The ‘pasaway’ as scapegoat
Whenever there is an epidemic, leaders invariably find a group of people to blame. Writing about how Jews were blamed for medieval plagues, the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg observed that “the prodigious trauma of great pestilences intensified the search for a scapegoat on which fears, hatreds and tension of all kind could be discharged.” The anthropologist Paul Farmer, meanwhile, who has documented how people have wrongly associated HIV with the people of Haiti, calls blame “a calling card of all transnational epidemics.”
As we in the Philippines struggle to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are in the same politics of blame, with the image of the “pasaway” (disobedient ones) held up as scapegoat. When asked about the fact that the Philippines has among the highest cases of COVID-19 in the region, returning presidential spokesperson Harry Roque replied: “We cannot deny the data… but we call on all Filipinos, there’s so many pasaway among us, and because of that, we are number one in Asean in COVID-19 cases. This is shameful. Stop being pasaway.”
Now, it cannot be denied that there are those who flout quarantine rules, and in doing so, threaten public health and safety. Among them are the senator who violated his quarantine by going to Makati Medical Center, as well as the many VIPs who got themselves tested for COVID-19 ahead of those who need it. In that sense, we can call them pasaway.
The discourse on pasaway, however, focuses on mostly poor people for whom quarantine is not a choice, and who are encumbered by, among others, curfew hours that actually make physical distancing more difficult, and quarantine passes that often add another layer of difficulty. It sets the stage for a punitive law enforcement approach that ignores the social and economic contexts that explain why many go out of their homes. If the rules are arbitrary, unreasonable, hard to follow, and ever-changing, should people really be arrested, fined, punished, or killed for being pasaway?
In fact, what we’re observing during the quarantine is that most people actually comply with rules, patiently following market queues and dutifully bringing their quarantine passes when they leave their houses. This is especially true when instructions are sensible and clear. Unlike in other parts of the world where people have flagrantly defied rules in libertarian protest or in hedonistic disregard, most Filipinos have obeyed authority and accepted the draconian measures as necessary.
Even so, what the government has chosen to highlight is the convenient narrative of the pasaway.
The scapegoating of the pasaway has deadly consequences. When Winston Ragos, a retired soldier with mental illness, was killed by the police in Quezon City, they must have seen in him the image of a pasaway that the President has labeled as a dangerous other. Like the “adik” before them, the pasaway are blamed for a societal ill, paving the way for exceptional force to be applied on them and such acts to be justified, rendering many Filipinos—particularly the poor disproportionately targeted by harsh approaches—afraid to leave their homes to do even essential activities. Consequently, they are vulnerable to abuse and poor health outcomes.
Akin to the “drug war,” it also forges—and exacerbates—divisions within communities. As the sociologist Wataru Kusaka told me, even those who are experiencing impoverishment are participating in the demonization of those who cannot abide by the rules as a way of distinguishing themselves as “good citizens.”
Moreover, the discourse on people’s alleged lack of discipline deflects attention from the government’s shortcomings and misguided decisions. Is it really the pasaway who should be blamed for the pandemic? Were they the ones who failed to act quickly? Were they the ones who underestimated the virus, even mocking people for overreacting to it?
Needless to say, sensible and compassionate law enforcement has an important role in addressing the pandemic, a role that many of our uniformed personnel and barangay officials have carried out responsibly. Even so, we should not allow our government officials to escape accountability by using the pasaway as scapegoat.
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