Deciding whether to break quarantine is a difficult, possibly life-threatening question — especially in a country like the Philippines, which is seeing the fastest rise in coronavirus cases in the Western Pacific region. But the pandemic is coming at a moment of overlapping national outrage — not just against a mounting death toll, but also a looming anti-terror bill described as a repression tool to silence government critics, a jeepney phaseout that would see the loss of livelihood for hundreds and thousands of drivers, and multiple threats to press freedom.
Apart from those protesting online, some Filipinos have also taken to the streets to speak out against these issues. They leave their homes to come together with a few, dozens, even thousands of others. Each protest carries with it the possibility of viral transmission, but many see the downsides of silence as far more dangerous.
The Philippine government has used the pandemic to crackdown on its dissenters. A day before a planned rally against the anti-terror bill on June 12, Philippine Independence Day, a government official banned all mass gatherings, citing COVID-19 concerns. Still, people went through with the event, and rallied at the University of the Philippines campus while practising social distancing. Before that, cops, also alleging quarantine violations, arrested eight people protesting the same bill in Cebu City. Then, just last week, police forcefully broke up a Manila Pride protest, leaving 20 arrested in its wake. Many see these events as violations to Filipinos’ freedom of expression and assembly.
“Striking and harmonising a balance between health security and human rights is an important key in upholding the rule of law,” Dennis Blanco, a political science associate professor at the University of the Philippines, told VICE.
While the Philippine Constitution provides the essentiality of freedom of expression, different rationale is given to disallow protests, such as bills that enforce quarantine protocols, as well as a constitutional requirement for rallies to have a legal permit.
Authorities have cited several laws to justify the recent arrests. The Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, which was passed to address the coronavirus, grants President Rodrigo Duterte authority “to exercise powers that are necessary and proper to carry out the declared national policy” through the pandemic. There’s also Republic Act No. 11332, which punishes “non-cooperation of persons and entities that should report and/or respond to notifiable diseases or health events of public concern,” and the Public Assembly Law, which requires a permit to rally. Different cities are also currently enforcing community quarantine guidelines with varying degrees of strictness.
However, activists and human rights groups say that these laws cannot be used to ban people from protesting or to arrest them without warrants.
“I think protests are essential rights as long as it is peaceful, complies with social distancing and other quarantine protocols consistent with the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, and has a legitimate case in expressing their grievances and complaints to the government with an intent to foment social reforms and promote the common good,” Blanco said.
To him, recent arrests made in rallies like last week's Pride March is a “litmus test on Philippine democracy under the Duterte regime in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic” and on the “essentiality and criticality on the implementation of such Bill of rights provision on free expression, free speech, free press, and right to petition the government for redress of grievances.”
Even World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in the middle of his COVID-19 media briefing — after outlining a globally worsening coronavirus situation — said that it supports the worldwide protests sparked by George Floyd’s death in late May.
“WHO fully supports equality and the global movement against racism…We encourage all those protesting around the world to do so safely,” he said.
Arjan Aguirre, a political scientist at the Ateneo de Manila University, said that as something inherent in the freedom of expression, protesting should never be curtailed, only regulated — with the latter implying reasonable standards, possibly including social distancing protocols.
“These protests, to me, have helped the public, even the government itself, realise some of the mistakes and problems that were committed during the lockdown,” Aguirre said. “Many of the policy shifts made by the government during this period were in fact influenced by the online protesting of the general public.”
This includes the directive to investigate police officers holding a party and addressing the lack of transportation during the soft lifting of the lockdown.
The party in question was Metro Manila chief Major Gen. Debold Sinas’ birthday gathering in their police headquarters, which made rounds on social media as an example of hypocrisy. The police officers were breaking the social distancing orders they were meant to enforce.
Blanco said that the alleged failure of different authorities to set role model behaviour — including the violation of quarantine by a COVID-19-positive senator and the police birthday celebration — all while there is a massive crackdown on jeepney, student, and LGBTQ protestors is a factor compelling Filipinos to protest. For example, the Philippine Independence Day rally’s name “Grand Mañanita” was a jab at the high-ranking police official’s birthday gathering.
CJ Reyno, one of the protesters in the Grand Mañanita, told VICE that she went to the event despite understanding the gravity of the pandemic because she also knows that COVID-19 has an effect on the economy, national education, and the livelihood of millions.
“However, instead of flattening the curve, providing jobs to the Filipinos, and giving attention to our education system, they made a bill that will silence their constituents. A bill that...clearly violates Filipinos' basic human rights, a bill that will justify their human rights violations,” Reyno said, adding that the protests are meant to raise awareness on what needs to be prioritised.
She has seen people post hate about the rally on social media and hopes that they saw that everyone was following safety protocols.
“What we’re fighting for is not only for those of us who attended the protest, but for all Filipinos. Protesting is part of the Philippines’ history,” she said. “A pandemic will not stop us on fighting for our rights. With what’s happening to our country, it seems that it is not the pandemic that will kill Filipinos, but the government.”
Dr. Leonard Javier of COMMED and Second Opinion PH and Dr. Paolo Victor Medina of the Philippine Society of Public Health Physicians told VICE that because COVID-19 is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets, protesting in a mass gathering is inherently a risky situation, with the potential of mass transmission. However, they added that the value of protesting injustices “cannot be underscored enough.”
“It is in acknowledging the real danger of spreading COVID-19 that we can weigh it against the ‘benefits’ and impacts of staging a peaceful protest for a cause. We should never downplay the risks of transmission of [the virus] posed by holding protests,” they said. “However, while we want to protect health, we also want to protect our rights. We want to fight for our lives, moreso that in the current sociopolitical climates both locally and globally, we are afflicted by an equally destructive plague — that of injustice and tyranny.”
They shared an infographic outlining minimum health standards during a protest sent out to those who went to the Independence Day rally. This includes wearing face masks, practising social distancing, and disinfecting properly after the event.
Kenneth Garcula, a doctor and attendee of the Independence Day protest, told VICE that as a doctor, he has the responsibility to practise and advocate for social distancing. But he was glad to find out that he didn’t have to remind those in the protest to do this. “Everyone was doing their part,” he said.
He can’t blame his fellow doctors, especially frontliners, for being apprehensive about protests but his frustration lies in hearing colleagues say that health should not be political.
“We should be advocates for our patients...if they are dying not only because of the virus, but also from hunger, from lack of purchasing power to buy their needs, from mental health problems due to worries if they will still be able to work and provide for their families,” Garcula said. “There is a lot at stake, but moreso, we should question if us doctors would still be alive, considering how we have suffered from lack of support and effects of certain policies and decisions.”
He said that a lot of his colleagues have already died and that they cannot afford to see more lives lost.
“Being loud and asking accountability will not bring their lives back, but it will prevent further deaths — of our colleagues and our patients,” Garcula said.
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