[OPINION] The Lucifer Effect

Rodrigo Duterte, by his own admission, feels inutil before the overwhelming challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The wonder is why he has not stepped down to let others make concrete solutions. Instead, he locks down our people again, on the premise that it is the pasaway who are responsible for the steep rise in COVID cases recently.    

It is true that many of our people are driven to defy health protocols, but this is largely due to the desperate effort to find ways and means of foraging for food to stave off hunger. The SWS survey in July shows that 5.2 million Filipino families, or 20.9%, suffered involuntary hunger. This is double the figure from last year, at 8.8% in December, and represents an increase of one million starving families just within a two-month period, or 4.2% from the May figure of 16.7%. 

It is death and hunger, not the entrenched oligarchs nor the threat of terrorism, that need urgent attention. But these past months the arm of the state has been focused, not on mustering resources for improving the health system or the delivery of food aid, but on tightening social control  by letting loose on the streets armies led by power-tripping generals.

The Inter-Agency Task Force, presided over by an ineffectual health secretary, keeps making policies that are out of touch with realities on the ground and grossly insensitive to the plight of the poor. After two months of hard lockdown, the government allows the re-opening of companies doing essential goods and services. But the IATF forbids mass transport, without thinking of what it will mean for the masses of our people who are desperate to go back to work but are forced to walk for lack of means for transport. Alternative contingencies were only put in place as an afterthought. Quite obtusely, companies were told to field their own shuttle buses, in a context where the small businesses – which comprise 98% of this country’s firms – cannot even afford to retain their employees and are hardly surviving.

What has the government done so far, under the leadership of Mr Duterte, with the P275 billion budgeted for this emergency? And what about the loans from the multilateral institutions – debts amounting to P1.22 trillion just in the last 4 months? 

Instead of filling up the 17,00 vacant plantilla positions in public hospitals, or the needed 42,00 nurses for community health centers, the money goes to massive corruption, like the P15 billion siphoned off by Philhealth officials. Instead of building habitable sanitation and quarantine centers,  suspected COVID carriers are being ferreted out as if they are criminals in a virtual police state. 

To cover up for the government’s dismal performance in flattening the curve of cases, the blame is now being shifted on the people’s recalcitrance. People trying to eke out a meager living, like vendors massing in public markets, or jeepney drivers plying their routes on the off-chance they can evade authorities, are threatened with mass arrest and things much worse, all in the name of public safety. 

The psychiatrist Scott Peck, in his book, People of the Lie, says that a characteristic of truly evil people is the inability to face up to their failures, projecting them on to others instead. These are people “who refuse to face their own sin, project blame onto others, and scapegoat others to such an extent that they will use whatever power they have at their disposal to destroy the objects of their blame.”

So far, all that this regime has done is to deflect attention from its utter incompetence by hounding its critics, legalizing repression, and bearing down hard on a broadcasting company that is deemed uncongenial to its interests. Mr Duterte disavows having any hand in all these, but it is evident that he has in his pocket Congress and all the other instrumentalities of the state.

Philip Zimbardo, professor emeritus at Stanford University, in his book, The Lucifer Effect, says that “evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others – or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf.”

Under the guise of populism, power is used to bulldoze oligarchs into submission or disfranchise them so a new band of corporate brigands can be put in place. Dissenters and drug addicts are treated like insects to be exterminated, supposedly for national security and safety in the streets. This iron-handed clampdown is hailed as political will by those who have been anesthetized into moral stupor by this regime’s lying machine.  

Evil, at least at first instance, is rarely ugly. As the French poet Charles Baudelaire once put it, “Evil comes up softly like a flower.” It goes under campaign mantras like "Change is coming," or some such siren call to line up behind a messianic figure or cause. The demonic, Scripture tells us, is an angel of light that seduces us because it knows how to mask its insidiousness, in this instance by a humorously forthright though rather rough plain-speaking that people mistake for candor. We have a President who has been quoted as saying, without batting an eyelash, that “I killed someone at 16, what more now that I am president?”

Indeed, the tens of thousands of extrajudicial killings and the many more who are dying for lack of care are witness to the terror of a leader who has become a way in of so much evil in the nation. Like sheep, we are now being herded into docile acquiescence as bit by bit we are stripped of our rights and freedoms under this pandemic. We have a leadership whose strategy of social control is evidently similar to that of the Chinese Communist Party and Hitler himself. As Hitler writes in Mein Kampf: “The best way to take control over a people and control them utterly is to take a little of their freedom at a time, to erode rights by a thousand tiny and almost imperceptible reductions. In this way, the people will not see those rights and freedoms being removed until past the point at which these changes cannot be reversed.” – Rappler.com

Melba Padilla Maggay is President of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture.