Soldiers over scientists: Generals lead virus fight in Indonesia, Philippines

By Sara Gómez Armas

Manila, Sep 25 (efe-epa).- The Philippines and Indonesia are the only two countries in Southeast Asia that have not been able to flatten the curve of Covid-19 infections. What do they have in common? Their governments have appointed soldiers to lead their responses to the public health crisis, reducing medical experts and scientists to secondary roles.

The Philippines has the most cases in the region, with just shy of 300,000, while Indonesia follows with over 262,000. The latter has the most deaths in Southeast Asia with more than 10,000, while the former has the second most at over 5,000.

Analysts who spoke to Efe agree that in both countries – the only ones in the region that have seen over 100,000 infections – military figures leading the Covid-19 response have viewed the pandemic as an insurgency that needs to be suppressed, rather than as a public health crisis that requires long-term solutions.

Overpopulation, precarious healthcare systems and weak state structures in the two archipelago nations have hindered their responses, while neighboring countries such as Thailand and Vietnam have successfully controlled their outbreaks.


Before the pandemic, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte had appointed retired generals to key government positions, but the crisis has had them take a leading role by imposing restrictive confinement measures with a heavy deployment of uniformed men in the streets to ensure compliance.

“President Duterte is a peace-and-order president, and based on the ongoing crisis, he has no fresh responses to the current crisis, resorting to his usual curse words against critics and relying so much on many Cabinet secretaries who are retired military generals,” professor of Political Sciences at the University of the Philippines (UP), Maria Ela Atienza, tells Efe.

The head of the country’s Covid-19 taskforce is Carlito Galvez, former chief of the Armed Forces and Duterte’s peace advisor. Other members include the ministers of defense and interior, Delfin Lorenzana and Eduardo Año, both retired generals who also once held the top position in the army.

The Philippines has imposed a strict lockdown in the capital city Manila for more than six months – the longest in the world – but the restrictions have not contained the pandemic due to insufficient medical responses such as widespread testing, contact tracing and isolation.

“The president and his administration should make sure that the lockdown was worth it by ramping up testing and contact tracing as well as containing the virus,” Atienza says.

Duterte and his team have advocated for indefinitely prolonging the confinement in Manila and waiting for the arrival of the vaccine, while the presence of soldiers in the streets has been a breeding ground for abuse, with more than 100,000 people detained for breaking quarantine, the majority for going out in search of income with the country grappling with the worst financial crisis it has faced in three decades.

The Philippine scientific community, which has been left out of talks on how to best tackle the virus, has repeatedly criticized the government’s “erratic” response to the pandemic and is demanding the creation of an advisory group to be involved in the decisions.

“We’ve been advocating, similar to what’s done in Europe, for a science advisory group… We hope this is something the government might consider and function as a government advisory board and be involved in the decision making,” Guido David, of the UP OCTA research team which provides weekly projections on Covid-19 infection rates, tells Efe.


About 2,700 kilometers away, there is a similar story in Jakarta, where Indonesian president Joko Widodo has also placed generals at the forefront of the country’s response to the pandemic. Its Covid-19 taskforce is led by Lieutenant General Doni Monardo, who also heads the country’s natural disaster agency.

Another prominent figure is Terawan Agus Putranto, a retired general who is now the minister of health, and who at the beginning of the pandemic before Indonesia had confirmed any cases said that the country had escaped the virus because people were praying.

“Our progress on the public health side was left far behind other countries, particularly for testing and tracing,” says Muhammad Habib, researcher at the Disaster Management Research Unit, Centre for Strategic and International Studies of Indonesia.

“Instead, the government tried to calm the public by saying that we have already secured a political commitment from China, South Korea, and UAE for vaccines at the end of this year until late 2021.”

He added that the country’s data chaos contributes to the worsening situation.

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