Public well-being for public security
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global pandemic, as it was sweeping across 100 countries in six continents, infecting more than 120,000 and killing over 4,300 people. With commendable speed, President Duterte, surrounded by Cabinet, civilian, and police/military officials, announced over television on March 12 the intent of an executive order to deal with COVID-19.Although unnecessarily detouring to praise Xi Jinping, implicitly shading other world leaders, Mr. Duterte pitched some important messages. He stressed the seriousness of the pandemic but cautioned against panic and urged the public to look at the government and the military as dedicated to its safety. He appeared more in command, compared to an earlier press conference and the alarming incoherence of a rambling discourse on the bubonic plague, the Spanish flu, and the Spanish Inquisition’s attack on witches.
Mr. Duterte established an Interagency Task Force (IATF) headed by the health secretary, to craft the details of the executive order and monitor its implementation on a “day-to-day basis.” He warned that dealing with COVID-19 would require compliance with regulations restricting personal rights normally taken for granted, such as freedom of movement. From March 15 to April 14, domestic air, land, and sea travel to and from Manila will be suspended.
Hopefully, the IATF will carefully explain the planned restrictions. Will the Manila quarantine also control the movement of goods as well as people? Banning both will substantially impact supply chains and business activities. How will this ban be enforced? Easy enough to close air traffic. Possible to restrict vehicular entry and exit through the tollways. But control sea traffic in an archipelago?
Mr. Duterte admits that he does not have enough soldiers to enforce anti-COVID-19 regulations. Thus, his reliance on the Department of the Interior and Local Government and the barangay heads to disperse mass gatherings, catch school truants taking advantage of suspended classes to patronize bars and night-clubs (?), and enforce community quarantine in coronavirus-infected areas. He ordered local officials and the military to execute IATF decrees, or face dereliction of duty charges. He repeatedly called for obedience to government orders, warning those who forcibly resist “persons in authority” that they can be subject to criminal penalties.
The focus on law enforcement appears to spring from his fear that COVID-19 precautions might provoke resistance, resulting in public disturbances and the breakdown of peace and order. This is not an entirely unreasonable apprehension, especially if the pandemic, ignoring the one-month plan for its containment, decides to extend its Philippine tour. At one point, the President cursed the S.O.B. virus, as he had earlier demanded to know where it lived—which presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo will assure us was just Mr. Duterte being humorous. But COVID-19, a public health and well-being concern, does present a problem to a president who tends to look at governance through a mailed fist, law-and-order prism. The virus is immune to insults, bribes, and threats, impervious even to a president willing to kill.
Transparency and clarity must provide the first line of defense against public unrest. People must appreciate the scale of the problem, the design, and reasonableness of regulatory measures to protect public well-being, and the help that people need and expect from government. Having acknowledged lacking medical expertise, Mr. Duterte might have permitted Health Secretary Francisco Duque III to explain the public health aspects of the anticoronavirus strategy.
Testing on a broader basis is necessary to ascertain the extent of the contagion and the commensurate response required; does the Department of Health have enough test kits to do this? Where can people get tested and, if infected, get treatment? At what and whose cost? Most crucial for the IATF, how will government help wage-earners and employers cope with the income losses imposed by COVID-19 precautions? Without assurance on these medical and livelihood issues, coercion will encounter evasion and disobedience. Despite the risks, people will do what they must to support their families.
As emphasized in other countries, the effective implementation of community quarantine heavily depends on the people’s regard for the credibility and competence of the government, and their trust in its capacity to enforce reasonable coercive measures in a humane and compassionate manner.
Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.
Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club ([email protected]).
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