Dozens of poor people marched in Metro Manila on Wednesday to demand food and relief supplies during the COVID-19 lockdown, but riot police broke up the protest and arrested at least 20 people.
Late Wednesday, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered police to “shoot them dead” if rioters launched violent protests against his government.
The protest in Quezon City reflected the urban poor’s frustration with the government’s handling of the crisis, local groups said, with one organization that represents government employees criticizing the police action as provoking the anger of “hungry masses.”
“Instead of listening to the complaints of the poor whose plight has not been addressed by the government, the government had them arrested,” said Gloria Arellano, the head of Kadamay, an organization advocating for the urban poor. “This spontaneous explosion of anger by the people could not be helped.”
Police said the march led by Jocy Lopez, 47, could be considered an “illegal mass action” in violation of regulations at a time of national emergency.
The protesters were advised to disperse and return home peacefully, but when they kept refusing to do so, police, armed with batons and shields intervened, according to a video broadcast by Philippine television networks. Lopez was among those arrested, local media reported.
Hours later, President Duterte spoke to the nation in a late-night address.
“My orders to the police and the military [are] that if a commotion breaks out and they fight, putting your lives in danger, shoot them dead,” Duterte said.
“I am not used to being challenged. Not me,” said the Philippine leader who last week was granted emergency powers by Congress to deal with the national crisis over the coronavirus outbreak. “Let this be a warning to all. Follow the government at this time. It is critical that we have order.”
However, a group of government workers expressed sympathy for the protesters.
“I can’t say anything other than that I am appalled,” G. Manuel Baclagon, leader of the Confederation for Unity, Recognition, Advancement of Government Employees (Courage), said in a statement.
“The people are hungry and the answer to their plight is simple. Not violent dispersal. All the more, you just angered the hungry masses,” he said.
Baclagon said the government needed to fast track its program for the poor and identify those who could benefit from the disbursement.
He also demanded a systemic program of mass testing for COVID-19, noting that many people in the Philippines had died of the disease, including at least 15 doctors.
The death toll from the virus has reached 96 and 2,311 have been infected, the health department said Wednesday in its latest advisory. The numbers increased by eight and 227, respectively, from Tuesday.
Globally, more than 44,200 people have died and at least 885,000 have been infected with COVID-19, according to the latest data compiled by disease experts at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
Luzon locked down
This week, Duterte announced an economic stimulus package of 200 billion pesos (U.S. $3.9 billion) that would primarily go to the poor to help them through the crisis. But questions about how the government would disperse the funds along with who would qualify for the assistance have yet to be answered fully.
Duterte empowered village captains to act on the government’s behalf, but relief goods and supplies in parts of Manila and nearby provinces have been slow in coming.
The president has ordered a lockdown of the entire northern island of Luzon, home to Manila, until mid-April. The stated aim was to cut COVID-19 transmission by limiting crowds, but rights groups have warned that Duterte was using the lockdown to impose autocratic rule.
Several of Duterte’s cabinet secretaries as well as members of the Senate have tested positive for COVID-19 and the World Health Organization has warned governments in the Asia-Pacific to prepare for a long-term fight against the virus.
Teacher arrested in south
Also on Wednesday, the national police said that a teacher who allegedly made a post on the internet to “provoke” people to ransack a gym where relief goods were stored was arrested in southern General Santos City last weekend.
City officials complained and a case of “inciting sedition” was filed against the suspect, who could be jailed for six years if found guilty, authorities said.
Meanwhile, Metropolitan Manila police chief Maj. Gen. Debold Sinas appealed to the public to stay home and follow the enhanced community quarantine protocols until the lockdown is lifted.
“I understand the challenges that go with the implementation of our enhanced community quarantine,” he said. “However, we have our own sacrifices to make to win this battle with the unseen. The safest place right now is home. So please, stay at home.”