[OPINION] 2 legs and a pandemic

[OPINION] 2 legs and a pandemic
'The new coronavirus is here to kill the body, not our humanity'

This time around, it was my right leg bearing the brunt of another bad fall.

One recent morning, after getting my usual dose of sunshine, I quickly shifted to my outdoor workout, including a variation of the jumping lunge, switching my legs up and down a foot-and-a-half high concrete slab wide enough to fit both feet. Just when I was poised to do more reps than was my wont, my right leg ricocheted off that chunk of cement. I winced in pain, my suddenly stiff calf smarting from what felt like tangled muscle fibers and a pinched nerve so severe I stopped my morning routine immediately and limped back to my unit. 

This took place about a month into the expanded lockdown in the capital region to stem the coronavirus spread, and just months after I broke my left foot, which landed wrong side up when I  missed a step and hurtled down a flight of stairs.

By the time the deadly novel coronavirus had swept into the country, my left foot had healed completely. But today, as I wait out what’s been dubbed the enhanced community quarantine, I’m nursing a badly injured right leg, reinforcing my already limited mobility – my current normal.  

I console myself thinking I have less need for movement these days anyway, yet find little comfort in this thought: Severe restrictions on movement have had varying impacts across sectors of society, invariably stripping the unruly poor (so the country’s state forces think) of their dignity through constant threats of violence (with a shoot-to-kill order to boot) and the use of brute force to whip them into compliance with quarantine protocols. 

With more than half of 18 million poor and low-income households still unreached by the government’s social amelioration program almost two months into the lockdown, the grossly inefficient and slow provision of emergency assistance to the needy does not inspire confidence.  

How does the nation “heal as one” when impoverished communities bear a disproportionate burden during this crisis? When excessive punishment is meted out to those who breach the lockdown for reasons of survival? When the government criminalizes poverty amid this pandemic? The new coronavirus is here to kill the body, not our humanity.

“Sometimes, the police learn to kill the humanity in them so they can apply the law the way autocratic leaders expect them to,” said newspaper columnist Segundo Romero in his Facebook post

The poor do not expect to be let loose during a global pandemic even if they are desperate to engage in gainful activity to survive. But repressive measures to enforce the lockdown go against the grain of social and health protection.

Quarantine is a health and safety measure to tackle the pandemic, not a “peace and order solution,” declared the Commission on Human Rights.

In Voices of the Poor, a seminal three-volume study released by the World Bank in 2000, someone all too familiar with this scourge pointed out a poignant reality: “Poverty is humiliation, the sense of…being forced to accept rudeness, insults, and indifference when we seek help.” 

A full two decades on, these words still reverberate across squalid shanties inhabited by families leading a hardscrabble existence. Today’s pandemic magnifies this phenomenon for those in the throes of poverty. 

The clampdown on movement – a permissible restriction except when taken to extreme lengths reeking of state brutality and contempt for the poor – has provided convenient cover to infringe on human rights. San Roque 21 is Exhibit A.

A smartphone location data analysis conducted by the New York Times found that Americans with more income stay home the most, limiting their exposure to the coronavirus, in contrast to many lower-income workers who “continue to move around.”

This kind of situation comes into stark relief in the Philippines, where the poor pay a hefty price for failing to comply with movement restrictions in their determined efforts to fend for their families – thus exposing themselves not only to coronavirus but also to the harsh realities of warrantless arrests (including for violations of 24-hour curfews that human rights lawyers say are unconstitutional), costly legal proceedings, and potential imprisonment. This mirrors a pre-existing culture of impunity that has been one of the hallmarks of the Duterte administration.

Seeing the “disproportionate effects (of the pandemic) on certain communities,” United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres rued “the targeting of vulnerable groups, and the risks of heavy-handed security responses undermining the health response,” alongside other challenges posed by this crisis.  

Mobility does not operate in a vacuum. A posh village resident enjoying high income and the comforts of his home has none of the struggles of those living in cramped spaces – and none of the economically debilitating pandemic consequences endured by an ambulant vendor forced to forgo trudging the streets to earn what to many is only a pittance. 

Mobility – or the enormous lack of it – has been a defining characteristic of the government’s strategy to quell the pandemic. People are forced to shelter in place on state orders – and on pain of arrest by law enforcers quick to heed the marching orders of their commander-in-chief. 

President Duterte’s draconian approach to crushing the pandemic has given the poor more reason to feel concerned for their well-being at a time when fear of the pandemic already takes a backseat to a bigger fear: hunger.

“The utmost concern of the urban poor is food security, not the virus,” said Tess Briones of the non-profit Affiliated Network of Social Accountability during an online forum around COVID-19. “They worry about where and how to get food, how to cure their sick, when and how to earn money.” Who can then blame a fish vendor who breaks quarantine to feed his starving family? 

A “toxic lockdown culture against the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted drastically on society’s most vulnerable members,” said the UN’s human rights office (OHCHR), which has called for a rights-based response to the coronavirus. 

Ask the 30,000 mainly poor Filipinos – who as of late April have been arrested for defying lockdown rules (not a few by dint of necessity as they see it) – what it means to get caught in the crosshairs of the enforcers of a militaristic approach to the ongoing crisis? Cruelty is the last thing they need.

It was the last thing former Army officer Winston Ragos needed when he gave rein to his misguided desire for mobility, approached a quarantine checkpoint willy-nilly, and incurred the wrath of trigger-happy police. Perhaps in his troubled mind a morsel of compassion would keep him alive. Ending up dead at the hands of those who were supposed to protect him and his community takes a page out of the government’s COVID-19 playbook.

The threat is “the virus, not people,” the UN’s Guterres reminded governments. States should also bear in mind that non-derogable (or absolute) rights – including freedom from torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment – apply even during a crisis. 

Until the extended lockdown is effectively lifted, more quarantine violators are bound to suffer the same fate as the tens of thousands who have had a taste of the government’s punitive measures in dealing with the pandemic – while potentially inviting insults from segments of the populace who deem them reckless (pasaway). 

As I wait for my injury to heal and the lockdown to end, my thoughts turn to scores of Filipino families reeling under the weight of an oppressive administration paying lip service to a social protection mantle touted to shield them against the ravages of COVID-19 yet is also invoked to curtail their rights and sully their dignity. This is the great paradox of today’s pandemic. – Rappler.com

Tess Bacalla, formerly executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, is an award-winning journalist and media consultant to local and regional civil society organizations.


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