Against so many odds in 2020, the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte was buoyed by the unprecedented popularity of the chief executive, who now enters his last year in office. He may leave his office as the most-positively evaluated president: despite the widely criticized government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, President Duterte fared quite well in public opinion surveys with a record 91% approval rating in September 2020.
But does popularity mean good governance and effective leadership? In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis offers a hint to answering this question.
‘Popular’ leaders, those capable of interpreting the feelings and cultural dynamics of a people, and significant trends in society, do exist. The service they provide by their efforts to unite and lead can become the basis of an enduring vision of transformation and growth that would also include making room for others in the pursuit of the common good. But this can degenerate into an unhealthy ‘populism’ when individuals are able to exploit politically a people’s culture, under whatever ideological banner, for their own personal advantage or continuing grip on power. Or when, at other times, they seek popularity by appealing to the basest and most selfish inclinations of certain sectors of the population. This becomes all the more serious when, whether in cruder or more subtle forms, it leads to the usurpation of institutions and laws. (159)
In our latest issue of the Lights & Shadows, we at the John J. Carroll Institute on Church and Social Issues (ICSI) continue to assess the Duterte administration with the hope that readers may arrive at an informed opinion on select issues concerning Philippine society. We use the principles of Catholic social teaching (CST), as espoused by the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP-II), to examine how the government has addressed issues in the first half of 2021 that affect human dignity and human rights, contribute to social justice and achievement of the common good, impact the environment, among others. Examining at least three newsworthy stories in each theme—the economy, human rights, urban poverty, rural development, children, environment, governance, and labor and employment, we present government pronouncements and actions that provide reasons to hope (the “lights”) and matters of concern (the “shadows”). In doing so, may we contribute to building a kind of politics that goes beyond popular personalities and is “truly at the service of the common good” (Fratelli Tutti 154).
The Philippines is not likely to achieve herd immunity from COVID-19 by the end of the year, nor is it likely to attain its target of vaccinating half a million people every day. The country has been averaging only 162,513 daily vaccinations as of May 22. The government has blamed the tight global vaccine supply for the slow vaccine roll-out in the country. However, it has been slow in the procurement of vaccines due to its belated action on forging the needed indemnification agreements with vaccine manufacturing companies and securing legal authorization for them. This has had a direct negative impact on citizens’ right to health.
In a number of rulings on politically charged cases, Philippine courts have displayed independence in upholding the rule of law. In stark contrast to these judicial decisions—and the call of Catholic social teaching for integrity in governance—the Philippine government has vehemently refused to cooperate with the International Criminal Court’s planned investigation of the drug-related killings under the Duterte administration, betraying an unwillingness to subject the president and members of the police force to the rule of law on cases involving the widespread and systematic affront to human dignity.
Conflicting actions and messages from Philippine officials and the absence of a long-term and consistent policy in dealing with the country’s territorial disputes with China has led to the latter’s unabated maritime aggression in the West Philippine Sea. This impacts not only the country’s military interests but also Filipinos’ access to important oil and marine resources that are critical to their livelihood, and food and energy security. As national sovereignty is an essential aspect of realizing the Catholic social principle of integral development based on human dignity and solidarity, we hope that the Duterte administration will make some progress on this issue in his final year.
The Philippine economy performed better in the first quarter of 2021, although it still contracted in the first three months. Its performance is expected to improve further in the second quarter. Employment indicators have improved as the number of individuals who have found work has been increasing, despite the fact that poverty and inequality have risen in the past year.
The government has tried to address the pandemic through various aid measures. However, the implementation of these programs has been slow, and at the end of June 2021, there is still a significant amount of allocated resources that has not been spent for various pandemic response measures. One sign of a recovering economy is high prices and the domestic markets have experienced higher than targeted inflation rates due to increasing oil and pork prices. The government has tried to address the issue of pork supply by increasing importations of frozen pork.
The World Bank has projected that more than 2 million more Filipinos fell below the poverty line due to the COVID-19 crisis. The differential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on different economic groups means that the government will have to intensify its poverty reduction efforts if economic recovery is going to be inclusive and meet the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized in society, in line with the demands of Catholic social teaching.
Labor and Employment
The Duterte administration’s failure to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus, resulting in the reimposition of enhanced community quarantine and consequent lockdowns in the country, adversely affected the labor sector with a 7.7% unemployment rate or approximately 3.73 million jobless Filipinos as of May 2021. To cushion the loss of employment here and abroad, the government was able to implement programs to assist workers through financial aid and temporary employment. COVID-19 was also recognized recently as a compensable occupational disease, providing benefits to workers affected by it.
Meanwhile, our healthcare workers continue to struggle as the 5,000-annual cap of healthcare workers allowed to leave the country for employment abroad was reached as of June 2021. While the measure is meant to avoid any shortage of healthcare workers in the country given the health crisis, local jobs do not appear as enticing because of delayed salaries, unclear hazard pay guidelines, and short-lived contracts. In some cases, the government has rendered support to healthcare workers such as the recent release of funds for payment of the special risk allowances and the issuance of a memo by the Office of the President to rectify the salary grades of nurses. Likewise challenged are the contract workers who remain to be victims of “endo” (end of contract) or labor contractualization in the country. With these developments, the government’s task to care for and improve the plight of Filipino workers, as advocated by the Catholic social teaching’s call to promote the value of human work, continues to be challenged.
Urban Poverty and Housing
Cities continue to be the battleground in the country’s fight against COVID-19. The impacts of the pandemic have been especially detrimental to the urban poor, but the response of the government—periodic, disruptive lockdowns, inadequate contact tracing and testing, and meager emergency cash assistance—has not provided substantial relief to those unable to continue or find work, to access comprehensive medical care, and to feed their families. At a time when people are told to stay at home to slow the spread of the virus, the government allowed the resumption of eviction of informal settlers and demolition of their communities in the guise of keeping them out of harm’s way in so-called danger areas and helping the economy recover through infrastructure projects. A rental subsidy law, now making headway in the legislature, might help these families if enacted soon. Meanwhile, families in off-city resettlement projects might inadvertently be affected by the proposal to evict those who fail to pay their monthly amortization or do not reside in the housing project. These developments are not in line with upholding the dignity of the human person, or the right to safe and decent housing recognized by Catholic social teaching.
Following positive, albeit nominal, growth in the second and third quarters of 2020, the agriculture and fisheries sector ended the year with a negative performance, which extended to the first quarter of 2021. This was caused by a confluence of events, specifically the persisting African Swine Fever (ASF), the devastating Covid-19 pandemic, and the lack of response and poor management of the government to these adversities, aggravated by the series of damaging typhoons particularly in October to November last year. Assistance or measures in production, marketing and finance from the government did not turn out to be substantial enough to realize an overall positive year-end index for the sector.
Countryside development meantime continues to be marred with chronic issues in the first six months of 2021. After decades of struggle to define ownership of the fund and let the coconut farmers enjoy their toil and accumulated savings, the coco levy trust fund was finally enacted into law in February 2021. However, basic sector representation and registration processes that could allow the coconut farmers to fully take advantage of the trust fund appear problematic.
The African Swine Fever that hit the livestock sector in 2019, causing the death of pigs, resulted in the shortfall of pig stocks and consequent surge in retail prices. Sufficient inventory and reduced prices for rice have not occurred either as anticipated with the passage of the Rice Tariffication Law, also in 2019. The government’s response to supply gaps and rising prices was through the issuance of executive orders that lowered import tariffs for pork and rice. Agricultural groups, however, feared that the only sector that would stand to gain from these reduced import tariffs are the rice and meat traders. Finally, the ongoing territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea have prevented the country’s fishers from going out to the seas, and to earn from their regular fishing activities.
While well-meaning, the policies and processes adopted by the government to address the different issues in agriculture and fisheries seem to least favor our poor farmers and fisherfolk who belong to the most vulnerable and marginalized sectors in Philippine society.
Children and Youth
As the country enters the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic still in lockdown, children continue to be disproportionately affected by it. The government continues to grapple with the effects of the pandemic on the education system, including the persisting dilemma on the opening of classes, and challenges with new modes of learning. While there is some progress on legislation, particularly the inclusive education bill, children still find themselves in a more vulnerable position due to the strict lockdown and with the shift to online processes. The pandemic has also impacted their health, placing them at greater risk of mental health issues and limiting their access to reproductive health and other health services, even as they have limited access to vaccines against COVID-19.
Human Rights and Justice
The first half of 2021 saw incidents of police abuse continue to occur, although there were encouraging reform efforts on the part of the Philippine National Police (PNP). Killings in the government’s anti-drug campaign also continued. However, in a departure from previous policy and practice, some small efforts were taken towards ensuring accountability for these deaths, including a review by an interagency task force led by the Department of Justice (DOJ) which found lapses in police procedures, and limited sharing of information between the PNP and the DOJ about drug war deaths. Reform efforts should be encouraged if the fundamental Catholic social principle of respect for life and human dignity for all is to be actualized, especially for marginalized communities disproportionately affected by crime and violence. There was also a worrying escalation in attacks, red-tagging and profiling of activists and other government critics. These have a chilling effect on free speech and association, and inhibit the meaningful participation of citizens in governance as “active and responsible subjects of social life.”
At a time when the country is undergoing a health crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic and many Filipinos are struggling financially, the government is still pushing through its “beautification” program in Manila Bay, with significant detrimental effects on the bay’s marine ecosystem. Government projects that compromise environmental sustainability also continued to push through despite objections from sectors advocating for an environment-centered and people-inclusive approach. The lifting of the nine-year moratorium on new mining agreements to pave the way for economic benefits is an example. Another is a proposed mega-vaccination site whose construction would involve cutting hundreds of trees. In the long-running saga of the Kaliwa Dam, a cease-and-desist order was issued against its construction until proper consent is sought from indigenous peoples’ groups. However, stakeholders involved in the project remain relentless in pursuing it. While the government’s efforts to promote development are laudable, defending the integrity of creation according to Catholic social teaching requires a greater attention to safeguarding and conserving natural resources in public policy and government programs.