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Why Duterte must own up to the Philippines' COVID-19 disaster

Despite good intentions, corruption scandals have made the country a basket case

| Philippines
Duterte has stubbornly refused to give up on his failed strategy.   © Malacanang Presidential Photographers Division/AP

Richard Heydarian is an Asia-based academic, columnist and author of "The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy" and the "The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery."

No stranger to crisis and natural disasters, the Philippines' response to major calamities has long been hampered by weak institutions and a notoriously corrupt bureaucracy. But President Rodrigo Duterte's disastrous management of the COVID-19 pandemic has struck a new low.

After imposing one of the world's longest and strictest lockdowns enforced by the military, the Philippines stands out as one of the region's hot spots.

In many ways, this was a disaster waiting to happen. Elected on the promise of bringing about "real change," Duterte's populist crisis management style has been bedeviled by a toxic combination of erratic leadership and authoritarian excess.

Despite the strenuous efforts of top officials to downplay the crisis, the Philippines' number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has surpassed even far more populous nations such as China and Indonesia. Among Asia-Pacific countries, only India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have it worse.

And thanks to an overly strict lockdown which shuttered up to 75% of economic activity -- but still failed to halt the spread of the virus -- the Philippines just posted its worst quarterly economic performance on record, with the economy shrinking 16.5% in the three months to the end of June compared to robust growth of 5.4% for the same period last year.

The impact on everyday life has been severe, with a recent Department of Trade and Industry survey showing that up to a third of businesses had been forced to close down, and unemployment reaching a historic high of 17.7% in April.

Major cities now forced back into even stricter lockdowns after the surge in coronavirus cases, and it's far from clear how the Philippine economy will rebound as the country grapples with a crisis of unprecedented magnitude that has overwhelmed the country's health care system and wiped out decades worth of gains against poverty and underemployment.

A police officer guards a quarantine checkpoint on the first day of a reimposed lockdown in Quezon city, Metro Manila, on Aug. 4.   © Getty Images

Unprecedented though the crisis may be, Duterte's aberrant leadership has severely undermined the Philippines' already limited capacity to manage a national emergency of this scale.

Just like other populists around the world, Duterte first obstinately ignored the pandemic, downplaying its potential to cause havoc, undermining the government's ability to implement preventive measures that have so helped nearby countries such as Taiwan and Singapore.

Duterte insisted on allowing the country's sprawling online casino industry -- known as Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators, which employ hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers -- to reopen when other critical sectors had to remain shut.

Given the industry's rapid growth, which delivers hundreds of millions of pesos into state coffers each year and is aimed at online gamblers based on the Chinese mainland, it's no surprise that weeks after the coronavirus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan, Duterte was seemingly more concerned with defending China against xenophobic attacks than protecting his own citizens.

By mid-March, after the Philippines became the first country other than China to record a COVID-19 death outside Mainland, Duterte moved in completely the opposite direction, calling upon the country's armed forces to enforce a months-long lockdown.

Instead of establishing a task force made up of leading public health experts, Duterte appointed half-a-dozen ex-generals to oversee the management of the COVID-19 crisis. Since taking office in 2016, Duterte repeatedly slashed public health expenditures, weakening an already enfeebled health care sector, while simultaneously courting the military by rapidly expanding their benefits and salaries. Making matters worse, the country's top health-related agencies, namely the Department of Health, led by a Duterte ally, and the Philhealth Insurance Corporation, led by a former general from Duterte's hometown of Davao, have been hounded by allegations of corruption.

Despite the efficacy and integrity of those agencies most crucial in the fight to control the pandemic being called into question, Duterte has largely stood by his embattled cronies, making a mockery of his promise to act decisively against even "a whiff of corruption."

Instead of focusing on evidence-based public health policy, and rallying state resources toward the relevant agencies, Duterte launched what amounted to an authoritarian blitzkrieg. With public protests and any other form of civil disobedience made virtually impossible by the lockdown, Duterte's allies shut down the country's largest media network and rammed a draconian anti-terror law through Congress that could be deployed selectively to silence independent voices.

All the while, four months into the crisis, the government is yet to develop a coherent and consequential recovery program to reboot a hemorrhaging economy, with Duterte seemingly pinning all his hopes on the emergence of a vaccine from his allies in China and Russia.

"I hope by December, we will be back to normal," he confidently declared during a late-July national address in a mixture of English and Tagalog. "I have a vaccine. The only thing I ask of you is to be patient."

Surrounded by yes-men and other boon companions from Davao, Duterte has stubbornly refused to give up on his failed strategy. All that has brought is the double-whammy of a public health crisis and economic meltdown in what up until a few years ago was one of Southeast Asia's most vibrant democracies.

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