• Laurette Nicole P. Ramos

The Philippine Securitization of the COVID-19 Pandemic and the Insecurity of Filipinos

The Securitization theory offers a way to present issues as an existential threat, thereby legitimizing the use of necessary measures to address them. The Philippine government securitized the global health crisis by recognizing the COVID-19 pandemic as an existential threat and convincing its constituents as such. However, the measures deployed by the government were criticized for being too militarized and had negative effects such as abuse of military powers and overburdening of the healthcare sector. With the negative and inadvertent ramifications of its policies, the Philippine government’s securitization of the COVID-19 pandemic can be said to have caused insecurity to its citizens.

With the onset of problems in its healthcare system and the rapidly rising number of COVID-19 positive cases in the country, government intervention was necessary to protect the Filipino people and contain the spread of the virus. The Philippine government recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic was a clear and present danger to its citizens. Thus, President Rodrigo Duterte declared a state of national emergency in response to the COVID-19 threat. Consequently, an Inter-Agency Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) was formed to draft policies that would address the COVID-19 threat. Most members of this task force were former army generals, as the Philippine government highly relies on uniformed armed personnel under the Duterte administration. This explains why military strategies such as the tightening of borders and lockdowns were the initial responses to the growing COVID-19 cases. These prevented non-essential travel by land, sea, and air to contain viral transmissions. Army personnel, military reservists, and the police took charge of checkpoints and monitored the compliance of citizens on community quarantine measures and policies.

As the measures eased, the government also introduced the “new normal” such as adhering to social distancing measures, temperature checks, and using personal protective equipment. Typically, quarantine violators were either warned, fined, or charged by uniformed armed personnel. However, there were also reported instances of extreme measures carried out by the military or police in response to quarantine violators. Although these policies were set in place to protect the Filipino people, many are noticing its disparate and problematic nature.

The initial militarized action of the government contributed to the continued reliance on uniformed armed personnel. Most countries relied on doctors, scientists, and health experts in finding solutions to address the COVID-19 pandemic­. In the Philippines, military solutions such as the lockdown and deployment of armed personnel were given priority over proposals from healthcare experts in the country. The increased authority that is given to the police also led to negative effects such as abuse of power. Since the imposition of community quarantine measures in the Philippines in March 2020, more than three hundred sixty people have faced repercussions from the police and military tasked with quarantine enforcement. In some cases, quarantine violators even received draconian punishments or were shot by armed personnel. Conversely, there seems to be a disparity in compliance with the rules as no penalties were imposed on some uniformed armed personnel, government officials, and public figures when called out by citizens for violating quarantine measures. This is problematic because the government that is supposed to be protecting the best interests of the state are the very same forces causing state insecurity.

The imposed government actions also revealed healthcare deficiencies in the country. When the first local transmission in the Philippines occurred, there was a slow government response in the execution of resolutions and distribution of medical resources that led to insufficient testing capacity. Many COVID-19 asymptomatic or suspected individuals either received their test results late or were not tested at all. On the other hand, some government officials were prioritized and immediately received their test results despite not meeting the criteria of COVID-19 testing provisions heavily imposed on regular citizens and residents. This shows how power and wealth played a role on the way the Philippine government addressed the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, given the state of the healthcare system and the disparate proportion of healthcare workers and facilities vis-à-vis patients in the country, the hospitals, and medical personnel were overburdened in handling the number of COVID-19 patients. Although the treatment cost for COVID-19 varies, being hospitalized in a time of a pandemic can be costly, especially for Filipinos who lost employment – a consequence of the strictly imposed lockdowns that affected medium to small businesses. With the problematic nature of the Philippine healthcare system, citizens considered the COVID-19 government actions to be insufficient. In a study done by the ASEAN Studies Centre, 53.7% of Filipinos disapproved on how the Duterte administration responded to the health crisis.

As elucidated above, the Philippine government was able to securitize the COVID-19 pandemic. It was able to present COVID-19 as an existential threat and imposed policies that are now being followed by its citizens. However, these policies also led to the economic insecurity of many Filipinos. While all socioeconomic classes in the Philippines were affected, those belonging to the lower-income bracket are the most vulnerable to economic instability. The widening socioeconomic gap further impacts the access of basic health care for many struggling Filipinos. To add to this, there is now a normalization of militarized response whenever a threat arises – especially non-traditional threats like the pandemic. Unfortunately, the use of extreme measures against violating quarantine rules was deemed justified due to the COVID-19 threat. Actions by government officials and public figures also indicate the strong influence that power and wealth within Philippine society. In tracing the securitization process, the results show that there are still those left behind in the path towards security. This shows how the Philippine government normalized policies and created norms that are in favor of those with wealth and power but not for the underprivileged citizens they supposedly serve.

Laurette Nicole P. Ramos is a graduate student pursuing a Master's degree in International Studies, majoring in European Studies at De La Salle University. At present, she is a Senior Consultant under the Trade Promotion Department of the German-Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Inc and is also working for the Germany Trade & Invest.

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