HOW much time and relative peace can P8,000 per family buy for the Duterte administration scrambling to stop the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) that has afflicted more than 3,094 Philippine residents and killed 144?
The social welfare department has started giving out cash of up to P8,000 for each household considered poor in Regions 1, 2, 3, Calabarzon, National Capital Region (Metro Manila), Cordillera Administrative Region, and the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
The monthly doles, to total P200 billion spread over two months, are on top of the pantawid (aid to enable a family to make both ends meet) being given even before the pandemic outbreak to the poorest of the poor on the government’s subsidy list.
President Duterte has been authorized by the Congress to realign P200 billion from unused funds in the national budget to help Filipinos who have lost their means of livelihood with the declaration of a lockout or quarantine in COVID-hit areas.
The distribution of P5,000 to P8,000 per household per month was rushed after residents in sitio San Roque in barangay Bagong Pag-asa, Quezon City, claiming to be hungry took to the street Wednesday to protest. The police chased and arrested 21 of them.
The melee resulted in charges, such as for violating the new law (RA 11469) that programmed government responses to the crisis, including “community quarantine” (lockdown) and “social distancing” (maintaining safe space between persons).
While the San Roque protest may have been nipped by fast police action, a stern warning by President Duterte that unruly protesters could be shot and later by the distribution of cash, one wonders how long the authorities could buy time and hold the line.
For one, the billions being handed out to displaced workers and protesters could run out if the crisis is not tamed in three months. For another, the human yearning for a better life free of undue harassment would keep burning despite brutal attempts to suppress it.
Assessing the effects of COVID-19 on the economy, the Asian Development Bank said that if the country can contain the local outbreak by midyear, the economy would still grow by a slower 2 percent in 2020, but that recovery might lag if its engines could not be jumpstarted sooner.
The ADB reported: “Risks are tilted to the downside. The main downside risk to gross domestic product growth in 2020 comes from COVID-19 and is highly unpredictable. The impact on the economy will be larger than currently assumed if the global outbreak is prolonged beyond the first half, or if there is a sustained local transmission.”
It projected the Philippines shedding more than 4 percent of GDP due to COVID-19 on top of a smaller 2 percent of GDP impact coming from global spillovers.
Adding to the complications, President Duterte’s televised “shoot to kill” threat after the San Roque ruckus may have fueled, rather than doused, resentment and future violent protests.
Malacañang’s rationalizing his warning as a mere reiteration that the police must act in self-defense when threatened is not likely to erase the brutal image he has created by the vitriol in his public statements.
His seesawing between saying he welcomed criticism from those who are not happy with his administration and his hurling threats and ordering “my” police and soldiers to meet unruly conduct with drastic action does not help.
“I never said in public ‘shoot-to-kill. Period’,” Duterte said of his outburst after San Roque. He explained:
“If you think your life is in danger, maging biyuda ang asawa mo na maganda, mag-asawa ulit at ang mga anak mo mawalan ng tatay, pag tinignan mo na delikado ang buhay mo, unahan mo na, patayin mo (if you think your life is in danger… do it before he does, kill him).”
After meeting with the Inter-Agency Task Force on the COVID-19 the other night, he elaborated: “My orders to the police and the military, including the barangay – if there would be conflict and there is an occasion that they fight and put your lives in danger, shoot them dead.”
In a message aired by the state-run Radio Television Malacañang, Duterte warned protesters: “Remember, those from the Left, you are not the government. Do you understand? Hindi kayo nasa gobyerno and you cannot be a part of what we are planning to do for to the nation.
“Intindihin ninyo yan, kaya wag kayo maggawa ng riot-riot dyan because I will order you detained at bibitawan ko kayo pagkatapos na wala na itong COVID…
“Do not try to test it. We are ready for you, gulo o barilan or patayan, I will not hesitate (to tell) my soldiers to shoot you. I will not hesitate to order the police to arrest and detain you.”
The next day, however, Duterte seemed to have cooled down and awakened to good public relations.
He defended Vice President Leni Robredo’s initiative in soliciting donations to help medical and health workers, as well as those displaced from their workplace or locked in quarantined areas. She had moved quickly despite the limited resources of her office.
Duterte fired Commissioner Manuelito Luna of the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission for calling for an investigation of Robredo’s supposedly “competing” with the administration in looking after the front liners and COVID victims.
However, he lost his momentary PR posture when he ridiculed human rights lawyer Chel Diokno for his moves, together with others, to defend those who had been arrested and charged for protesting.
Instead of assailing Diokno’s actions or arguments, Duterte zeroed in on his buckteeth, a non-issue. He said: “Kung magsalita ka para kang janitor. Kaya di ka nanalo, kasi kalaki ng ngipin mo, kalahati ng panga mo nakalabas.”