Focus on the Global South’s Post-SONA 2020 Assessment

2020 August 7

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic—a period marked by rising infections, an overwhelmed healthcare system, and an impending economic recession—the state of the nation demanded a show of fortitude and resolve from President Rodrigo Duterte and his government to move the country forward, as well as a show of leadership to rally the people in overcoming the enormous challenges before us. We saw and heard nothing of that in the President’s 5th State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 27.

What the President has shown was the opposite: incompetence and a serious and dangerous lack of leadership. Standing before the Congress and the nation was an inutile leader—to use Duterte’s own words—who is unable to comprehend the gravity of the situation we are facing and incapable of laying down a clear and cohesive plan to address this unprecedented crisis.

Nothing was said of the exponential rise in COVID-19 cases, the dismal state of our healthcare system, the massive loss of jobs and livelihoods, or the worsening poverty and hunger among our most vulnerable communities. Instead, Duterte filled his SONA with desperate attempts to rescue the government’s already crumbling legitimacy in the face of growing public anger and discontent. He deployed blatant lies, repetitions of stale populist rhetoric that have consistently contradicted his administration’s policies and actions, and displays of “cariño brutal” leadership, including narratives of “othering” and endorsements of violence.

A Waning Brand of Leadership: Blame Game, Othering, and Violence

Prior to the onslaught of the pandemic and the multiple crises it has facilitated, Duterte’s leadership and legitimacy were derived partly from his charisma, which Focus analyst Walden Bello has aptly described as cariño brutal—“denoting a volatile mix of will to power, a commanding personality, and a gangster charm that fulfills his followers’ deep-seated yearning for a father figure who will finally end the national chaos.” He has projected himself as someone who is willing to “[break] the law,” as it “functions mainly to protect the powerful, the criminals, and the corrupt.” Throughout his speech, Duterte tried to reassert this strongman image and project power.

Duterte’s previous SONAs have consistently sought to lay the blame for the country’s ills on the same predictable lineup of groups: drug users and peddlers, criminals, narco-politicians, corrupt public officials, leftist groups, and government critics. Because these groups are easy for the middle class to detest, using them as scapegoats for all forms of social deterioration have helped his administration appeal to the broad middle class and obtain their support. The 2020 SONA was no different. Again, the oligarchy and the perpetual drug problem are to blame.

At the beginning of his speech, Duterte lambasted a senator from an opposition party who has spoken out on the need to address the issue of political dynasties. The president, exuding an anti-oligarchy persona he has adopted since his presidential campaign in 2016, then segued into a tirade against a few rich families and their corporations. He made scathing statements directed at the oligarchs controlling water provision in Metro Manila, but his rant focused particularly on private telecommunication companies. Supposedly in the name of public interest, he even warned the latter of government takeover if they fail to shape up. In the wake of the government shutdown of ABS-CBN, the country’s largest media network, these threats have a chilling effect on corporations deemed to oppose the whims of this administration.

Duterte has been projecting his upfront criticism of oligarchs as the latest expression of his will to power, commanding personality, and strong leadership. But his selective attacks against the Lopezes and Ayalas are reminiscent of the anti-oligarchy rhetoric of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who attacked certain oligarchs only to prop up his own cronies. It is not difficult to see the similarities in the current scenario under Duterte.

For instance, despite claiming to be against the oligarchy, Duterte did not criticize the Sys, the Villars, the Gokongweis, and other superrich families who have further entrenched their control over public goods and services, thereby amassing greater wealth and profit. At the same time, it is important to note that throughout Duterte’s term, many families in his hometown in Davao Region have been on the rise economically and politically. The most prominent among them is Dennis Uy, one of Duterte’s top presidential campaign donors. Starting out as the son of provincial traders, Uy has now expanded his oil, shipping, and logistics business and has also suddenly ventured into convenience stores, a digital startup, a casino franchise, a bakery chain, a Ferrari dealership, a water utility, real estate, and telecommunications. The most controversial of these is his entry into telecommunications, given Duterte’s longstanding vendetta against the duopoly running the Philippine telco industry, the lack of transparency in the bidding process for the third telco company, and Uy’s lack of experience in the industry.

Apart from Uy, investigative reports have also shown how families and companies involved in public infrastructure have also disproportionately benefited from the massive inflow of capital to Davao Region to supposedly support the Duterte administration’s flagship infrastructure program “Build Build Build.” Standing out among these companies is CLTG Builders, which is notably owned by Desiderio Go, the father of Duterte’s longtime aide and now-senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go.

Viewed in conjunction with Duterte’s political agenda of consolidating his own cronies, the selective attacks against certain oligarchs controlling telecommunications during his SONA belie the fact that only individuals and groups that support Duterte may enter and reap profits from the telco market. As such, rather than dismantling a centuries-old system that has only benefited the few, Duterte has simply been ushering in new oligarchs to secure their political support.

Apart from the oligarchs, Duterte also attributed the moral decay in society to the enduring drug problem in the Philippines. During his speech, he devoted significant time, as usual, to explain how the proliferation of illegal drugs destroys families, robs children of proper nurturance and care, and even forces mothers to seek employment in other countries where they are exposed to abusive employers. However, Duterte deliberately left out how his bloody “War on Drugs” has also led to the same outcome of destroying families and how the lack of decent, high-paying jobs coupled with the government’s labor export policy have increased labor migration.

Consistent with his hatred for smalltime drug users and peddlers and his penchant for using violence to address systemic problems, Duterte reiterated his call for the “swift passage of a law reviving the death penalty,” particularly for drug-related crimes. Surprisingly, however, this directive received very little applause from a crowd consisting of his loyal allies. He continued to play up the narrative of capital punishment as a deterrent to crime and as a necessary measure to save the youth from the scourge of illegal drugs. The fact that he included and stressed the agenda to reimpose the death penalty during a health crisis that has already taken over 2,000 lives is again quite telling of this government’s misplaced priorities. It also proves once again how violence and killings are indeed a defining characteristic of Dutertismo.

Contrary to the administration’s claims that capital punishment will bring about justice, peace, and social order, the proposed death penalty will be a death sentence for the poor. There are numerous studies that show the disproportionate impact of death penalty on people living in poverty and its ineffectiveness in crime deterrence. What the government should address and prioritize is the implementation of much needed reforms in our broken criminal justice system that promotes impunity and favors the rich, the elites, and those in positions of power.

Militaristic, Populist, and Incompetent COVID-19 Response

Focus has been examining Duterte’s past SONAs and analyzing the consequences of his regime’s exacerbation of policies and systems that promote violence, hardships, betrayals, and perversions. In particular, Focus has been analyzing from a policy lens the extent to which his rhetoric has been translated into actual policies and action. As in previous addresses, we have noted the destructive, divisive, and despotic character of the Duterte administration and the patent inconsistencies in Duterte’s policy pronouncements in his latest SONA. On the twin concerns of health and the economy, what Duterte chose to highlight in his speech is indicative of his glaring lack of understanding of the gravity of our problems and his consistent policy biases. The statements are always couched in the same pro-masa or pro-people rhetoric.

On health, Duterte chose to highlight the Malasakit Centers—the pet project of his erstwhile assistant and most trusted ally and confidant Senator Cristopher “Bong” Go—as if to present these centers as one-stop shops for all government medical and financial assistance for all Filipinos, particularly poor patients. While supposedly non-partisan, the Malasakit Centers, whose name means “concern” in English, implicitly represent the system of patronage politics, where the delivery of public services is branded as a gift deserving of public gratitude and political support.

Furthermore, in keeping with the administration’s militaristic and blunt force approach to containing the virus, Duterte threatened to order the killings of individuals who commit crimes during the pandemic. He explicitly stated that if they were to go back to their old, unlawful ways, he would see to it that their dead bodies would pile up.

Instead of heaping praises on the so-called “Bong Go Centers” and sputtering threats of violence, the President could have given the nation a much clearer picture of the state of our public health and the enormous challenge that lay before us. A World Health Organization-commissioned study on the state of the country’s public health system concluded that while there have been improvements in performance owing to health sector reforms implemented over the years, many concerns still need to be tackled. These concerns have to do with “further strengthening and improving the preparation and response capacity to natural and human induced disasters.” It further noted that “access [to health services] remains highly inequitable due to the maldistribution of facilities, health staff and specialists.”

The dire state of our public health amid the pandemic was underscored further in a new United Nations Policy Brief on the impact of COVID-19 on Southeast Asian countries. The document noted the vulnerability of most countries in the sub-region because of weak health systems. However, it singled out Myanmar and the Philippines “as particularly concerning because of pre-existing humanitarian caseload.” There are two indicators of level of preparedness for COVID-19 where the Philippines is lagging behind its neighbors. The first one is the number of nurses and midwives, where we have two per 10,000 people according to 2017-2018 data, the lowest among the 11 Southeast Asian countries (Singapore is highest at 72 nurses per 10,000 people). The second is the number of hospital beds where we registered 10 per 10,000, the third lowest next to Cambodia with eight and Myanmar with nine per 10,000.

Duterte also revealed his detachment from the struggle of healthcare workers when he hit them back for supposedly touting revolution, when they were in fact merely demanding a return to Modified Enhanced Community Quarantine (MECQ) from the more relaxed General Community Quarantine (GCQ) in order to give our overwhelmed health system some breathing space.

The Duterte administration’s indifference to the needs of the healthcare sector, its hollow rhetoric of malasakit or sympathy, and its heavy-handed approach to the pandemic have obviously not done anything to curb the number of cases. As of today, the Philippines now has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia, overtaking Indonesia at 119,460 total cases, and the fourth-highest number of cases in Asia after India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. According to the Straits Times, the Philippines has now become Southeast Asia’s coronavirus hotspot after recording spikes in the number of infections, as the country plunges into recession, registering a 16.5% GDP drop in the second quarter of 2020—the deepest contraction in the country’s history.

Enduring Neoliberal Prescription

There were high expectations that Duterte would present a clear plan for the tanking economy. However, the list of recommendations and urgent policies cited by Duterte, which barely constitute a concrete recovery plan, represent the same neoliberal agenda that has only created fragile, unsustainable, and inequitable growth. Duterte pushed for the passage of the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises Act (CREATE), which aims to cut the corporate income tax rate from 30% to 25%. The recovery program as per Duterte’s SONA pronouncements is hinged on corporate bailouts couched again in populist rhetoric. Duterte sought to emphasize, and rightly so, the plight of micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) that make up around 99.5% of all enterprises in the country. Considered the backbone of our economy, MSMEs provide around 5.7 million jobs or 63.19% of the country’s total employment, according to 2018 data from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). But there are serious doubts as to whether the incentives and bailout packages would redound to the benefit of these MSMEs or instead be cornered by big firms. While CREATE is envisioned to serve both as a stimulus and as a means to spur economic growth, special concern should be directed at the impact of the crisis on workers.

Official statistics show that 7.3 million Filipinos are now unemployed, with the unemployment rate jumping to 17.7% in April 2020—a 12.6% increase from last year. Government’s response to support the unemployed has come in the form of social amelioration and a one-time cash dole-out to workers in the formal sector through its COVID-19 Adjustment Measures Program (CAMP). These programs have been mired in problems, as Duterte himself has recognized.

For one, the social amelioration in the form of cash and in-kind support, ranging from PHP5,000 (~USD102) to PHP8,000 (~USD163) per household for each month of lockdown, does not have any clear criteria for recipient selection nor a timeline for distribution. Without clear criteria, the distribution of aid has been based on patronage instead of people’s needs. Furthermore, there have been various reports of delayed distribution both for the first and second tranche of the financial aid. Without any source of income during the first two months of strict lockdown, many poor families had to live on PHP8,000 (~USD163) per month, or about PHP133 (~USD2.71) per day. Even worse, some remote communities have reportedly not received any form of aid at all since March 15.

Similarly, the support program designed specifically for displaced workers has also been riddled with problems. On the one hand, the one-time cash aid worth PHP5,000 (~USD102) that was distributed to workers in the formal sector was not enough to meet the month-long needs of their families, even when combined with the financial aid from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). Another concern of the labor sector was how the processing of aid depended on employers submitting a list of requirements to the government before their workers could receive aid. Labor groups also lamented that the Department of Labor and Employment’s (DOLE) support program for workers is exclusionary, as it only covers workers in the formal sector. Meanwhile, displaced workers and underemployed and seasonal workers could only receive provisional incomes under the department’s emergency employment program that would last between 10 and 30 days.

According to Czar Joseph Castillo of the Labor Education and Research Network (LEARN) Institute, the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified labor rights issues including non-compliance with occupational safety and health standards, wage cuts, contractualization, and union busting.

While millions of poor Filipinos are suffering from worsening hunger due to lack of incomes and the delayed distribution of government aid, some public officials have been fattening their wallets with public funds. In fact, in the middle of an unprecedented health crisis that has exhausted the resources of thousands of COVID-19 victims, it was reported that PHP15 billion (~USD305 million) worth of funds of the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth) were pocketed by the members of the government corporation’s executive committee. Even prior to this recent exposé, various investigative reports have revealed massive fraud and scams within PhilHealth. It was estimated that the insurance company has lost around PHP154 billion (~USD3.13 billion) to various types of fraud. All these cases have persisted despite Duterte’s strong assertions that he would weed out corruption.

Rhetoric and Contradictions

There are a few other rhetorical statements in Duterte’s SONA that are contradicted by his policies and actions. He said that his administration “[wants] to end the discrimination of persons on the basis of age, disability, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, and other character traits.” This is ironic given Duterte’s sexist, misogynistic, and discriminatory statements against women and the LGBTQIA+ community. In one event, he was noted as saying that he “cured” himself of homosexuality “with the help of beautiful women.” Duterte has also blurted out statements before and during his term as president that objectified and sexualized women, encouraged violence against women, normalized and trivialized the otherwise serious matter of rape, and openly admitted to committing rape and other forms of sexual harassment himself.

He also boldly declared: “Rest assured that we will not dodge our obligation to fight for human rights.” This comes after years of extrajudicial killings, human rights violations and abuses, the erosion of democratic institutions, the encroachment of authoritarian rule, demonization of human rights activists and defenders, and the propagation of the divisive false dichotomy between the President’s “concern with human lives” and peoples’ defense of human rights and dignity in resistance to the Duterte regime.

On the issue of environment, he mentioned that “responsible extraction and equitable distribution of natural resources remain non-negotiables” and reiterated once again the need for the passage of the National Land Use Act (NLUA). Yet over the last four years under his administration, land policies have treated land and other natural resources as commodities and sources of profit for private investors. This narrow view of economic efficiency is anchored on the profit-maximizing exploitation of natural resources rather than its equitable distribution, protection, and preservation to advance social and ecological justice.

This is evident, for instance, in the continuing proliferation of mining throughout the country, rising cases of land grabbing and land use conversion in the countryside, the aggressive push for the China-backed Kaliwa Dam—a centerpiece of the Belt and Road Initiative in the Philippines—and many other forms of development aggression that threaten to destroy indigenous peoples’ ancestral domains and livelihoods, plus the reclamation of Manila Bay, which threatens to displace thousands of coastal residents and fisherfolk communities to make way for private businesses to plunder the Commons.

Duterte also stressed that a robust agriculture sector should drive economic growth. In line with this, he cited the “Plant, Plant, Plant” Program, otherwise known as the Ahon Lahat, Pagkaing Sapat (ALPAS) [literally meaning: All Rise, Adequate Food] program, as the government’s COVID-19 response to help reinvigorate the agriculture sector. However, the ALPAS program’s push for rice self-sufficiency and support for procurement of palay from local farmers contradicts the administration’s strong support and implementation of rice importation.

With the enactment of the Rice Tariffication Law (RTL) or the Rice Trade Liberalization Law, the Philippines became the largest importer of rice in the world in 2019 with record purchases reaching 2.9 million metric tons (MT), and there were plans in late March to import more than 300,000 MT of rice by way of the government-to-government scheme to ward off possible depletion of our rice buffer stock. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, rice-producing countries have reviewed their rice exports. Vietnam, for example, temporarily suspended rice export contracts as it assesses its own stockpiles. The plans were later shelved when Vietnam lifted their ban on rice exports. Nevertheless, this exposes the Philippines to the dangers of heavy reliance on importation as a means to secure food. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) estimates that the export bans could raise world rice prices anywhere from 19% (Vietnam), 23% (Cambodia), to as much as 51% (India), or $230 per MT. According to IRRI, “in the worst case scenario, rice price could spike well above the maximum level reached during the 2008 crisis.”

The deplorable neglect of the Filipino small-scale food providers and Philippine agriculture by the Duterte administration—exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19 on food and the economy, as well as the government technocrats’ yielding to the dictates of neoliberal free-trade proponents—is a clear manifestation of the disconnect between the government and the people.

A Turning Point

The incompetence and poor leadership of the Duterte administration, as attested to by the recent SONA, along with the people’s indignation and demands for accountability, open opportunities for a progressive turning point, away from the Dutertismo style of governance and toward genuine political, economic, social, and cultural change. Now more than ever, there is a stronger need for us to organize communities, strengthen grassroots solidarities from the ground up, and collectively build alternatives for recovery, renewal, and systemic transformation.

The annual SONA has always been a political event ripe with contrasts. It is an occasion for the President to present the achievements of the administration and frame the policies and the political narrative moving forward. On the other hand, out on the streets, the united actions under the banner of SONAgKAISA (“nagkaisa” means united in Filipino) and the various sectoral and thematic actions articulate a counter-narrative focusing on the perspectives of the marginalized and the unheard and offer a different agenda of social transformation that challenges the status quo, questions government policies and priorities, and condemns the actions or inactions of the State.

There is also a sharp contrast in the optics of power and privilege: the politicians, the generals, the diplomats, and those in the corridors of power in their elegant barongs and filipinianas, comfortably seated inside the air-conditioned halls of Congress—though this time with COVID-19 we saw a much-reduced audience and a less-packed Congress. Meanwhile, the masses march outside under the scorching heat of the sun or sometimes the heavy downpour of rain, the people out in the streets shouting their demands and slogans, demanding to be heard. There is a typical ending to a SONA day: the President, after delivering his or her speech to the aplomb and applause of the crowd, leaves the halls rejuvenated with his or her political muscles flexed and mandate reaffirmed; meanwhile, the protestors finish their own programs, pack their flags, streamers, and placards, and disperse amidst the embers of the burned effigy.

SONA 2020 will be remembered as the day when Duterte’s failed leadership, in the face of an unprecedented health and economic crisis, was fully exposed to the public. The challenge now lies in seizing this opportunity to rise from the ashes of this moribund presidency, build stronger unities to advance the progressive agenda and find the strength to continue the long struggle ahead.