Jan Jansalin - APRICOT 2018, APIGA 2019, APrIGF 2020.
The Republic of the Philippines, as an archipelago, consists of 7,641 islands with a rising population of about 109 million people. Unlike most of its Asian neighbors, the Philippines was not greatly affected by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003. The country only had a total reported cases of 12 which 5 were from abroad. Also, close ties with the People’s Republic of China has greatly affected the national government’s response in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The National Government’s Response
On March 12, 2020 the President Rodrigo Duterte announced a community quarantine for Metro Manila which would last for 60 days after about 50 confirmed cases were detected at the capital. Four days later the President extended the lockdown to the whole Luzon group of islands after confirmed cases doubled also dubbed as Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ).
The ECQ is basically a total lockdown restricting transport and movement of people beyond their barangays, the smallest administrative region in the country, except for necessity, medical and essential work circumstances. The ECQ led to further policies including schools and business closures, liquor ban, strict curfew implementation and home quarantine. Only one representative per household is allowed to go outdoors to buy necessities.
A week later, the legislature passed the “Bayanihan to Heal As One Act” granting the President additional authority and powers to hasten and improve national response to the outbreak. The act allows President Duterte to “reallocate, realign, and reprogram” a budget of almost ₱275 billion ($5.37 billion) from the estimated ₱438 billion (US$8.55 billion) national budget approved for 2020.
This was a legislative feat for two reasons, first: the special session of the Congress was done practicing social distancing where most of the representatives in attendance were online using a video conferencing platform and secondly: the Lower House voted 284–9 without abstentions after three readings while its Senate version unanimously passed the Senate – and this was all done in the same day! The President signed the act into law the next day. The law also required the President to submit weekly reports to Congress on updates regarding the national response.
By March 25 the President delegated the national COVID-19 response to the Inter-Agency Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) which revealed an outline of the National Action Plan (NAP). The IATF-IED created another task force called COVID-19 National Task Force headed by the Department of National Defense (DND) to lead operational command. Outside Manila, Local Government Units also known as LGUs (regional, provincial, city and municipal governments), were delegated to handle the lockdown with assistance from the military.
With the rise of confirmed cases, the ECQ which was supposed to end on April 15 was extended to April 30 and then later on to May 15.
By May 16, the national government had to minimize lockdown measures to ease the negative effects to the economy. The terms Modified ECQ (MECQ) and General ECQ (GCQ) were coined to identify the different levels of relaxing lockdown rules in proportion to the number of cases found in the different political regions. Below is an infographic of how community quarantine rules are relaxed for regions which have low counts of confirmed cases.
It should be noted that as of May 16, the total number of people tested for COVID-19 is 184,857 individuals. This is equivalent to less than 0.2 % of the national population. Only 27 testing laboratories are currently operational as of May 17.
All datasets used in this article are publicly available from the Department of Health’s (DOH) COVID-19 Tracker website while the graphs generated were made by Wilson Chua, Tech Columnist, Big Data for The Manila Bulletin.
Rise of Local Innovation
A locally-produced COVID-19 test kit by the team of Dr. Raul Destera of the University of the Philippines National Institute of Health (UP-NIH) was made available as early as of March but only to be made public after it gets Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. Costing almost four times less than imported test kits this could greatly help in mass testing citizens for virus detection
While the national government was ironing new policies in March, the Vice President Leni Robredo asked help from the public to design and create personal protective equipment (PPEs) for medical frontliners due to a supply shortage. Fashion designers such as Miche Dulce responded, then medical experts in California approved the designs and the specifics on creating the PPEs were publicly shared to tailor cooperatives which mass produced the suits. By May, the Office of the Vice President had launched a mobile app called “Community Mart” to help small-scale vendors and tricycle drivers who were greatly affected by the lockdown.
Also In the first month of the community quarantine, operational command outside the capital was decentralized to local governments. This led to an uneven implementation of ECQ laws in the different regions and hoarding of resources which sometimes resulted in local and national policy conflicts. To foster collaboration rather than competition between local governments, LGUvsCOVID.ph was created. This led to an easy-to-use yet reliable information portal for local governments on updates, innovations, and best practices for combatting the current pandemic.
A government budget tracking system was also developed by a group of volunteers led by Ken Abante. The group hopes to promote public awareness of how funds are being spent and to hold the national government accountable for a timely response to this crisis. They analyze reports and documents released by the government and turn them into information that can help the public understand better where government funds are going.
E-commerce and cashless transactions naturally soared due to the implementation of social distancing and the local travel ban. The difference in the lockdown scenario was goods were locally sourced and distributed only within their respective regions, provinces or even municipalities using Facebook groups and local delivery apps rather than the big e-commerce brands and operators such as Lazada and Shoppee which dominated the market during pre-COVID-19 days. Those who benefited greatly in these new trade mechanisms were small farms and local middlemen with internet access.
Throughout the lockdown period, distilleries in the country produced ethyl alcohol instead of liquor which were then given to hospitals to cover the alcohol shortage in the market. Various groups and owners of 3D printers also crowdsourced funds online for printing components of face shields. These low-cost face shields were then donated to local hospitals and medical frontliners.
ICT Exposing Inequalities in Philippine Society
Though the country has more than a 50% internet penetration rate in relation to its population, reliable connectivity is mostly found within urban areas and adjacent localities. As early as February a number of citizens were voicing out the need for a travel ban from China and a swift response to the pandemic but were ignored by the national government due to the President’s reliance on the People’s Republic of China’s funding for national infrastructure spending.
Throughout the community quarantine voices of human rights groups and citizens’ dissent in social media grew due to three major reasons.
Firstly, sudden, strict and unclear national policies were created and enforced during the lockdown. The announcement of the community quarantine triggered workers in Manila who were residing at adjacent regions to go home causing swelling of crowds at public transport terminals before the lockdown was implemented. This increased the probability of infection among the crowds. Though the middle class and wealthy could follow the lockdown protocols since they could stock up on necessities, the majority of the citizens live on a daily wage basis resulting in a number of them begging at the major highways.
Secondly, the President’s approach to the response was more militaristic rather than investing heavily in infection prevention and a holistic medical response. The leaders of the national task force for the pandemic response were composed of mostly retired military leaders. Police were tasked to wear camouflage suits and warrantless arrests for violators of the quarantine was allowed. This led to numerous cases of police brutality as one of many human rights violations done by authorities. The most famous case was the shooting of a war retiree for supposedly violating quarantine protocols. The entire incident was recorded by a security camera from a street post and a phone camera from another policeman. It was later learned that the war veteran was diagnosed with PTSD. Calls for investigation were echoed throughout the country since the videos went viral on various online platforms.
As the lockdown continued more medical frontliners were getting infected due to lacking protective gear. The private sector, civil society organizations and volunteer groups raised funds through streaming different performance arts online . Proceeds were then used for the procurement of equipment which were donated to local hospitals. As of May 15, the Philippines has one of the highest average mortality ratio across Asia at 6.67%.
Lastly, the criticisms on the administration were magnified due to unequal application of the law. With the quarantine and strict laws in place, ordinary citizens and dissidents would get arrested or fined for violations. A private TV station was recently issued a cease and desist order from a government regulating agency which caused its stations to stop broadcasting due to an expired broadcast franchise on May 4. However, two-pro administration senators, a political appointee and the top police general of the capital got a free-pass from jail and got exempted from heavy penalties despite violating quarantine rules.
Living with Analog Laws in the Digital Age
“There are numerous emerging technologies being tested or already used in other countries to connect people, especially in remote, rural areas. But the current Philippine policy environment is biased towards the existing dominant models which are based on the deployment of traditional telecommunications infrastructure.” according to Mary Grace Mirandilla-Santos, an independent policy researcher. She also is the lead convener of the Better Broadband Alliance (BBA) who advocates for faster, more reliable and affordable broadband services in the country.
Pierre Tito Gala, another ICT rights reform advocate, who leads Democracy.net.ph wrote in the paper “The Problem of #PHInternet: How Can President Duterte Make Philippine Telecommunications Faster, Reliable, Cheaper, and More Accessible Across the Country” that the country’s internet services can improve by focusing on three things:
- increase the competition space,
- aggressively rolling out national information and communications (ICT) infrastructure and
- by ensuring and promoting a level playing field in the Philippine market.
He also said that the idea of TV and radio stations or companies requiring to have a legislative franchise to use certain radio frequencies stem from an almost century-old law called Act 3846 “Radio Control Law” which was made during the American occupation just before World War 2. He adamantly reminds interviewers that only through a proper spectrum management framework could the country move forward to encourage new entities to invest in the Philippines internet economy.
As of this year, the government has worked steadily on the first two of the three points raised by Mr. Gala. The National Broadband Program has been steadily pacing with the creation of the “Luzon-bypass Infrastructure” a fiber network that traverses the largest island in the country which would also directly connect Asia and the USA. At the same time, The Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) spearheads the project “People Konek” that would deploy free WiFi access in certain public places across the islands.
However the COVID-19 situation reminds most stakeholders that there is much to be done in the policy realm to provide better internet service access across the country. Hopefully by the end of the community quarantine more interest groups will be lobbying for more equitable internet governance laws.