POSTSCRIPT / June 14, 2020 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Use crisis to elevate nation, not to sink it

IT IS unfortunate that the Duterte regime appears to be using the coronavirus crisis to tighten its hold on an already repressed people instead of taking the contagion as an opportunity to elevate the nation to a better post-pandemic world.

Lockdowns and other stringent measures being taken to contain the virus have stalled the economy and rendered millions jobless or deprived of their usual means of livelihood. Such unintended consequences are understandable.

But we find draconian such measures as the banning of assemblies peaceably airing grievances, the arresting of those walking outside without a mask (why not just hand them one to wear?), and the confinement to their residence of seniors solely by reason of their age.

We get angry seeing people having to wake up before daybreak and setting out on foot to look for ways to earn a little money for the day. Some people beg or borrow to buy medicine for their aging parents, while others settle for any substitute liquid if baby milk is too expensive.

On the flip side, officials collect fat salaries and perks for work that is done for them by their staff. They are driven around in air-conditioned SUVs while the taxpayers who pay them walk or stand for hours waiting for a ride.

The government doles out cash and goods as “ayuda” (assistance) to poor families. We hope the recipients do not accept the handouts in the same transactional spirit as selling their votes during elections.

Seeing many people accepting the ayuda, Malacañang may have concluded that the people have learned to adjust to the restrictions occasioned by the COVID scare and are now ready to adapt to more repression.

The Duterte administration has taken another step toward formalizing in law the restrictions it has initiated with the anti-COVID campaign. After citing the coronavirus scourge, it has begun using terrorism as justification for more repressive rules.

The administration’s supermajority in the Congress has passed in record time an Anti-Terrorism Bill that classifies certain acts – including speaking out against the government or criticizing officials — as terrorism with corresponding severe penalties.

The ATB seeks to allow detention without charges for as long as 24 days (compared to the present limit of three days) of a person suspected of committing terroristic acts. Arrests can be made without a court warrant.

Waiting on President Duterte’s desk for his signature or veto is the ATB that would give broad powers to the President, exercised through an Anti-Terrorism Council, including the detaining of suspects.

Duterte, a former prosecutor before he became mayor of Davao, always has somebody or a group (like a council or task force or a subordinate) doing the dirty job, giving him a buffer from direct culpability.

Under the ATB, critics of the administration could be harassed with warrantless arrest and detention. The chilling effect on free speech and normal reportage and commentary in media would be catastrophic to a nation reared in the ways of democracy.

Having been deaf to the public debate outside its echo chamber, Malacañang is drifting toward monopolizing the marketplace of ideas. That’s bad for everyone.

• Duterte must pause, recalculate

INSTEAD of plotting his own political survival and digging in to defend his regime, President Duterte should rise above partisanship and seek counsel from diverse sectors to layout a Grand Plan for a post-pandemic Philippines.

The plan could address the systemic deficiencies that the pandemic has exposed – including the social inequities that make some sectors more vulnerable to economic and other shocks than others, and the inadequacies of leadership that takes on the job unprepared.

A new social contract, not necessarily a revised Constitution, should be written. In the drawing up of a plan with a Road Map, the youth should be given a bigger role. After all, it is their world that will be at the center of the planning and execution.

In the protest rallies against the Anti-Terrorism Bill, note the active and creative participation of the youth. That is a good sign – and the traditional politicians in government better respect that as it augurs well for the country.

President Duterte is the major political force that could unite or divide the nation at this crucial point. It might be best if he could avoid dictating who his successor should be – if he is to be the unifying element in the future of the country.

There should evolve from the private non-partisan sector a broad pressure group to convince Duterte (as well as the opposition and all disparate political blocs) to order down the line in their respective camps a focusing on National Unity and Good Faith.

There should be an instant stop to the persecution of critics and political foes, and an end to disinformation and hate-mongering – not for anybody’s sake but for the sole purpose of preventing the further slide of the nation to chaos and disintegration.

Duterte has said often that having been president, he has achieved the most that he could aspire for in life and can just look forward to retirement in 2022 after a job well done.

Then he should talk and act as one who is above partisan politics and devote his time and effort to uniting, not dividing, the nation and strengthening it for the tectonic tests to come.

In the past three years of his term, Duterte’s focus has shifted from illegal drugs, to COVID-19, and now terrorism. We can only guess what his next focus would be.

In his political peregrination, we hope Duterte will realize that the true north is in the morality of public service. Moral rectitude should be evident not only in clean government but also in respect for human rights and fairness to everyone.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of June 14, 2020)

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