On March 25, 2020, Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte signed a bill that granted him vast emergency powers, presumably to fight the pandemic. In a move that was widely deemed “superfluous” and little more than a power grab, the bill gave Duterte the ability to prosecute those spreading ‘misinformation’ and fake news related to the pandemic as well as individuals found to have broken the strict curfew and lockdown restrictions imposed by the government. Notably, this made it very hard to criticise the Duterte administration — both online and by taking to the streets.
However, these draconian restrictions were not unique to the Philippines. In fact, many of the country’s Asian neighbours passed similar legislation. Among them, Singapore and Taiwan — both globally hailed as Covid-19 success stories for curbing the pandemic in its early days — had implemented laws which rivalled the Philippines’ own restrictions.
In Singapore, failing to wear a mask in a public setting or visiting members outside of your household was punishable by fines and imprisonment, and even deportation for non-citizens. Before the end of the year, the number of cases islandwide were in the single digits.
Meanwhile, the pandemic raged on in the West. And as coronavirus related deaths skyrocketed across Europe and the United States, many looked to Asia as an example of how to deal with the pandemic. It quickly became clear that the common factor between many success stories — especially in the early days of the pandemic — was a tendency towards authoritarianism. A strong, centralised government was key to creating and passing legislation — quickly — and a ‘healthy’ dose of fear within the populace meant that laws passed were followed.
It seemed a swift, efficient response to Covid-19 came at the cost of freedom. Generally, this trade-off has precedent — martial law, for example, is a provision in many constitutions. An individual’s rights are protected only insofar as the state exists to be able to protect them. So, when the existence of the state itself hangs in the balance, rights and freedoms can justifiably be compromised.
Does that mean Duterte’s actions were justified?
First, it is clear that in this case Duterte’s version of martial law far exceeded the threat of the pandemic. Restrictions on freedoms and rights must be proportional to harm. We accept that the state is justified in locking up (i.e. taking away all freedoms) of individuals who have caused grievous harm to society — murderers, rapists, etc. — but that does not mean we think petty theft should be punishable by a life sentence. Similarly, enforcing social distancing requirements in public spaces or mandating masks might be a justifiable imposition on freedom given the pandemic, but jailing journalists and online activists for exercising their freedom of speech is not.
Second, Duterte’s actions could not be deemed successful, by any measure. As of early April, only weeks after the government was granted extraordinary emergency powers, more Filipinos had been arrested than had been tested for Covid-19. Almost a year after lockdowns began in March 2020, the country has had close to 13,000 deaths as a result of Covid-19, the second-highest figure in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, lockdowns in nearby Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand were extremely effective. Duterte’s actions were no trade-off between freedom and efficacy, but rather a blatant power grab.
Lastly, and this is key, this temporary suspension of individual freedoms and liberty must be just that: temporary. In March of this year, the country made international headlines as they neared their year-long anniversary of ‘one of the world’s largest lockdowns.’ Further, in June 2020 — during the height of the pandemic — Duterte passed an anti-terror bill. The bill allowed the administration the right to detain, without arrest or warrant, those suspected of ‘inciting’ terrorism by ‘means of speeches..writings or other representations’ for up to 24 days. A permanent imposition of restrictions, whether in the name of Covid-19 or terrorism, is just a synonym for authoritarianism.
Still, there is an important distinction to be made between Duterte and many like him who took advantage of the pandemic to consolidate power and the democratically mandated (with precedent) restrictions that countries like New Zealand and Australia had imposed. Although it may seem counterintuitive to Western democratic ideals of liberty and individualism, it can sometimes be justifiable to (temporarily) exchange efficiency for freedom, if only to ensure that such liberties and rights can be preserved for the future.