The virus and Edsa

By: Michael L. Tan - @inquirerdotnet - Columnist/Philippine Daily Inquirer | February 24,2021 - 08:00 AM

There was so much hope then, and pride. Filipino overseas workers told me how, for a brief period, immigration agents would greet Philippine passport holders not with suspicion but with a smile that said: You were great, a nation that dared to say, “Tama na, sobra na!” (Enough!), and to take action.

Then the small and not so small disappointments, the coups, the continuing corruption, the slow pace of reforms. Yet people turned out once again at Edsa to depose Joseph Estrada, which only ushered in a decade of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo—not quite as dark as Marcos and martial law but still a long night, sometimes even described as a national bangungot, a nightmare.

That was the final straw. Cynicism had overtaken us so much that we saw people questioning the need for democracy, which was enough to propel us into Rodrigo Duterte and populist rule, with daily assaults on democratic processes in the long nights of the war on drugs, congressional coups, etc.

Then this virus, and suddenly the remaining oversight mechanisms seemed to collapse. With a nation in lockdown, the termites, the “anay ng bayan,” could chip away at what’s left of our democratic structures.

It isn’t just the Philippines. UN Secretary General António Guterres, writing in The Guardian on Monday, decried a “pandemic of human rights abuses in the wake of COVID-19,” with governments using the pandemic as a pretext for “heavy-handed security responses and emergency measures to crush dissent, criminalize basic freedoms, silence independent reporting, and restrict activities of nongovernmental organizations.”

As Guterres put it, the virus only “deepened preexisting divides, vulnerabilities, and inequalities.” The “latest moral outrage,” he said, “is the failure to ensure equity in vaccination efforts.” He pointed out that so far, only 10 countries accounted for the use of 75 percent of all vaccines, with more than 130 countries not having received a single dose. (I don’t know if the Philippines is counted there; we did have a small government “elite” group who already got their vaccines.)

Guterres pointed out that if we allow inequalities to persist, just using vaccination as an example, we will continue to have the virus spreading, with more and more mutations complicating matters. The result is that we are not going to be able to control this pandemic for a few more years. (Ominously, the projection by Philippine officials for achieving herd immunity—the stage where 70-80 percent of the population are immunized, which would mean effective control of the virus—is 2023.)

Poverty and inequality hobble our efforts to control COVID-19, even as the pandemic adds to the numbers of the “new poor,” which the World Bank said is on the rise after several years of decline.

A billion (yes, billion) children are out of school because of the pandemic, and that will mean a ripple (or tsunami?) effect on the development of the countries concerned. The World Bank projects that the “new poor” will remain in dire straits well beyond 2030.

How does democracy figure in here?

Suppressed human rights will mean governments getting away with mismanagement and plunder, and we know that has happened even to COVID-19 aid. The virus thrives best in environments where there are no controls on the power of those who govern us.

We have to shed our post-Edsa cynicism and look for ways to keep going. Start with our own lives—are the children of your household helpers or employees managing with online classes? Help them with a tablet, better a laptop, and Wi-Fi connections. I’m currently helping a small college where all the students are low-income; I was able to get donations to acquire tablets and Wi-Fi for all of them. Even then, they struggle with the weak or non-existent local mobile phone signal, and the stresses of parents out of work or underemployed.

Amid all this, the last thing we need are myopic military and police elements red-tagging and closing down schools.

Speak up to keep schools, and our remaining democratic space, safe. The stakes have never been so high when we talk about future generations. Be cynical about Edsa if you must, but do not use the disappointment with Edsa as an excuse to just sit back, resigned.

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