With half of humanity under some form of lockdown, the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) has plunged the world in strange times.
Governments have undertaken draconian measures for the sake of “social distancing,” through which people maintain a safe distance from one another to minimize COVID-19 transmissions. Now, being close to someone is recklessness. Kissing, hugging and shaking hands have ceased to become expressions of concern and, instead, meant the lack of it.
Business establishments are currently open for a limited number of hours to minimize physical interactions. Churches, workplaces and other venues where people gather are deserted. Nearly everyone is grounded in their homes, unable to leave unless there’s an emergency. People are just prohibited from gathering.
Still on the pretext of social distancing, the Philippine government has discouraged citizens from physically, publicly and collectively expressing opinions – or, protesting in public spaces. President Duterte, in the beginning of the lockdown, explicitly said rallies would be “bawal” (prohibited). On one occasion, 21 urban-poor folks appealing for relief were arrested in Quezon City. In succeeding addresses, the President repeatedly warned that those causing trouble (which law enforcers can easily pin on protests or any form of dissent) would be reprimanded.
The state’s intent to clamp down on protests is not unique to the Philippines. The Associated Press reported that several countries enacted laws to increase surveillance, implement curfews and travel restrictions, and limit freedom of expression as part of their COVID-19 response. The latter, in some instances, meant chasing after fake news purveyors and applying prohibitions on protests, both have easily been weaponized to jail dissenters and crack down on media outfits critical of governments.
Street protests dwindle
Particularly for street protests, numbers have plummeted. While 2019 was touted as the “year of street protests,” the number has nosedived, especially in March. According to data from Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, the 1,536 protests on the first week of March became only 230 on April 5-11. Just on Nov. 3-9, 2019, 2,086 global protests occurred.
Of the protests mounted beginning March, most were among neighborhoods where people chanted or sang from their balconies. That meant people found a way to express their opinions publicly without breaking protocols on social distancing.
Of course, for a social-media-loving nation like the Philippines, protest was bound to make its way onto platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Over the past weeks, #ProtestFromHome postings dominated.
“The platform has shifted,” explained Jon Dave Angeles, the chairperson of the Kalipunan ng Kristiyanong Kabataan sa Pilipinas (KKKP). “We may be unable to go to the streets to raise up our voices because of the possibility of transmitting the virus, but we will not be stopped. Our collective voice is powerful.”
For people like Angeles, opinions merited public expression, albeit virtual for the time being. The Ramento Project for Rights Defenders gathered opinions from some Christian youth leaders who participated in the #ProtestFromHome movement, asking them why they chose to air their opinion in the digital world.
“Violence, abuses, crimes, injustices and the like – problems are everywhere and still many issues are left unresolved,” said Carlo Acierto, the national president of the Youth of the Iglesia Filipina Independiente (YIFI), himself a health worker in Ilocos Norte province. “As we stay at home, let us not forget our moral obligation to stand for what we believe … While we are at home, let us think of the many critical issues that are left unresolved.”
It is within our right to protest, especially when we feel that issues are critical to us as citizens, agreed MC Mace Sulayao, a YIFI officer in the Diocese of Iloilo and a member of Promotion of Church People’s Response in Panay-Guimaras. “We need to #ProtestFromHome because we should be able to assert our rights anytime, anywhere.”
The importance of citizens expressing their opinions can also be gleaned from their effects on policy and leadership, said Ma. Kay Catherine Almario, vice chairperson at the National Council of Churches in the Philippines and president of Kabataang Unida Ekyumenikal. “If no one reacts, none of those who have an obligation to the nation would act. If no one speaks, the governments won’t be pressured to look for effective and urgent solutions. If no one stands up, the people will fall for the unrealistic hopes conjured up by our leaders.”
She added: “In the past days and weeks, because people collectively expressed their opinions, our leaders have been obliged to act or explain themselves.”
Longtime issues exposed
Laarni Joy Robles, the UCCP Christian Youth Fellowship national vice president for Southeast Mindanao Jurisdiction, said the COVID-19 crisis exposed longtime issues such as the “lack of a clear and transparent system, of enough funds for universal healthcare, of job opportunities to support the daily needs of families” and also showed that the government response has lacked both urgency and focus on the last, the least and the lost.
“We need to reach out to those who are in position, so they do not sleep on the needs of the people,” she said. “This is not a time to remain silent, blind and deaf.”
“Today, our oppressors have all the ability to take advantage of our needs and are willing to sacrifice some of our freedoms to that end,” said John Paul Bayang, a former national president of the Convention Baptist Youth Fellowship of the Philippines and KKKP finance officer. “Through #ProtestFromHome, we are not letting crisis take away our right to inform, fight for and protect the public from the abuse that has been happening, whether or not we are facing COVID-19.”
“We want to prove that protest, as a spirit, is alive and legitimate, and our fight for justice and peace never ends regardless of our location, method and manner,” he explained. Sulayao concurred: “We should pressure the government; history will prove that many rights and privileges were achieved because people protested.”
Thus far, #MassTestingNowPH, #NoToVIPTesting, #SolusyongMedikalHindiMilitar and even #OustDuterte became trending topics on social media. These have put pressure on the government to boost support for health workers, build capabilities for mass testing and improve health facilities, among others.
The home-based protests have also been instrumental in forwarding substantial changes to the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act,” particularly on provisions authorizing the President to use all government funds for the COVID-19 response without oversight.
Furthermore, citizens have monitored abuse of power among local government units and barangays through social media. Others have launched fund-raising campaigns for vulnerable communities and front liners, too.
Continuing protest needed
Despite what #ProtestFromHome had achieved, it should persist, noted Almario. “For as long as the government is not transparent, is not providing a solution to the appeals of front liners, the poor, wage-earners and other vulnerable people, the protest should continue.”
“I believe that, in this day and age, protesting comes in many forms and ways. But one thing is for sure — that even in times when it is impossible to come together physically to protest, making our voices heard should always be done,” said Davao-based Kakai Anggadol, president of Samahan ng Kabataang Episcopal ng Pilipinas. “Our Christian responsibility should always shine through, may it be on the streets, or inside our homes.”
Acierto enumerated prayer campaigns, text brigades and social media postings as effective ways to champion advocacies despite the enforcement of social distancing, adding: “Let us build a growing community where the voiceless can easily express their desire, where dynamism and freedom of expression both exist.”
“As believers of God the Savior, we need to look back at the time when Jesus taught His disciples the right way, and they followed His steps and did not hesitate. Today, we should have the courage to proclaim righteousness,” he noted.
“The platform may change for a while, but our call is in fact the same: It is for all our citizens to experience life in its fulness, pandemic or no pandemic,” Angeles concluded.