Bulletin Issue 05: August 26, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic will soon enter its seventh month with more than 23 million detected infections globally. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines are currently the worst affected in Asia; their public health systems – already enfeebled by years of official neglect – are on the verge of collapse as they struggle to deal with COVID-19 on top of other chronic diseases and health problems.
The full social and economic impacts of COVID-19 are not yet known since the pandemic is far from abating, but it is clear that the ‘pandemic package’ has triggered the most immense socio-economic shock that the world has seen in decades. As early as April, the World Food Programme (WFP) projected that acute hunger would double by the end of 2020, affecting a quarter of a billion people. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that unemployment and under-employment in the first and second halves of 2020 are equivalent to 155 million and 400 million full time jobs respectively. The informal sector and women workers in the services, health and social care sectors have been hit particularly hard, with increased burdens of unpaid care work. The World Bank now estimates that most countries will be plunged into recession in 2020 with severe contractions in per-capita income, rising public and private debts, and tens of millions of people pushed into extreme poverty.
Although governments continue to flounder in finding appropriate ways to address the complex economic fall-out of COVID-19, their appetites for exercising brute state power remain undiminished. Emergency powers that were assumed soon after the pandemic was declared remain in place, bolstered by imagined and/or fabricated threats to national stability and security by workers, peasants, lawyers, journalists, and students. The ostensible rationale for these emergency powers – tackling the pandemic – is barely visible in governmental actions, which have been directed more towards settling political scores, silencing and criminalising dissent, and reshaping regulations to make them more corporate and elite friendly.
In India, the legislature has practically ceased its functions of democratic checks and balances, and championing an independent judiciary. Executive accountability is virtually non-existent as the central government is trying to push through a number of measures that favour corporations and elites allied to the ruling regime but are antagonistic to workers, peasants, fishers, and the environment. Notable among these are ordinances to liberalize public procurement of agricultural produce; labour “reforms” that increase working hours but decrease wages and labour protections; and a revised Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) notification that further dilutes already weak environmental regulations and severely limits public participation in environmental governance. These and other similar measures are being protested through physical demonstrations across the country as well as digital activism.
In the Philippines, Congress has signed into law the Terror Bill that gives the government unprecedented powers to arrest and incarcerate people and carry out surveillance without a warrant, curb civil liberties, legally target any person or organisation that it deems a threat to national security, and label anyone who expresses dissent against the government as a terrorist. In the latest State of the Nation Address (SONA), President Roderigo Duterte failed to present a clear, cohesive plan to lead the country out of the COVID crisis; what was on offer instead was reaffirmation of his administration’s militarized response to the pandemic and a corporate bailout package dressed up as an economic recovery plan for the poor and working classes. The four years of the Duterte Presidency so far have been characterized by tens of thousands of extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detentions, and legal prosecution of those who dare to challenge and expose human rights violations.
In Thailand, the government of General Prayuth Chan-ocha has extended emergency powers despite remarkable containment of COVID-19. Over the past month, Thailand has witnessed country-wide protests by high school and university students, who are demanding an end to the military’s role in national governance, reform of the monarchy – including its financing and protection through lèse majesté laws – reform of the constitution, and an end to the harassment of pro-democracy and pro-human rights activists. On 16 August, thousands of students and members of the public gathered at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, demanding the dissolution of the current parliament, a new constitution, and an end to intimidation and incarceration of government critics. The government’s response, however, has been to arrest those identified as leaders of these movements and label protesters as “nation haters”.
In this edition, Walden Bello takes down the Philippine President’s state of the nation (SONA) address, arguing that instead of a message of hope, Duterte was uninspiring, unimaginative and abusive. Focus’ statement on the SONA explains further that Duterte’s abject failure provides an opportunity to advance a progressive agenda.
Former UN Special Rapporteur on Palestine Richard Falk writes that under Trump it is relevant to describe the USA as a ‘failing state’ and that the November 2020 election results could further bolster its unravelling. In a second piece, Bello charts out four scenarios for the end of Duterte’s beleaguered presidency.
We have three reports from the ground in this bulletin. Supatsak Pobsuk writes about the inspiring student mobilizations in Thailand against the repressive regime that has hounded opponents and stifled dissent. The student-led demonstrations have coalesced around three concrete demands: an end to the harassment of dissidents, redrafting the constitution, and the dissolution of parliament. Ayantika Das interviews Jesu Rethinam from India’s National Fishworkers Forum to get a sense of the impacts of the pandemic and resultant lockdown on women fishworkers. Ranjini Basu writes about the continuing struggle of India’s frontline women healthworkers who continue to battle against the virus despite the lack of proper wages, protective equipment, social safety nets, and safe work conditions.
Galileo de Guzman Castillo’s poem reflects on the meaning of independence and freedom as the healthcare systems in the Philippines crumble and the pandemic spreads. In a statement on World Indigenous Peoples Day, the Timuay Justice and Governance from the Philippines underlines the challenges facing indigenous communities during the pandemic and called for enabling policies that would protect their natural resources and ensure their sustenance.
In our webinar series on COVID, Deglobalisation and Food Sovereignty, we have three videos featuring Walden Bello (on COVID and the opportunity for food sovereignty), Dipa Sinha from India’s Right to Food Campaign (on the right to food under COVID times and beyond) and Indra Lubis from the Indonesia Political Economy Association (on the critical need for land reforms).
Focus on the Global South