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PH’s assertive response to COVID-19

National security and public health should never be compromised for the sake of diplomatic courtesy or geopolitical accommodation. But state response to a growing global pandemic should neither be lumped together with unrelated issues nor taken out of its context. Comparing Philippine responses to those adopted by other affected countries, especially its fellow neighbors, is the proper way to get a sense of how responsive Manila’s actions are. President Duterte’s close ties with China again became a lightning rod for critics as Manila struggles against the novel coronavirus (now called COVID-19). Under intense domestic pressure, he expanded a temporary limited travel restriction to one of the broadest travel bans that applies not only to mainland China, but also to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Except for Filipino nationals and residents who shall be subject to quarantine, travelers who had been in any of the four places in the last 14 days, even mere transit, were barred entry. The ban came despite Chinese representations and recommendation against it by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The Philippines’ travel restriction came roughly about the same time as that of South Korea and New Zealand, late by a day from Vietnam but ahead of Indonesia. Sabah and Sarawak, which enjoy immigration autonomy, imposed travel bans as early as late January, but the federal Malaysian government only expanded the ban from Hubei to other Chinese provinces on lockdown, notably Zhejiang and Jiangsu, on Feb. 7. In contrast to

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a drastic blanket travel ban, Malaysia is adopting a more calibrated approach.

Furthermore, while Manila went for a China-wide travel ban to include Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, which have registered the second and third most number of confirmed COVID-19 cases outside China, have only confined their ban to Hubei. According to WHO, as of Feb. 9, the Philippines had reported three confirmed cases, South Korea 27 with three new cases, and Japan, 26 and one new case. There was similar domestic pressure in South Korea to expand the ban, but Seoul has yet to make a change as it monitors the situation. Meantime, Thailand, which reported the first COVID-19 case outside China and has the highest number of cases outside China at 32, has yet to issue a travel ban.

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While the Philippines did register the first fatality outside China, there is still no case of local transmission. In contrast, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and even the United States already reported possible/confirmed cases of local transmission. This said, some Filipinos called for more radical measures such as deporting Chinese nationals. Indonesia did quarantine over 40,000 Chinese workers in Sulawesi, but no country to date has deported Chinese citizens. Instead, it is Beijing that is repatriating Hubei residents abroad.

Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam evacuated their nationals from Wuhan, the contagion’s epicenter. Manila followed suit, repatriating 30 of its nationals last Sunday. The figure is a small fraction of the estimated 300 Filipinos in Hubei who decided to stay despite the risks. The delay is probably borne out of the low turnout, quarantine arrangements, and coordination issues with Chinese authorities. Meantime, Cambodia decided against repatriating its nationals.

Outside the Philippines, there has been no palpable effort to tie up the COVID-19 response to the larger conduct of foreign policy with China. Regional countries had expressed support and confidence in Chinese efforts to deal with the pandemic. President Duterte, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong likewise spoke strongly against rising xenophobia and discrimination. Malaysia arrested several people suspected of propagating fake news about COVID-19, which seems to spread faster than the actual virus itself.

Thus, notwithstanding the shortcomings of its immigration, quarantine and public health systems, the Philippines took a comparably assertive and forceful response to the coronavirus. Disentangling it from local politics and larger geopolitics enables a fair assessment of Manila’s course.

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation Inc., and contributing editor (Reviews) for the Asian Politics & Policy Journal.

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