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COVID-19 and Conflict | How Duterte’s new Anti-Terrorism Act is terrorizing Filipino citizens, not helping them survive the COVID-19 pandemic

The Philippines, like many other countries, has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, but a stronger blow was delivered to its citizens and democracy when the Anti-Terrorism Act was passed at the height of the pandemic in July this year. This event reveals President Rodrigo Duterte’s prioritization of the consolidation of his authoritarian regime’s power—at the expense of Filipino citizens. An increased state police and military presence justified as necessary for curbing the spread of COVID-19 shows that this law is being implemented, with dire implications for freedom of speech and expression as those critical of Duterte’s rule are imprisoned or terrorized.

“Junk Terror Law”. Photo by: Maro Enriquez, July 27, 2020 State of the Nation Address protest

Since current president of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte came into office in 2016, over 20,000 deaths have been ascribed to his regime. Extrajudicial killings have been rampant, many justified by a ‘war against drugs’ necessitating killings to ‘root out drug criminals’, and many of the victims were from the country’s poorest population segments. National and international criticism of this approach have been strong, but has been met with resistance from the state, along with oppressive measures. Activists, farmers, peasants, indigenous peoples, unionists, journalists, lawyers, and human rights advocates accused of being communists or leftist sympathizers due to criticizing Duterte’s decisions and actions faced constant harassment and threats.

Consequently, instead of focusing on more evident socio-economic concerns such as poverty, unemployment, food security, sex trafficking, child sexual exploitation, and other pressing issues facing the country, the administration over the past years has chosen to address what was perceived as political challenges to the Duterte administration through the increased deployment of the police and military.

Things took a turn for the worse when COVID-19 spread across and took hold of the country, with the administration instrumentalizing the pandemic to encroach upon citizens’ right to dissent through its imposition of strict quarantine measures in the name of curbing the virus. This echoes other findings of the instrumental use of COVID-19 regulations for continued or increased political oppression, as in the case of Zimbabwe. In the Philippines, people were not allowed to leave their homes without proper identification cards, as well as permits issued by the local government to move around. Those who would protest, even following social distancing protocols, would be arrested without warrants or charges. The laws are seen to not be applied equally, with the administration telling its citizens to show compassion for government officials who broke quarantine rules while heavily sanctioning, harassing, and even imprisoning those who would protest, beg for food, put up community food stalls, or circumvent the absence of mass transportation.

What makes the Philippines different from other countries that have similarly implemented strict and sometimes unreasonable lockdown measures has been the parallel passing of the Anti-Terrorism Act.

As the country struggles with increasing COVID-19-related deaths and infections, the pandemic’s effects on the economy and the healthcare system have been severe. The clearest indication of the apparent authoritarian character of the state, and its failure to govern on behalf of its people, has been the swift formulation and passage of the country’s Anti-Terrorism Act. The implementation of this law in July this year in an attempt to further control the country shows evidence of a focus on strengthening the Duterte regime and stifling opposition at a time when a state intervention to relieve citizens of the burden of the COVID-19 lockdown should have been the first priority.

Silencing dissent, exacerbating the lockdown’s effects

The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 replaces and expands the definition of terrorism under the old Human Security Act. This could have far-reaching consequences: the law essentially allows for the state to suppress freedom of speech in a way that transgresses human rights. The removal of certain key provisions in the Human Security Act are of particular concern: 1) the right to due process; 2) the right against unreasonable searches and seizures; 3) the right to privacy and correspondence; and 4) the right to freedom of expression and association. Moreover, the act enables detention on mere suspicion of a crime, longer detentions without charge and no remedies, and no liability on law enforcement.

This law hence provides the government with the legal tools to oppress and silence those who dissent and oppose injustice. United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights Michelle Bachelet pointed out how the law has a “chilling effect on human rights and humanitarian work”. In light of the pandemic, these clauses make it more difficult for ordinary citizens to access legal remedies to protect their human rights, organize, or peacefully dissent because of their inability to assemble.

On June 26th this year, Rey Valmores-Salinas, Bahaghari’s[1] national spokesperson, organized a Pride march in Mendiola as a means to make known the unified voice of the LGBT sector against authoritarian and ineffective COVID-19 responses. Critical of the ‘militarized’ policing of adherence to lockdown regulations, hundreds of protesters took to the streets and clashed with the police, leading to mass arrest based on unfounded charges.

Similarly, members of the national civil society organization Unyon ng Mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA)[2] due to their demand for basic needs and livelihood support in the time of COVID-19 have been terrorized by the state police on an ongoing basis. There have been several instances of unannounced raids made at the homes of organization members, which have been framed as a ‘necessary part of the government’s house-to-house contact-tracing interventions to curb the spread of COVID-19’. Antonio ‘Ka Tonying’ Flores, UMA’s national chairperson, claimed that this was a smokescreen for ‘red-tagging’ activists who are considered insurgents by the state. Even their relief operations and community kitchens that have helped assist the poorest communities of the country during the lockdown have been disrupted by the state military and police on several occasions, apparently because they ‘pose a threat to the authoritarian Duterte regime’. This is substantiated with the state’s belief that these forms of gathering could lead to community organizing towards a unified resistance against the Duterte regime.

The use of armed forces to contain the pandemic, as well as the silence of dissenters, is cause for alarm, as it may signify an unchecked abuse of state power and the lack of prioritization of addressing the effects of the COVID-19 lockdown on the country. The Anti-Terrorism Act that has allowed for oppressive state actions has led to the terrorization of ordinary citizens—and to the increased alienation of the citizenry from the state. We are using this space to create a platform for dialogue and awareness of what is happening to the Philippines as it continues to suffer the effects of the pandemic and the authoritarian state. There are currently 15 groups petitioning against the law at the Supreme Court. We call upon the international community to keep a watchful eye and to stand in solidarity with the country.


About this article:

This research on COVID-19 responses in authoritarian state settings was conducted between June and August this year as part of the ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict’ (Discord) project. The methods utilized include a desk review of secondary data sources and interviews with key informants who initiated locally-led/grassroots interventions between March 2020 and present in response to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On the ‘COVID-19 and Conflict’ Blog Series: When Disasters, Conflict and COVID-19 Collide:

Responding to the international COVID-19 pandemic is particularly complex in settings of (post) conflict and/or conflict settings underpinned by authoritarian political regimes. In such scenarios, the national responses to the pandemic may be weakened, the infrastructure to respond adequately may be lacking, and power games may easily ensue where response to the pandemic get instrumentalized to serve political interests. To get a better grasp of the interaction and dynamics of top-down and bottom-up COVID-19 responses in such settings, research was conducted in seven different contexts over the summer of 2020, and the findings will be showcased on Bliss through several blog articles. 

The research underlying the blogs was facilitated by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and made possible by a NWO grant (number 453-14-013). It is linked to the research project ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict’ (Discord) hosted at the ISS. More comprehensive findings of the case studies will be shared in different formats, including working papers or articles, on the VICI research webpage: www.iss.nl/whendisastermeetsconflict


[1] Bahaghari is a national-democratic organization of LGBT militants and patriots in the Philippines. It is struggling alongside oppressed people for national emancipation in the fields of economy, politics, and culture. (https://www.facebook.com/BahaghariLGBT/)

[2] Unyon ng mga Manggagawa sa Agrikultura (UMA Pilipinas) is the national progressive center of unions, federations, and organizations of agricultural workers in the Philippines. (https://umapilipinas.wordpress.com/)

About the authors:

Patricia Luzano Enriquez holds a Master’s degree in Development Studies, specializing in Social Policy for Development, from the ISS of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her research interests and socio-political activism include intersectional feminism, gender, sexuality, human rights, and social justice. She is based in The Hague.

Martin Dacles is a scholar-activist specializing in disaster risk reduction, resilience building, and the localization of humanitarian aid, in Asia Pacific, Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. He recently obtained his Master’s degree in Development Studies at the ISS of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Currently, he is based in Sint Maarten, the Caribbean as the DRR Delegate of The Netherlands Red Cross.

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COVID-19 | Ephemeral universalism in the social protection response to the COVID-19 lockdown in the Philippines

Since March 2020, the Philippines has implemented one of the world’s strictest and longest lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused severe disruptions in peoples’ livelihoods. The government’s emergency social protection response, the ‘Social Amelioration Program’ (SAP), has also been notably massive, introducing one-off near-universal income protection. It is an insightful case given that the country’s existing social assistance system has been celebrated as a model for developing countries, even though it has been mostly bypassed in the emergency response. Moreover, the country’s highly stratified and fragmented social policy system has resulted in implementation delays and irregularities that have fostered social hostilities and undermined the potential for such momentary universalism to have lasting transformative effects.

The Philippine government first imposed its ‘community quarantine’ on 15 March, which has since been extended until 30 June. Thus far, the pandemic has not been severe relative to evolving global indicators, with 302 confirmed infections per million people and 11 confirmed deaths per million people as of 25 June (although at only 5,760 tests per million people, these confirmed rates are likely to be significantly underestimated). However, as elsewhere in the Global South, the lockdown has thrown the country into an employment crisis given that more than 60 percent of its workforce is informal, most in precarious situations even when earning above the official poverty line.

In response, the government rolled out the ‘Social Amelioration Program’ (SAP), comprising at least 13 different schemes and with an estimated total budget equivalent to as much as 3.1 percent of the country’s GDP [1]. The largest scheme is the Emergency Subsidy Program (ESP), which has been allocated 200 billion Philippines pesos (PhP; about 3.5 billion euros), more than three times the combined budget of all the other schemes.

The ESP was initially intended to cover 17.9 million households, while the other SAP cash subsidy schemes were to target more than 5.2 million individuals. Assuming that none of these overlapped (e.g. only one subsidy recipient per household), the SAP would have covered over 23 million households, or more than 96 percent of the roughly 24 million households in the country. This extent of coverage is effectively universal, representing an attempt to provide basic income support to all but the richest five to ten percent of households.

The ESP initially sought to provide cash transfers to low-income and vulnerable families during the months of April and May, the projected duration of the lockdown. The transfers range from 5,000 to 8,000 PhP per month (about 90 to 140 euros), depending on the minimum wage of the region of residence. This is notably more generous than the existing poverty-targeted conditional cash transfer programme, the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (hereafter Pantawid), which provides families with at most 3,450 PhP per month (approximately 60 euros). The 4.4 million Pantawid families have nonetheless been included in the ESP and the amount they receive has been topped-up to the ESP amount.

Despite these ambitions, the SAP has already been faltering. Based on our research [2], a number of problems can be discerned:

Delays and backtracking in the distribution of the ESP. While the ESP was supposed to be paid in two monthly tranches in April and May, the first tranche was yet to be completely distributed as of 15 June [3]. It was later announced that the second tranche, whose distribution only began on 11 June, would only be distributed to beneficiaries living in communities where the lockdown conditions had not been eased – about 8.5 million families – as well as to an additional five million ‘waitlisted or left out’ families, or, as explained by the DSWD, those that did not make it to the list of first tranche beneficiaries [4]. It is not clear whether either of these numbers include the Pantawid households mentioned above or why there would have been ‘left out’ families from a programme that was ostensibly universal.

Vague and fragmented selection guidelines. In addition to this lack of clarity at the aggregate level, the guidelines in the selection of ESP beneficiaries have also been vague and fragmented, which subjects them to different interpretations and discrepancies on the ground. There is no single document that describes the process in detail or provides even an overview. The social registry that is used for poverty targeting in the Pantawid – the Listahanan – was not used for the identification the non-Pantawid families, who constituted 75 percent of the ESP target beneficiaries in the first tranche. Instead, the government reverted to reliance on village-level government functionaries, who have proven decisive in identifying ESP beneficiaries and distributing assistance. This has re-politicized the administration of social protection after years of supposed attempts at depoliticization by means of the Listahanan and the Pantawid.

Failed attempts at overcoming residualism. The SAP reflects an attempt to overcome the limitations of the country’s polarised and fragmented social protection system, even while this system has rendered almost impracticable its universalist impulses. The existing system notably excludes close to half of the population at the middle of the income distribution – often referred to as the ‘missing middle’ [5]. This refers to the 40 percent of employed people working in the informal sector who are not covered by the contributory social insurance designed for those formally employed, which covers about 40 percent of employed people, while at the same time they are not covered by the Pantawid, which covers about 21 percent of the population. The Pantawid beneficiaries are presumed to be the poorest people, although there have been serious concerns regarding its accuracy of targeting, meaning that it excludes many of the poor, while including many who are not (at least, not according to the poverty lines used by the programme) [6].

Social hostilities in the face of systemic confusions. The confused and fraught implementation of the SAP has therefore exacerbated fundamental schisms entrenched within the existing social protection system, including confusions about who is in fact targeted by the ESP and contestations by local government officials over the number of beneficiaries set for their respective cities or municipalities [7]. In particular, given the perception that Pantawid families are prioritised by the ESP (in the sense that they are automatically eligible for the programme), they have drawn public attention and scrutiny, even though they only accounted for about 25 percent of targeted recipients of the ESP in the first tranche. As a result, anti-poor sentiments have proliferated on social media since the distribution of the first tranche [8].

The inadequacy of celebrated models of poverty-targeted social assistance

These confusions and tensions show how the pursuit of genuine universalism within an existing stratified, fragmented and residualist social protection system presents major in-built challenges for advancing beyond moments of crisis. While the Philippines has been able to roll out a massive emergency social protection response to the COVID-19 lockdown, with near-universal coverage of possibly more than 90 percent of the population, reliance on the existing institutional infrastructure has had the effect of fostering social hostilities and potentially quelling support for such universalism among the population.

This is particularly significant given that the flagships of this infrastructure – the Pantawid and the Listahanan – have received huge support from international financial institutions and successive governments for 13 years prior to the pandemic and have been promoted as models up to the crisis, yet they have proven to be utterly inadequate for identifying systemic vulnerabilities at such a crucial time as the pandemic. The enormity of need engendered by the COVID-19 crisis evidently pushed the government to go beyond its conventional focus on poverty-targeted social assistance. As it scrambled to do this, it mostly bypassed the targeted system that had been so carefully groomed and adulated by donors, which has been neither fit for the purpose of actualizing universalistic aspirations, nor politically facilitative for their perpetuation.

[1] https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/downloads/2020/03mar/20200328-JOINT-MEMORANDUM-CIRCULAR-NO-1-S-2020.pdf

[2] This work builds on our ongoing research that we have been conducting since 2015 into the political economy surrounding the institutional evolution of the Philippine social protection system, as part of ERC-funded research project entitled ‘Aiding Social Protection: The Political Economy of Externally Financing Social Policy in Developing Countries’ (grant agreement No 638647). Our current research on the COVID response has been based on deskwork ¬– by necessity given that all three authors have been in lockdown in Europe – and has involved the collection and analysis of official documents (including relevant laws, presidential reports, and other administrative edicts) and media coverage concerning the Philippine government social protection responses to the pandemic, and selective remote interviews with  social workers from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) who have been involved with the COVID-19 response at various levels of government.

[3] https://public.tableau.com/views/SAPMonitoringDashboardforEmergencySubsidyunderAICS/Dashboard1?:display_count=no&:showVizHome=no

[4] See https://news.mb.com.ph/2020/06/11/1-3-m-4ps-beneficiaries-get-sap-2-cash-aid-reports-dswd/ and https://www.dswd.gov.ph/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Annex-A.-Media-Based-SAP-FAQs-Part-3-ver-june-1-8pm-final.pdf

[5] Cf. Fischer 2018, 2020; ILO, 2017; Rutkowski, 2020.

[6] The rampant inaccuracies of the Pantawid are detailed in our forthcoming article currently under review. Also see Kidd and Athias (2019). 

[7] For instance, see https://www.rappler.com/nation/257316-reinstate-original-beneficiaries-metro-manila-mayors-dswd

[8] E.g., see viral posts on Facebook like this and this, and news reports like this.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

About the authors:

Emma CantalEmma Lynn Dadap-Cantal is a PhD student at ISS. Her dissertation is a comparative case study of the political economy of social protection in Cambodia and the Philippines, with particular emphasis on the role of external donor influences in shaping the social protection systems in these two countries.

Charmaine G. Ramos

Charmaine G. Ramos (c.ramos@luc.leidenuniv.nl) is a lecturer at Leiden University College, Leiden University, The Netherlands. Her current research focuses on analysing social policy and resource governance, as a means for exploring how political economy dynamics constrain and structure institutions for social transformation and productive expansion in developing economies.

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Andrew M. Fischer is Associate Professor of Social Policy and Development Studies at the ISS and the Scientific Director of CERES, The Dutch Research School for International Development. His latest book, Poverty as Ideology (Zed, 2018), was awarded the International Studies in Poverty Prize by the Comparative Research Programme on Poverty (CROP) and Zed Books and, as part of the award, is now fully open access (http://bora.uib.no/handle/1956/20614). Since 2015, he has been leading a European Research Council Starting Grant on the political economy of externally financing social policy in developing countries. He has been known to tweet @AndrewM_Fischer


Title Image Credit: Asian Development Bank on Flickr