By Marian Pastor Roces
31 March 2021. Trump’s America, Bolsonario’s Brazil, and Duterte’s Philippines are among the unhappy places where, in the 21st century, fascism met a pandemic and produced catastrophe.
The United States managed by a hair to snatch its democracy back from its lunatic Right, and may be successfully resetting its COVID response. Brazil and the Philippines have both maintained the lunatic Right in the highest offices, and is successfully on track towards spectacular infection and death rates.
The Philippines figure of 721,892 cases as of 29 March 2021, may seem unremarkable in light of the global count of 127,762,982 cases — but is, in fact, dramatic. The infection statistics have increased by the thousands by the day in the last few weeks, when the figures are receding elsewhere.
The 124,680 active cases today is a number that is experienced as overwhelmed hospitals, the prospect of hunger for Filipinos who need to go out to work, and financial collapse for families and communities. Nothing is abstract. Not the math of this.
The Philippines is certainly incredible in the neighborhood. In ASEAN, the total cases are: 28,734 in Thailand (only 94 deaths); 49 in Laos (no death); 2,233 in Cambodia (10 deaths); 142,385 in Myanmar (3,206 deaths); 2,591 in Vietnam (35 deaths); and 341,944 in Malaysia (1,255 deaths).
Only Indonesia matches our numbers, with its 1,496,085 cases (and 40,449 deaths). Indonesia, however, has twice the Philippines’ population at 270.6 million — to our 110,651,311 as of 2021— and in comparison, the Indonesian numbers have declined over the last two months.
Also, Indonesia has secured more than 420 million doses of the vaccine for 180 million people; more coming in the next years. Meanwhile, the Philippines is ready to become the ASEAN pandemic hotspot and one of the world’s deadliest places.
This dubious achievement —making the whole Philippines the house of death — may not have been ambitioned exactly this way by the man who took charge, Duterte. But he certainly made death the central idea driving his administration. It has been tokhang, kill-kill-kill, red-tagging, shoot-the-vagina, literally ad nauseum, since 2016.
Still, there is method to (t)his madness. The non-stop, casual cruelty deadens the nerves; makes it impossible to feel anything after a while, for the millions who do not have the luxury of escaping into satire or channeling anger into protest. The casualty is the capacity for outrage. It serves the Administration that the citizenry is numb to feeling —and this is accomplished by making Filipinos into, so to speak, battered wives.
Duterte did not invent this technique. The calculated septic tank mouthing-off is his brand, of course, and we grant him that originality. But all fascists are un-original. They love the sound of their own voice, and rant instead of speak. The rant—demagoguery, which is to say, government by weaponized lies—is de facto terrorism.
Too, fascists obsess over military power, literally and symbolically. The display and use of lethal weapons make up their Medieval understanding of power, which they theatricalize with performances of an appetite and capacity for extreme violence. Duterte is only the thug cousin of the great fascists, who could mount immense parades of war equipment, among other shock-and-awe talents. This Pinoy thug, however, is no minor figure in the field of death.
It is not just the tokhang numbers that should count now. The Duterte period death toll must include the numbers who died in an obviously botched pandemic response, which he placed in the hands of Armed Forces Generals. To sure, gifted Generals count among his choices. Notably, Gen. Carlito Galvez, Jr. deservedly enjoys a shiny reputation for his military service in Mindanao and during his terms as Chief of Staff and Cabinet Secretary. But the accomplished soldier found an antagonist bigger and deadlier than terrorists in COVID-19.
It should be obvious by now that this pandemic stretches the human capacity to think. Military tactical and logistics skills do prove useful in a command structure that imagines pandemic response as troop deployments over a terrain. But this kind of imagination misses the nature of the beast. An unknown virus will not behave like a known enemy. It does not even behave like any “enemy” whatsoever — and this pointless choice of word adds to failure. Wrong metaphors add to failure.
A military lens for pandemic response is blind to too many basic things about viruses. They do not really die because they are not exactly alive; do not get into formation, nor “attack”, nor keep a character (or ideology), nor fix a track, nor act anything like humans. A virus outbreak —not just the novel one — requires mapping skills of a totally different sort from army topographic concepts; surveillance unlike intel operations; a historian’s and anthropologist’s grasp of twisted local political culture; and a complex understanding of vectors.
Fascists, however, are complex, violent people whose genius is to violently simplify. An autocratic head of state using the metaphor of war for everything he does —and killing as magic source of power—will not bother with such niceties as transparency in governance nor alliance with civil society. Certainly not a pivot to radically level up the technical competence at the helm. This fascist’s main idea is to conceal the workings of government, and talk down and threaten —and murder —dissent.
Worse, opportunism is allowed virulent growth. The fascist takes the weakening of the citizenry as cue to advance political agenda, not the least, perpetration in power. His government is cavalier about clear signs of corrupt Department of Health leadership, simply as a show of impunity.
These techniques of power do not match and will further worsen the exacerbating problems of the pandemic playing out in the Philippines: the sense of entitlement of petty kings all over the country, jumping the line in vaccinations and not following rules, for example; the middle class blaming the poor for not following rules; the horror of arriving at the limits of compassion; and not the least, the deadly impact of disinformation.
In March, 2021, scientists with the University of the Philippines’ OCTA Research Group projected 20,000 new infections a day by this month, April, if the surge detected then could not be contained. In an article in GMA News Online(14 March), OCTA scientist Dr. Guido David said that the projection was hypothetical, but based on the certaintly of the March reproduction number of 1.9.
The Administration has not given scientific work the grave attention that should be minimum requisite during a pandemic. (Think Trump, think Bolsonario again.) For Duterte, science complicates the false narrative of competence and success by his appointees to the pandemic response. Any focus on science also tends to draw attention to the main scientific corps, Filipinos working in the health care system, who are stretched and desperate; and whose welfare and lives are sacrificed by tamping down competent analysis. The fascist narrative of everything-under-control spins attention away from of careful voice of scientists and the agony of frontliners.
Fascism and a pandemic make for a perfect storm. At the moment, the fascist is more virulent than the virus. But no one knows if this virus will dismantle fascism abroad in the Philippines today. Given the unpredictability of COVID-19, the Duterte simplification of techniques of power may already be eating at the lungs of his government and, as it were, making breathing difficult.
Marian Pastor Roces works internationally as an independent curator, critic of institutions, and analyst of culture and politics. Through her corporation, TAOINC, she curates the establishment of museums. She is also a founding Partner of the think tank, Brain Trust, Inc.
She has long argued that governance, civil society action, and policy making in the Philippines are weakened by the absence of cultural analysis. Such analysis, in turn, needs to work with updated data. Hence Pulitikultura, Roces' platform for probing the intersection of culture and politics.