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Duterte's ‘military response’ to pandemic worsened economy —int'l rights group

The Duterte administration's military rather than public health response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic only worsened severe economic hardships of the Filipinos, a panel of lawyers and rights advocates said.

In its third and final report, the Independent International Commission of Investigation into Human Rights Violations in the Philippines (Investigate PH), said hunger became widespread in the country and still continues as President Rodrigo Duterte's administration focused on militarization instead of providing adequate healthcare and economic relief.

"During the COVID-19 pandemic, the government used security forces to arrest over 100,000 people for leaving their homes to collect water and food or to try to work. Organized community action to provide food to households was repressed even if the participants complied with COVID restrictions, since these initiatives were 'red-tagged,' it said.

The group concluded that human rights violations in the Philippines have intensified since the release of the June 2020 Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) report on the country's rights situation.

"There was a 50 to 76 percent increase in drug war killings per month during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns," Investigate PH said.

The group urged the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to look into the alleged human rights violations in the Philippines.

Hunger and poverty

A Social Weather Station survey from April 28 to May 2, 2021 revealed that 16.8% or 4.2 million families experienced "involuntary hunger" or hunger due to lack of food at least once in the past three months.

The coalition also said Duterte has used the health crisis as an "catch-all excuse" for neglecting the needs of poor Filipinos.

According to Investigate PH, the total lockdown in 2020 due to the pandemic left 2.5 million from the informal sector without livelihood.

"The Philippines’ management of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates Duterte’s governance style: fear over needs. Preparations for the lockdown that started in March 2020 left the urban poor out in the cold."

It said the sudden economic shutdown left 5.6 low-income earners and small-scale entrepreneurs stranded in the capital with no income.

"Generals assigned to implement the lockdown ordered people indoors and police started arresting residents who ventured out to alleys, disregarding the fact that many urban poor families depend on outdoor community water sources," it added.

Duterte boasted of aid in the early days of the pandemic, but Investigate PH said he "quickly whittled down" what locked-down citizens could receive to P4,000, less than one-half of a month’s salary on minimum wage stretched out for three months.

While Congress gave Duterte emergency powers, including over the national budget, the Commission on Audit said the Department of Social Welfare and Development failed to utilize P780.712 million in funds for the social amelioration program, which means 195,000 families were deprived of aid, the coalition said.

"Official government statistics show that six out of 10 households experienced moderate to severe food insecurity, a situation that peaked between April and May 2020 during the enhanced community quarantine. Unemployment forced families to purchase food on credit, borrow food from neighbors, and barter personal items for food," it said.

"Abusive enforcement of pandemic rules led to more than 900 complaints alleging torture, inhumane treatment, arrests, or detention lodged with the Philippines' Commission on Human Rights," it added.

Violations of social, cultural rights

Aside from the violations of economic rights, Investigate PH said the right of education has also been attacked by the Duterte government as his budget priorities continue to favor the security forces.

Former DSWD Secretary Judy Taguiwalo said the pandemic has led to a drop in enrollment figures for basic education in School Year 2020-2021. Private school enrollment decreased from 4.3 million to 2.2 million, while public schools enrollment increased from 22.6 million to 22.7 million.

"The lack of concern and the cut in the education budget by the Duterte administration as its response to the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the long-standing economic, social and educational inequalities which have contributed further to the violation of the right to education of Filipino children and youth."

Further, Investigate PH said the Duterte administration has "overwhelmingly directed" public resources towards heightened militarization, while continuing neoliberal economic policies.

"These economic policies include privatization, social service cuts, deregulation of labor, trade liberalization, and courting foreign investment. Simultaneously, armed security forces, backed by Duterte, are using new institutional mechanisms to expand political repression throughout Philippine society," it said.

"The Duterte administration’s combined priorities have resulted in entrenched poverty alongside growing inequality, and continued neocolonial relations, imposed with increased state terror. Its policies are violating peoples’ rights to equitable development, peace with justice, and self- determination."

Investigate PH began its investigation on human rights violations under the Duterte administration in December 2020. It released two reports in March and July.—LDF, GMA News