How do these thinkers see a post-pandemic Philippines? Part 2

A common theme present in the answers of the thought leaders we interviewed is how COVID-19 is bringing to the fore the consequences of our deeply flawed systems. These inequalities and inadequacies have long been cracks in our institutions, such as health care, justice, and education. Many of these have become so entrenched in the structure that we've come to consider them normal.

But crisis also creates opportunity, and for this one in particular, it is an opportunity for re-evaluation. 

In part 2 of our “How thinkers see a post-pandemic Philippines” series, we talk about human rights, public health, education, minority rights, and the public’s relationship to science. (READ: How do these thinkers see a post-pandemic Philippines? Part 1)

Letting the wider public know their rights 

We have seen in the past few weeks of the enhanced community quarantine how intimately connected the present public health emergency is to the issue of human rights. The state has been allowed to put limitations to fundamental freedoms within the context of a national emergency. We, too, have seen how the Philippine government initially took an approach that heavily involved the armed and police forces, which, unsurprisingly, yielded various accounts of human rights violations. Other than abuses involving civil and political rights, some economic and social rights have also been severely affected with the current policies being implemented by the Philippine government.

A human rights crisis of an unprecedented scale was already ongoing in the Philippines even before COVID-19 struck. We know by now how the present administration’s anti-illegal drug campaign sent huge shockwaves that tested our institutions and their capacity to respond in real-time to violations of human rights. In the last few years, the human rights community has learned to adapt and react quickly to evolving patterns of state abuse, from efforts at documentation to exacting legal accountability. As bleak as our circumstances are, we are still somewhat fortunate, as best practices in terms of mobilizing human rights responses are already highly organized and have been in place even before the pandemic started.

The ideal situation is, of course, the state’s proactive fulfillment of human rights. But since we are operating in extraordinary times, we have to ensure that we constantly keep measures protective of human rights functioning and in check.

After the dust settles and the virus is kept at bay, social decisions will have to be made as to where we stand in terms of valuing human rights. Will we finally learn lessons and hold to account those who caused the large-scale, wholesale violation of our freedoms? The wider human rights community will certainly know better by then, but the buck does not stop with practitioners and advocates. They will have the responsibility to communicate everything they learned to the wider public – an audience that is already exposed continuously to misleading, if not demonizing, rhetoric about human rights. Without effectively conveying the importance of human rights, we cannot fully speak the language of justice and the full collective realization of our freedoms. 

Democratizing health

For so long, conversations on health have been centered on hospitals and clinical professionals. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the consequences of these approaches, with hospitals easily overwhelmed, primary health care ill-prepared for shocks, and interventions blind to the social determinants of health and, at times, to social justice.

The situation necessitates the democratization of health. This means increasing the role of those who are “experts in their own experiences” in addressing health concerns. This means increasing the public’s knowledge of the health sciences and task shifting specialist skills to those in living in the community so that evidence-informed health interventions can be performed not only in the hospitals but even at the level of the household. Strengthening participatory mechanisms in addressing public health issues must be done.

Health must be seen as a collaborative and multidisciplinary endeavor among various stakeholders. The key idea in the democratization of health is to elevate the consciousness of the people from acting as passive recipients of care to an active participant in any given health crisis. 

The pandemic played as a catalyst in ushering the advent of telemedicine and other technological advancements in health. This is a welcome development that may potentially augment geographical inequities. Thorough guidance and capacity building for health professionals may be needed to ensure that the quality of health care is not compromised, and legal issues are averted. More than ever, data science will be recognized as an essential competency of health professionals to provide evidence-informed individual and population-level health interventions. Social media, which used to be dealt with a lot of reluctance by doctors, will soon be seen as an invaluable tool for patient education and engagement. 

Appreciation for our frontliners is at its peak with the public recognizing their important role in preserving lives and preventing deaths. This appreciation must translate to structural changes through the enactment and enforcement of laws that ensure just compensation and healthy working conditions.

I hope health allied professionals and scientists deepen their appreciation of collective power and form unions that can safeguard their rights and promote the dignity of their profession in a country that has a long-standing history of exploiting them. 

COVID-19 and its threats to peace

With the upheaval and uncertainty caused by COVID-19 around the world, new developments hint at brewing threats to peace and societal cohesion. In many parts of the globe, violent extremist groups are already using the impact of COVID-19 to exploit fears, campaign against their enemies, and advance their own ideologies. As more people lose jobs and sources of income, the increasing socio-economic instability will create a more fertile breeding ground for extremist narratives to grow.

We are also seeing cases of discrimination and even physical violence against people of Asian descent, patients infected by COVID-19, and even medical workers – and these cases will likely continue even after the world takes more decisive steps to mitigate the pandemic.

In the Philippines, the battle is largely online. COVID-19 has become a divisive topic in relation to politics and governance, with both national and local government figures being showered with praise and criticized - by both real and inauthentic social media accounts. The pandemic has heightened polarization and endangers our capacity to come together, listen, and understand one another despite our differences.

As we reel from the impact of COVID-19 in the coming months and years, we have to be wary of groups and individuals who manipulate the issue to advance their own ideologies and ends. We need to keep fighting for cohesion and cooperation globally; COVID-19 is not the only large-scale problem that one country cannot face alone. Most of all, we have to remind ourselves of what unites us rather than what divides us. Values like empathy, understanding, and compassion in a time of crisis are as critical as the medicines and equipment we are deploying to address this pandemic.

 Photo from the Asian Institute of Management's website

The education of the most vulnerable

I’m not sure if anyone can predict what will happen to education in this country when so much of life is in question. Maybe the critical question to ask is what would be our role in supporting not the education system, but the education of the most vulnerable.

An even more important question to ask, is will our generation put enough time to do the dirty work to see small incremental changes? Can we, who have been called impatient and self-absorbed, dedicate our life’s work to make sure that the next generation of learners will have it better? Or will we continue to debate what should be done in air-conditioned function halls, instead of working on what can be done in the most depressed communities?

Let’s start making small pockets of effectivity in our communities. Choose a problem you can own, make a long term commitment somewhere near enough – meet the teachers, the students, the parents – stay long enough to understand, not for right answers, but for finding the right questions to ask.

Bring science back to the people

There are two things that this pandemic is teaching us: 1) our current system is corrupt and violent against the majority of Filipinos, and 2) we need a pro-people science that serves the interest of the people.

The crisis has exposed the inability of the structures of our system to respond justly. These structures stem from an oppressive system that favors only the interests of those who inhabit the apex of our social pyramid. We have seen how this pushed the marginalized beyond our socially-constructed margins. Through an all-out militaristic strategy to address a health emergency, from policemen nabbing hungry aid-seekers, to a group of youth placed in a dog cage for violating the imposed curfew – all of which defeats the purpose of physical distancing. 

Amid the confusion over hastily-imposed lockdown, aka “community quarantine,” late-night babbles of the “popular” head of the state did not offer any sense of clarity, security, nor relief to the people. This recipe brews discontent among those who carry the brunt of the crisis, clamoring for aid, mass testing, and a better system. But the paid trolls are quick to downplay these calls by drumming-up anti-intellectual rhetorics like “Reklamo ka ng reklamo e ano ba ang ambag mo,” “Ikaw na lang maging presidente,” or “Ikaw na ang matalino.” But we have to be clear that this kind of anti-intellectual rhetoric is not unique to this regime.

As we move farther along the timeline of this crisis, another issue has been exposed: how science is being co-opted to forward the regime’s populist agenda – a militaristic strategy devoid of socio-economic analysis; how science is used to justify a lockdown extension based on vague criteria, without concrete strategies to flatten the curve and to ensure social services and food security.

This exposes the reality that science is indeed political. As the regime aims to control the narrative and their strategy to solve the crisis, such as their justification on why we cannot do mass testing and why militaristic lockdown is necessary, science was used as a means to justify these actions. From physical distancing and wearing masks, following curfews and lockdowns, flattening the curve – science has been used to transfer the burden to individuals in stopping the infection. Lost is the state’s duty to address the crisis.

People are promised normalcy if they do their part in combating COVID-19 (stay at home, physical distancing). But do we really want to revert back to this “normal” – a normal that shapes our perspective that there is a need to rebuild a system that has failed time and again in responding to the needs of the people? There is a sense of sadism to revert back to this normal. This normal needs to be changed, to be overhauled. 

For me, this is how a post-pandemic Philippines should be: it will not buy into the "pre-pandemic normal" narrative that we are being pushed to aim for. Science in this post-pandemic Philippines must not be monopolized by institutions that determine its orientation.

We have a pool of people who have the skills and knowledge in making science work for the people, but the industry still lags behind in supporting them. We witnessed how these skills and expertise have been put into action through the collective work of the people in developing PPEs, educational materials, and supporting relief operations. Shortages in these essentials could have been addressed if we have national industrialization and basic social services that prioritize planned production and in supporting our people’s needs, over policies that benefit only a few.

Furthermore, the counternarratives that originate from the critical discourse coming from the periphery have proven that science should not be divorced from other disciplines. It will benefit the people if science is valued equally with other disciplines in addressing the problems of our society. Filipinos, especially the youth, should take more than a leap of faith to make the system work for the people.

In this pandemic, they have seen not just glimpses of collective action and alliances among classes struggling for a just system and society. And unless people will organize themselves through a wide alliance among the basic sectors of our society together with teachers, doctors, engineers, and scientists, we will be faced with the same violent system all over again. Lastly, when we acknowledge that science is not monopolized by institutions and "experts," we can address how science is co-opted and gatekept, thus, making science work for the people and not just for the class interest of the few. - Rappler.com

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Tristan Zinampan

Tristan is Rappler’s resident pop culture vulture. He leads Rappler’s youth culture section, Hustle.

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