Duterte defends handling of coronavirus pandemic amid protests

By Sara Gomez Armas

Manila, Jul 27 (efe-epa).- The president of the Philippines on Monday promised urgent measures to alleviate the serious economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 outbreak and defended his management of the pandemic, despite critics terming it chaotic and erratic.

Rodrigo Duterte claimed that his administration’s quick response to the pandemic – a questionable claim given that the first cases in the country were recorded in January – has prevented between 1.3 and 3.5 million infections in the Philippines.

So far, the country has recorded a total 82,040 cases – 56,649 of them still active – including almost 2,000 deaths, a toll which is among the highest in Southeast Asia.

“The global scale and socio-economic impact of pandemic has been unprecedented. Yet in the throes of the global health emergency, we have been able to withstand the headwinds generated by this coronavirus,” Duterte said during his annual State of the Nation address before a small audience of cabinet members and congressmen due to Covid-19 preventive measures.

The president had put almost the entire country under lockdown on March 15 in one of the strictest and longest confinements in the world, which slowed down economic activity and left an additional five million people unemployed in the first month alone.

In this regard, Duterte defended his policies towards the most disadvantaged sections and said that 4.3 million poor families have benefited from aid programs and 92 percent of them have already received cash subsidies.

However, critics of the government and nonprofits have underlined that this financial aid is not enough to alleviate nearly five months of economic inactivity and alleged that subsidies have not reached all sections of the people who lost their livelihood.

The Philippines is among the most unequal countries in the world with a poverty rate of 16.6 percent.

Owing to the crisis, the country’s economy has contracted in the first half of the year for the first time since 1998 – after growing at a rate of more than 6 percent in the last decade – and is expected to shrink by 3.6 percent by the end of the year. The number of unemployed could reach 10 million.

“Our fiscal position is strong, our economic fiscal management prudent, our banking system robust. We are in a better position to weather the crisis caused by Covid-19 global pandemic,” said the president.

However, he did not offer details about his upcoming economic plan to emerge from the crisis, beyond lending support to infrastructure initiatives, tourism and granting soft loans to companies.

To carry out his economic stimulus plan, the president urged the Congress to pass a new version of the law that gives him special powers to modify budget amounts and even intervene in companies that provide public services.

The two legislative houses – widely dominated by the president’s allies – had already passed a similar law in March, when the pandemic was declared, but it expired at the end of June.

So far, the government has released $7.5 billion for Covid-19 response measures, of which $4.15 billion – about one percent of the 2019 national GDP – has been earmarked to help the poorest families, while $1 billion have gone towards those recently unemployed.

Aside from the pandemic, the president spoke of the success of his bloody campaign against drugs and the need to approve the death penalty to tackle drug trafficking, calling it the Philippines’ biggest problem along with corruption.

The State of the Nation address was held amid demonstrations on the streets by several civil society groups, protesting against the increasingly repressive policies of Duterte’s government, whose response to the pandemic has been marked by militarization and aggravated poverty due to the lockdown.

However, unlike each year, the authorities did not allow the protests to unfold outside Congress – where the president delivers his speech – citing security measures in the wake of Covid-19.

This caused much unrest among the demonstrators, who then decided to continue their protest in the campus of the University of the Philippines.

Hundreds of people, mostly members of left-wing groups, labor unions and student organizations, managed to gather at the campus despite a strong police presence at the entrances, resulting in at least 34 people being arrested for allegedly violating social distance rules.

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