[Right-UP] The Philippines’ COVID-19 Response: Securitising the Pandemic and Disciplining the Pasaway | by Karl Hapal
The Philippines’ COVID-19 Response: Securitising the Pandemic and Disciplining the Pasaway
by Karl Hapal
It was the third week of April 2020, five weeks since Metro Manila and other provinces were put under “enhanced community quarantine” (ECQ). Under ECQ, school and university classes were suspended, mass gatherings were prohibited, government offices were run with a skeletal workforce, businesses were closed except for those providing essential goods and services, mass transportation was restricted, and people were ordered to observe social distancing measures and to stay at home. At that time, the Philippines had 6,456 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) confirmed cases, 426 deaths, and 612 recoveries. Quarantine rules specified that only one person was authorized to go out and buy essential goods for the rest of their family. As the designated “authorized person outside of residence” (APOR), I was given a “quarantine pass,” a document issued by the barangay. With my quarantine pass securely kept in my bag, I went out to buy food and medicine in a nearby market. Without any public transportation, I walked for nearly thirty minutes to get to the market. The street leading to the market was relatively empty. Apart from people who were, like me, walking towards the market, very few vehicles plied the road. Occasionally, an ambulance would pass by as well as illegal motorcycle taxis. As I neared the market, I saw slow-moving vehicles occupying the street. It was as if I had gone back to the “old normal.” Soon I saw police vehicles. I also saw several buses where people were being loaded. I thought the buses were there to transport frontline workers. I was later told that the buses were there to transport people apprehended for violating quarantine guidelines. My brief encounter with the government’s campaign to apprehend violators of quarantine guidelines is hardly an aberration. Elsewhere in the greater Metro Manila area, the joint forces of the police and the military cracked down on erring individuals.
The Philippine response to COVID-19 has been described as being one of the longest and strictest lockdowns in the world. Entire provinces and cities were put into lockdown, mobility was restricted, and the wearing of masks and social distancing were strictly enforced. Violations were met with punitive action. The government relied heavily on the police and the military to ensure that order was maintained and that all health protocols were followed. This has led some observers and scholars to describe the government response as either “draconian,” “militarised,” or “police-centric” (Maru, 2020). For the government, these measures were all part of the nation’s “war” against COVID-19. Why has the Philippine government relied heavily on draconian measures in its “war” against COVID-19? And what discourse informed the framing of its response as a war against the virus?
In this article, I argue that the government’s draconian response was a consequence of securitising COVID-19 (see next section for background of the term “securitisation”). In this process, the virus was perceived as an “existential threat” that “[justified] the use of extraordinary measures to handle [it]” (Buzan et al., 1998: 21). The securitisation of COVID-19 was produced by framing the pandemic response as a war against a so-called “unseen enemy.” To wage this war, the government required extraordinary powers and the unconditional co-operation of Filipinos. Consequently, this war-like narrative produced oppositional archetypes. These archetypes were perceived to either contribute to or derail governmental efforts to win the war. Contributing to the war was the virtuous archetype embodied by healthcare professionals, frontline workers, police, military, so-called “homeliners,” and law-abiding citizens. On the other hand, was the errant archetype embodied by the “pasaway.” The term “pasaway” is a Filipino word loosely refers to an importunate, stubborn, or obstinate person. Amid the lockdown, the term pasaway referred to people violating government-imposed health protocols. Feared for spreading the virus, the pasaway became the bane of the government’s pandemic response. In many ways, the government’s war against COVID-19 has also sought to “salvage” the virtuous from the pasaway.1 The act of salvaging took the form of policing and punishing the pasaway.
I also argue that the securitisation of COVID-19 and the production of oppositional archetypes is no accident. The Philippines’ response to COVID-19 reflects a continuation of President Rodrigo Duterte’s populistic brand of leadership (Curato, 2016; Juego, 2017; Thompson, 2020). Broadly speaking, populism relies on the depiction of a bifurcated society – elite versus the masses, criminals versus law-abiding citizens, the corrupt versus virtuous citizens, “angels versus demons” (Jensen and Hapal, 2018). Amid the pandemic, Duterte exercised his populistic tendencies by depicting the virus as a sinister menace embodied by the pasaway. In many ways, the pasaway is a construct resembling the drug addict in the context of the war on drugs or, more broadly, the colonised and racialised others. Seen this way, it is no surprise that the government’s pandemic response has, by far, closely resembled its approach with its war on drugs (Robertson, 2020). In both its war on drugs and its COVID-19 response, the government has relied on brute force to eliminate its perceived enemy, and it has peddled a narrative of a bifurcated nation. Torn between the virtuous and criminal elements, it has become the government’s duty to “salvage” the nation, lest the Philippines be destroyed (Curato, 2016; Jensen and Hapal, 2018).
This article offers a critical analysis of why the government relied heavily on draconian measures and the political discourse that has informed and animated its war against the virus. I do this by examining the government’s COVID-19 response through the lens of securitisation and populism. This article is divided into four main sections. First, I will look into securitisation and populism, and the linkage between the two concepts as a means to outline the overall conceptual framework of the article. Second, I offer a broad description of how the Philippines fought its war against COVID-19. Third, I turn to the production of the pasaway, and the consequences of the oppositional archetypes produced by the war-like narrative informing the government’s pandemic response. Finally, I end by briefly returning to populism and securitisation to contextualise the government’s actions and explore the consequences of combatting a health crisis of pandemic proportions through fear and force.
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