Filipino citizens were anxious to hear some news and updates on the government’s concrete plans in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. Millions were glued to their TV sets and computer screens in anticipation. Late at night on April 1, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte finally delivered a much-awaited speech in his signature mix of broken English, Visayan and Tagalog but instead of addressing more urgent matters, he unleashed what turned out to be a violent tirade against the “Left” and a litany of threats against those who continue to challenge him and his government. Though he admitted that supplies and financial aid had indeed come short and were late in coming even after weeks of community quarantine, he raged against the “Left” just for criticizing the delays and for supposedly instigating “riots.” The occasion for his speech was apparently the arrest of 21 people and brutal dispersal of a small contingent of hungry residents from the urban poor community of Sitio San Roque which had emerged that morning into a major highway because of news that a party-list group would be distributing long-awaited relief packs. Most of them are low-wage earners who live from day-to-day and are now unable to work and provide for their families because of the lockdown. They say that they had not received any aid at all and were more afraid of dying from hunger than of the virus and the police. In reply, Duterte threatened protesters with the harsh fate of immediately being shot and buried.
You understand? Dead. Instead of you creating trouble, I will just bury you, You know we are ready for you. Fighting or shooting or killing, I will not hesitate my soldiers to shoot you [sic].If you want shooting then so be it. If you want beatings, okay then. I will not hesitate,” “shoot them dead.”
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, April 1, 2020, Address to the Nation (translations from Tagalog italicized)
Equally disastrous for his public image was Duterte’s obstinately incoherent and rambling speech last March 12, when he declared a community quarantine a.k.a. “lockdown” of Metro Manila. Duterte appeared on television flanked by several anonymous and burly uniformed military men while repeatedly denying that he was declaring any sort of Martial Law. “Social distancing” was repeated in the speech several times but never explained properly, “social distancing, ‘yung distansya mo’ to the other fellow, ‘medyo malayo'” (social distancing, your distance to the other fellow, should be somewhat distant). Instead, there were repeated admonitions and threats to the people to just “obey” authorities or face arrest and imprisonment. In his words, “… if things deteriorate, I said, the military and the police will maintain order. That is why it is called peace and order. There has to be a peace and that peace is also orderly. There must be order in the country. And that is all.” A highlight of the speech was an effusive expression of gratitude to the Chinese government and President Xi Jin Ping. Regardless of how other countries in Southeast Asia are faring in addressing this unprecedented calamity, one would be hard put to find another speech on the crisis by other heads of state in the region which can equal Duterte’s in utter imbecility, inhumanity and lack of sympathy.
Disbelief and mounting frustration
Duterte’s April 1 speech was greeted with much disbelief and mounting frustration. Social media posts on Twitter can serve as a barometer of this. Graph 1 shows how the hashtag #OustDuterte remained pretty much dormant throughout the day of April 1. But minutes after Duterte’s speech at around 10:20 pm, as if riding on a spontaneous explosive wave of public revulsion, there is a sudden precipitous spike in usage and it becomes a top-trending topic globally. As shown in Graph 2, hashtags like #OustDuterte and #OustDuterteNow, which were formerly mostly confined to tweets by activists, were tweeted and retweeted by people from all segments of society. But there was a broader context to this public groundswell of indignation which can also be detected in social media. One of these was the fact that the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) had summoned Pasig City Mayor Vico Sotto that very morning for supposedly violating the enhanced community quarantine guidelines. However, Philippine public opinion was solidly behind the diligent young mayor who was perceived to be doing everything in his power to ease the impact of the quarantine for all his constituents, particularly the poor and marginalized. Due to his timely and thoughtful pro-poor measures and humble demeanor, Mayor Sotto became an instant model for good governance. Hence Graph 2 displays a sharp spike of #ProtectVico tweets and retweets. It is also no secret that protecting the Mayor of Pasig, also means for many, protecting him from the increasingly unpopular former Mayor of Davao. Despite the intense redtagging, public opinion was also mostly sympathetic for the arrested urban poor protesters which can be seen in Graph 2 for the hashtag #TulongHindiKulong (aid not imprisonment). Another cause celebre was the leaked scandal of express “VIP Testing” for politicians and their numerous relatives. Blatantly violating testing protocols, many of these were tested despite being asymptomatic, notwithstanding a desperate shortage of testing kits. Imelda Marcos, who has not been jailed despite having been convicted for graft years ago, and her daughter were some of the individuals who received VIP testing. All this was happening even as people, including medical personnel, were dying without having been tested at all, or receiving the results of their tests when it was already too late.
Moreover, since Duterte’s emergency powers had been approved last March 24, 2020 under the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act” (RA 11469), the public was perhaps too eager to hear of any updates on the concrete measure government will be taking. The public may have wrongly assumed that, for a change, Duterte would be reporting on plans and timetables to be implemented under the new Republic Act. And yet his April 1 speech did not exhibit a glimmer of any real plans to address the medical crisis. There was still no breakdown or exact explanation of the P275B budget to be allotted for the crisis even after more than a week. Instead there was just a rain of threats and the usual catalog of insults. This may explain why Duterte’s speech generated more public disgust than usual. No one could afford to shrug it off anymore or be entertained by the oafishness of it all.
On the other hand, since activists have been stuck in their homes, this has been an opportune time for them to pursue and sharpen their “online education” on the prospects and techniques of digital activism. What of Duterte’s paid and voluntary troll army? Can he still depend on them to shore up his digital public image? One of Duterte’s reliable social media attack dogs and former Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Assistant Secretary, Mocha Uson had her Facebook blog deactivated (allegedly by Facebook) after her vicious attempt to join the fray against Mayor Vico was unexpectedly met with an avalanche of public scorn. Graph 2 shows that Duterte’s troll army has been trying to offset the fallout in social media with the rallying call #DutertePaRin (we’re sticking with Duterte no matter what) but in contrast with previous social media campaigns, they seem to have become reactive and put on the defensive. In fact, the hashtag #DutertePaRin, which echoes the diehard Marcos loyalist slogan “Marcos pa rin!” (Marcos forever!) already reflects a loss of initiative and momentum. It means basically that they are “sticking with Duterte” no matter what their master does. But they cannot be underestimated and are still quite capable of rallying surges of shitstorms in the digital sphere though they seem incapable of more sustained action unlike activists on the net. This is because their goal is not educative but merely incendiary.
Duterte has been widely criticized by media for his stringently militaristic approach to addressing the pandemic. Indeed, three former military generals have been appointed members of the National Task Force (NTF) COVID-19. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana is overall head of the NTF as its chair and commander while Interior Secretary Eduardo Año as vice chair. The chief implementing officer is Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. Like their commander-in-chief, these military men are not known for being fond of human rights. General Año in particular has been accused of being directly involved in the disappearance and death of activist Jonas Burgos. Even in the midst of a lockdown, arrests and killings of activists continue unabated. The human rights group Karapatan, reported the arrest of its Regional Council Member for Northern Mindanao Teresita Naul on March 15. Cultural worker and street theater artist Marlon Maldos, 25, was murdered in broad daylight last March 17 by suspected agents of the 47th Infantry Battalion-Philippine Army. Last March 31, Nora Apique, 66, a peasant leader in Surigao del Sur was shot to death. In the Cordillera region, a top-ranking police official ordered the shooting of individuals who “unnecessarily organize the masses at this time.” Meanwhile, the relentless redtagging of activists and human rights workers throughout the country shows no signs of diminishing. Last March 27, in General Santos City, a 55 year-old public school teacher who had complained about the slow distribution of relief goods in her city was arrested without warrant for an allegedly seditious post in Facebook. Her son was arrested along with her. The Bayanihan Act gives the president additional powers which includes punishing those who allegedly spread “false information” about the crisis. However, Duterte himself, his spokesmen and officials have frequently been called out for spreading disinformation, riding the waves of fake news, and payrolling large troll armies.
The plight of the poor and underprivileged seemed farthest from the minds of Duterte’s technocrats as the lockdown began.
A 69-year-old homeless and elderly female was arrested on March 16 after she was found sleeping on the street in Malate, Manila in supposed violation of curfew hours. Lacking any means of transportation after the lockdown, hundreds of stranded and penniless workers, some with their families, walked for days on the way home to their far-flung provinces where they would have a better chance of surviving. In Santa Cruz, Laguna, several minors were locked up at night in a dog cage for supposedly violating curfew. A video went viral of a Manila police chief hitting residents of Muslim Town, Quiapo with a stick while berating them, “Everyone who leaves their homes aside from the permitted hours will be shot, you sons of whores!” As of April 3, 2020, according to PNP data, a total of 20,389 individuals have been arrested for alleged curfew violations and for disobedience to authorities. People are faced with the stark choice of staying at home with their hungry families or trying to venture out to find some way to earn some income to provide for the needs of the day. This tragic choice occurs even as a prominent senator and Duterte ally who turned out positive for coronavirus went to lavish parties, shopped for one million pesos in groceries at an exclusive supermarket, and casually went to a hospital to accompany his pregnant wife. Duterte’s spokesperson called for “compassion” in his case. The honorable senator obviously won’t get locked up in a doghouse.
Floundering and Clueless
Where is the plan to address the pandemic? After a publicly televised address on April 3 where he lashed out and attacked a vocal critic while making fun of the latter’s large teeth, Duterte’s latest rambling speech (April 6, 2020) is more conciliatory in tone and decidedly lowkey. He shared that he could not sleep at night, tearfully reflected on the incineration of bodies and funeral wakes, and appealed to the nation for patience because the crisis is beyond him, “We cannot win this. Not this … If only we can shoot it [the corona virus], it would be gone, finished. I will just assign a company of soldiers to do it. Behind me there are many soldiers there. This would have been over and done with.” Duterte is floundering and clueless as a head of state. His arrogant claim to be the supreme arbiter of life and death over his countrymen has been rudely taken away from him by a virus that has put him in his place.
Ramon Guillermo is a FORSEA Board Member
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect FORSEA’s editorial stance
Banner Image: Antipolo City, Philippines – April 4, 2020: Man sell washable cloth face mask at a sidewalk during the Covid 19 virus outbreak. Image: junpinzon / Shutterstock.com