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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Sakit (Sickness): The tensions between COVID-19 restrictions and civil liberties in the Philippines

From the confines of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we often think of debates over COVID-19 restrictions through the lens of mask mandates in class and vaccination card requirements for events and venues. While there are active debates surrounding the balance between restrictions that ensure community safety and the promotion of civil liberties, these discussions take an additional sense of urgency in developing countries.

After visiting family in the Philippines, I saw firsthand the negative impacts authoritarian governments have when addressing COVID-19. The current government’s approach in this island nation has been marred by the suppression of civil liberties in the name of pandemic response and an anemic economic recovery plan that leaves the most vulnerable populations of the country behind. 

At the start of the pandemic in early April 2020, presidential strongman of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, gave military officials the order to “shoot to kill” individuals found in violation of the government-mandated quarantine. This order culminated in a shocking standoff where residents in the San Roque barangay of Quezon City were violently dispersed after gathering to protest the disappointing government response to economic difficulties. 

The Duterte regime continues to use COVID-19 restrictions as a means to entrench power and corruption. His government is notorious for extrajudicial killings of dissidents under the guise of a war against drug use. Under his leadership, the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) of the Philippines plummeted to 33 on a scale of 0 (very corrupt) to 100 (very clean). 

The 2021 Transparency International’s report on CPI states, “While doing little to combat the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the population, governments have utilised it to further curb rights and freedoms, further entrenching authoritarianism.” 

With the emergence of new variants, the potential of the pandemic stretching into a third year is becoming more of a reality. This is particularly worrying to the Philippines as they move into a presidential election cycle in April. 

Propelled by a misinformation campaign on social media, the current favorite to win the top spot in the country is Bongbong Marcos Jr. He is the son of Ferdinand Marcos, a dictator who is most famous for his 20-year reign that is synonymous with martial law, corruption and repression.

Two years into the pandemic, key economic issues have yet to be resolved. Quarantines are shown to effectively curb the spread of COVID-19, an approach that is paramount to the Philippines where the disease is currently the third main cause of death, and vaccines are available in limited quantities. 

However, in a country heavily dependent on tourism, harsh travel restrictions have significantly eroded the economy. This depression is marked by a 9.5% contraction in GDP, the largest dip since WWII. On a micro level, specific communities across the country are also in crisis. 

In an interview with Dr. Pepito Balgos, the mayor of Bambang, he discussed the economic struggles his rapidly growing city is facing amid the pandemic. Bambang is in the northern mountainous region of the Philippines and is heavily dependent on rice agriculture. Balgos explained how COVID-19 restrictions particularly impact indigenous communities, such as the Igorot and Ifugao populations. 

These ethnic minorities are dependent on selling their palay (unmilled rice) and other produce in palengkes (public markets). Many are currently cut off from their livelihoods because their animist religions oppose vaccinations and to enter pelengkes, individuals must present proof of immunization. The lack of economic relief from the federal and local governments leaves these local populations in financial limbo. 

While it is incredibly important to understand the need for restrictions to keep our communities safe, it is equally important to recognize how authoritarian governments in developing countries like the Philippines can utilize mandates to exploit their citizens. 

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It is natural for a population to express discontent when a government fails to outline a concrete plan for economic relief and recovery. As the Philippines potentially enters another six years of repression under another authoritarian government, the global community must hold Duterte and Marcos Jr. accountable for continued human rights violations. 

As members of the international community, we can support the Filipino people by staying informed, donating to watchdog organizations like Amnesty International, and doing our best to fight the pandemic domestically in order to curb the more extreme impacts the virus has abroad on developing countries.   

Bea Millan-Windorski is a sophomore studying History, International Studies, and Filipino (Tagalog) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a second generation Filipino-American, she is particularly interested in Southeast Asian studies. Do you agree current COVID-19 mandates in the Philippines infringe civilian liberties in the nation? Send all comments to

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