


In sum, Duterte did what he had to do and laid out a blueprint how to navigate such an untried response to pandemic, no matter how high the expectations were from the opposition. For instance when law enforcement cracked down on protest assemblies, demonstrations, and spreading fake news or memes on social media platforms; human rights lawyers and the Makabayan block legislators accused the administration of high handedness and averred that civil rights are not curtailed even during times of emergency.


Perhaps what was telling was VP Robredo’s typical responses in all these. From the outset, Robredo and the Office of the Vice President began raising funds for her “Angat Buhay” project to support the frontliners including provision of PPE and food to frontliners and temporary berthing. Her office even donated P5.8 million pesos to the PPE fund. She was constantly on the news for her unsolicited advices on how to respond to the crisis. Not to be outdone was Pasig’s superstar, Mayor Vico Sotto who was also constantly on the news for his outreach and innovative approach (i.e. using pedicabs to deliver support to recipients).


Then the hammer came down. First, Duterte singled out lawyer Chel Diokno, one of Team Leni’s defeated senatorial candidate for his constant criticism of law enforcement’s harsh tactics in dealing with dissent. Followed by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) going after Mayor Sotto for violating the ECQ. A Leftist group trying to distribute relief goods in Bulacan was stopped and arrested by the police with propaganda materials and similarly for violating the ECQ. Perhaps the biggest news was when a PACC commissioner accused VP Robredo of trying to compete with government efforts and should be investigated for undermining the efforts of the government.


Diokno, Sotto, and Robredo all stepped hard on their breaks and stayed low. Either they were spooked or finally understood that the government was losing patience and their public relations stunts were not helpful in preventing the spread of the deadly virus. Are these draconian measures politically motivated? Probably but the administration has all the legal tools to go after them and justify the high handed approaches with the rising number of coronavirus cases as evidence.


We have to remember that the presidential election is only less than two years away and nobody really knows how long this will last. Thus everything being done now by potential presidential candidates is suspect; VP Robredo included and by extension, her supporters in the business community and the media.


In defense, her office put out that the vice president didn’t do anything illegal and that anybody can raise funds to help those in need during the pandemic. Robredo’s noble responses were indeed legal but the big problem is that she is just not anybody. She is the vice president of the republic and therefore part of the executive branch. Her usual response to natural or manmade calamities including this pandemic tend to project that she has a government of her own and would go off-tangent in trying to outdo government efforts.