How is the Duterte regime normalizing the Filipino suffering? (Part 1)

Jul. 20, 2020

Police officer Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck reminds us of that foretelling Orwell quote: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a foot stomping on a human face–forever.”

The COVID-19 Pandemic, which has by far claimed over half a million lives all over the world, did not at all outweigh the rage of thousands over a black man’s gradual killing caught on video. Over 2,000 cities in the US and around the world have seen the #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations.

Many of us might have been asking: don’t the many cases of human rights violations–ranging from state forces’ abuse of power resulting in illegal arrests to outright state neglect literally resulting in deaths–in the Philippines during the lockdown alone also warrant such kind of rage? These violations are actually just part of the continuing state terror and neglect since the War on Drugs, which is accountable for the slaughter of over 30,000 people. This includes the student Kian Delos Santos who was wrongly accused as proven in court, as well as the 4-year old Skyler Abatayo and 3-year old Myca Ulpina who were killed during police operations and were conveniently labeled as “collateral damage.”

How these enraging cases, coupled with our continuously worsening health and economic conditions amid this quarantine, still seem insufficient to make us put our fears behind us might be telling about what seems to be our growing tolerance for suffering. While many activists have been taking it to the streets despite the pandemic, the invisibility of the rest of the angry population might be telling something about how this suffering is being made acceptable, the default, and even the so-called “new normal” by the Duterte regime.

The discipline rhetoric

In “Citizen-Blaming: The Discipline Rhetoric is a Trick” I tried to unpack how the government has been cunningly selling the Pasaway (stubborn) Narrative to escape accountability and put the blame on people instead. This narrative has been so popular that even news anchors have consistently used it for news reports which consequently resulted in anti-poor journalistic framing. Worse, some people themselves have used this narrative to blame Filipinos for the consistent rise of COVID-19 cases–not the lack of mass testing, not poor health protocols, not the overall precarious healthcare system.

Suffering becomes acceptable when people believe that it is their own making, that it is us who should change our ways instead of the government changing its unjust policies.

Downplaying people’s plight

On June 29, the Chinese cargo ship MV Vienna Wood bound for Australia collided with the Navotas-bound FV Liberty 5 Filipino fishing vessel along the waters of Occidental Mindoro. The Chinese cargo ship continued sailing, leaving the 14 fishing crew of the capsized boat still missing at the time of this writing. Around the same time last year, the same incident happened at Recto Bank, West Philippine Sea when a Chinese vessel rammed the Filipino fishing boat Gem-Ver, abandoning 22 fishermen to fend for themselves. They were rescued by a Vietnamese vessel five hours after. The government dismissed both incidents as “simple maritime incidents”.

The government used the same trick to respond to repatriates’ woes–being famished, penniless, and made to wait for months for the result of their swab tests–by claiming that their free fare back to the country was actually a kind of “VIP treatment”.

Downplaying people’s plight is necessary in creating an illusion that the situation is not as severe as it really is, that it is no big deal, that things are “under control”.

Illogical directives, shortcut solutions, and empty assurances

Meantime in urban areas, instead of being given masks, people were violently arrested for not wearing one especially at the onset of the lockdown. Essential workers were left to walk for kilometers just to get to and from work when government suspended public transportation. Some of them eventually used bikes, which further exposed Metro Manila’s poor urban planning. These are only a few among many absurd situations we have found ourselves in, which subject us to directives that create a “strict” government image while in truth are actually highly reliant on faulty logic and blind obedience.

But this is not the case all the time. Government has also attempted to offer us solutions, no matter how shortsighted.

Under the Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pag-asa Program (BP2), Sen. Bong Go, Duterte’s man friday, aims to assist Metro Manila residents who wish to go back to their provinces for good and give them “livelihood opportunities”. Dependent on shortcut solutions, Go misses that BP2 cannot “redistribute wealth” as he claims it will do as long as the country is under the current economic system. Salamanca articulates it in “Hatid Probinsya, Balik Probinsya, more harm than good?

“The program’s vision of developing the countryside is still under the framework of neoliberalism which continues to destroy the country’s agricultural sector. The special economic zones the program envisions to build will, if anything, just cater to the needs of foreign capital but with scant domestic linkages and contributions to national development.”

A month after the first batch of BP2 was sent back to their home province, Michelle Silvertino, a locally stranded individual, died by a footbridge in Pasay City. As has been the culture, it was only when Michelle’s death gained traction that the government extended assistance to others similarly situated. (

READ: How is the Duterte regime normalizing the Filipino suffering? (Part 1)

Roma Estrada has taught for ten years in different high schools and universities. She also writes for Gantala Press, Ibong Adorno, and Concerned Artists of the Philippines. Currently maintaining a column for Davao Today, she also co-edited LILA, a poetry anthology by women, and Kult, a collection of capsule critiques. Her other works can be read in the anthologies Umaalma, Kumikibo (Gantala Press, 2018) and Sigwa: Climate Fiction Anthology from the Philippines, forthcoming from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines Press. Reach her at

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