[OPINION] Heel as one

Evolving in close proximity with human beings since prehistoric times, dogs supposedly developed the habit of subordination to their masters. But some dogs, still influenced by ancient instincts, display more independence and must be disciplined and trained to quick and unquestioning obedience.  They must learn to attend to the master and stand motionless on the command to “heel.”

The sound of the two words is the same, so maybe the legislators just misspelled their bill. The prescription, perhaps, was not really to “Heal as One.” Placing at the top of the campaign against the pandemic the best trained and the most experienced people in the sciences and medicine, as South Korea did, would have delivered this message. Like the master of a pack of dogs, perhaps, what they really wanted was for the people to “Heel as One.”  

Those who had more training in the killing than the healing arts have their contribution to make, but presumably less on a public health crisis. Unfortunately, what leads the president to favor police and military leadership, even against a pandemic, is precisely the training in the killing arts, as well as his presumption that they themselves had already fully internalized the habit to heel on demand in quick and unquestioning obedience.  

The coronavirus cannot be paid off, or shamed, or threatened. Mr Duterte has repeatedly expressed his frustration that the virus could not be shot dead by his soldiers. This has not deterred the government from deploying Special Action Forces and armored units against the pandemic. But the response to public health as a security problem, to be addressed by legal threats, arrests, and sanctions enforced by police and military personnel, was also completely consistent with the way this administration has approached other issues, including drug dependency, allegedly anomalous business contracts, and political/policy dissent.

Of dubious effectiveness in containing disease transmission, the approach leads to perverse results that undermine the mission objectives. Violations of mandatory health protection measures, such as the use of masks and social distancing guidelines, have led to over 200,000 arrests in mid-July, and counting. What this achieves is the relocation of the site of contagion, from the streets where the arrests are made to the offices where the violators are processed and to the prisons where they are detained. Not surprisingly, the prisons have become hot spots of contagion.

The objective should be to disperse crowds, not to create them or reassemble them in even more dangerous places. What if, instead of sending armor, Debold Sinas equipped his troops with masks to distribute to the crowd? They would at least be doing something useful to reduce the risk of infection that people would appreciate, tamping down as well the potential for violence when security forces confront crowds. Providing masks should be less costly than the arrest and confinement of quarantine violators.

Security frontliners at the checkpoints have little latitude to question their marching orders, however counterproductive they may appear to the public. Do the checkpoints help to contain infection, or do they contribute to its spread? They do become chokepoints that keep people for a longer time in close proximity to each other, increasing the risk of infection. The process also exposes enforcement agents to the danger of the disease.

Authorities appear to enjoy some discretion in the sanctions they can impose on minor violations of lockdown rules – unfortunately, sometimes   exercised to demonstrate the power they hold. Why place violators in animal cages or keep them baking in the sun, or forcing them to eat 6 pieces of sili? Are not people suffering enough from the pandemic without these gratuitous acts of official violence?  

It is this environment that has raised the level of public concern at the thrust of government policies and action even in the period of the pandemic. Priority has not focused on sustained attention to improving the government response to manage the public health crisis and mitigate its consequences and the impact of lockdown on the economy and society.  

Instead, the move has been to push controversial measures, such as the Terror and the Death Penalty bills, that reinforce state power over citizens and undermine their right to express dissent. Threats from military elements to use the Terror Bill to police social media show why there is reason for public alarm. Even the head of a Quezon City civilian task force, like a certain Rannie Ludovica, can believe himself justified to threaten in Facebook issuance of shoot-to-kill orders against violators of quarantine rules.

The public will not question and will even applaud punishment imposed on those who flagrantly defy quarantine rules. Punish those who organize drinking parties, and stage sports competitions and gambling events to make money. But people who may not be able to afford masks? 

Whether Heal or Heel, it became clear early enough that the standards for implementation, for access to testing and medical assistance, or the enforcement of self-quarantine, travel restrictions, and social distancing rules were not being applied to the society-as-one.  

Sanctions immediate apply to ordinary citizens. Sen. Pimentel can breach hospital health security rules, Gen. Sinas can host birthday mañanitas. Sec. Roque can swim with the dolphins without immediate or eventual consequences. Those with the powers that come with their titles receive special consideration and treatment. The system then becomes inequitable, unjust, and odious. – Rappler.com

Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.