On July 26, Philippine President Duterte held his final State of the Nation Address (SONA). This annual event features a nationwide public broadcast of the President discussing the challenges, priorities, and aspirations of the national government for the following year. On paper, the SONA serves to inform the public of the country’s progress. However, in practice, it is used to highlight superficial achievements while conveniently leaving out the growing inequalities experienced everyday by the Filipino people. Due to the sheer distortion of facts and realities during the SONA, Filipinos from marginalized sectors have taken it upon themselves to expose and oppose the President’s double-talk. They have come together to hold a grand demonstration called the People’s SONA wherein they articulate the genuine state of the nation through their chants, slogans, and placards. As the many different sectors expressed their various aspirations, some common themes became apparent.

HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS

Since he assumed office, Duterte has openly promoted the culture of impunity, militarism, and human rights abuses during his press conference and public pronouncements. This bloody rhetoric emboldens armed state forces to conduct their operations with brazen disregard for due process and human rights. Quotas and results are artificially reached at the expense of the poor and powerless. These killings and enforced disappearances are also used to silence critics and political opponents. Even the ongoing pandemic was not enough to stop the War on Drugs – drawing the attention of the International Criminal Court (ICC).[1][2] 

FAILED COVID-19 RESPONSE

Speaking of the pandemic, the Duterte regime is guilty of culpable negligence regarding its mandate to protect the Filipino people. Even though the Philippines is under the longest lockdown in the world, there are still approximately 1.5 million CoVID cases in the country as of writing. The alarming growth of infected people is due to the Duterte administration’s  constant downplaying of the public health crisis; it also relies heavily on military solutions to address this medical problem.[3] Moreover, the government’s immense borrowing coupled with their minimal spending further weakens the Philippine economy and hamstrings our national capacity to respond to the needs of the people. In fact, just this July 6, the Philippines’ national debt stock reached a record-high 11 trillion pesos. The problems introduced are transgenerational since the burden of remuneration falls on the shoulders of the next generation. 

ABANDONED NATIONAL PATRIMONY AND SOVEREIGNTY

While the Filipino people are preoccupied with surviving the pandemic and Duterte’s blind War on Drugs, the president is busy selling Philippine islands and resources to US and China. Duterte has allowed the continued operation of several US bases in the Philippines as well as the retention of one-sided military agreements with the US.[5] Meanwhile, China enjoys unrestricted access to the West Philippine Sea. President Duterte has failed to uphold the arbitration victories of the previous administration over the Kalayaan Island Groups (KIG). Currently, Chinese fishing and military vessels have total control over the area while Duterte recommends that we surrender our national assets for the sake of “friendship”.[6] 

As an institution, APRN pursues the growth and development of Asia Pacific’s civil society through people’s research and network building. Our organizational experience has informed us of the rich history of the Global South when it comes to overcoming oppressors. The Duterte regime’s low cunning and heavy fascist inclinations are not absolute. The experiences of Asia Pacific countries with despots have taught us that the people must unite not just against figureheads, but also against the imperialist machineries that enable their oppressive policies. As the People’s SONA speaks truth to power, may it inspire others to participate in the process of democratizing the Philippines. Let the people’s struggle spell the end of all tyrannical regimes and break all vestiges of colonial rule over the Global South!

References:

[1]https://news.abs-cbn.com/spotlight/04/10/21/philippine-drug-war-logs-186-killings-in-1st-quarter-of-2021-amid-surge-in-covid-19-cases

[2]https://edition.cnn.com/2021/06/14/asia/icc-probe-philippines-drug-war-intl-hnk/index.html

[3]http://dev.aprnet.org/policy-note-weaponized-response-of-states-to-covid-19-militarist-trends-in-south-asia-and-southeast-asia/

[4]https://www.philstar.com/business/2021/07/06/2110383/philippines-debt-hits-record-p11-trillion

[5]https://edition.cnn.com/2020/06/03/asia/philippines-us-agreement-south-china-sea-intl-hnk/index.html

[6]https://www.manilatimes.net/2021/07/06/news/duterte-ph-counts-on-china-as-friend-partner-for-peace-and-development/1805975

According to the most recent UNESCAP report on the achievement of the SDGs in the Asia-Pacific region, the region is said to be so far off the track to achieve any of the 17 SDGs by 2030. Based on its past data and on its current trajectory, the region was not even close to achieving said goals, whether the pandemic hit or not. The report then emphasized the added urgency to ensure that responses to the pandemic should accelerate progress towards the 2030 agenda.

Looking back at the past few months, now at the dawn of a new decade and a year after the outbreak of COVID-19, we’re seeing the contrary. The whole world is still struggling to recuperate from this global crisis. The pandemic has only intensified that which decades of neoliberal globalization has fostered – inequality, unemployment, poverty, injustice, and underdevelopment of the global south. In addition, the rise of authoritarian and populist governments in the region have resorted to militaristic responses and a weaponization of the pandemic to repress the people further and perpetuate such rule.

This crisis has dealt an adverse effect on our societies, economies, and political systems. The pandemic has only proven that the existing system that we have been relying on is no longer and has never been viable. The exacerbation of persistent poverty, worsening economic crisis, and increasingly militarist and authoritarian response from governments clearly manifest the collapse of the neoliberal foundations in the region. This system is inherently flawed.

En route to the making and implementation of the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda, its reports and review processes have never provided and catered a concrete plan or path to fulfillment. Multilateral and government intentions stray far beyond what the goal is, choosing not to tackle root causes and address systemic barriers. Social dialogue has not been respected, with various attempts to exclude CSOs and POs as equal development actors by excluding them in the process of discussion, implementation, and review of the SDGs at the regional and national levels. Reports and reviews highlight only success stories and best practices. In addition to SDG “blind spots” such as the issues of wealth inequality, corporate greed and power, resource grabbing and gambling, militarism, unjust trade and investment/agreements, patriarchy, casteism, fundamentalism that are never tackled or even mentioned. Furthermore, the shift to a more online platform and space, alienates those with no access. The digital divide, has been accelerated by the pandemic and has hindered our ability to connect with those truly affected by said issues.

A further manifestation of these ills were seen through the results of workshops held by CSOs and POs from the grassroots wherein issues on the current economic system and its militarist preservers in the context of the post-COVID-19 world, were discussed.  Neoliberal globalization’s rotten core has become all the more obvious. In its attempts to mitigate the adverse impacts of the economic downturn, societal risks are shifted to individuals while government resources are siphoned off through unfair loan conditionalities and trade deals. Consequently, the vulnerability of the marginalized sectors have increased exponentially as they are pushed below poverty thresholds. Most notably mentioned was the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), as it shall only facilitate corporate interests and protect foreign investment through several mechanisms, while throwing aside peoples rights and lives.

In addition to this, the discussion delved around authoritarian laws such as the Omnibus Law in Indonesia and the Anti-Terror Law in the Philippines that were passed without the benefit of democratic process. Such laws are disguising themselves under the name of emergency response while profiteering from the current ills of humanity.

The acceleration of the erosion of state-society relations has been very conspicuous as this is due to the unjust exercise of power by the ruling elites. It shows that CoViD-19 has become a catalyst for power consolidation among the ruling class. There has been a rush to promulgate laws that widen the gap between state and the society and tighten controls on socio-economic and political spheres.

The achievement and implementation of the SDGs has always served as a decoy for governments and multilaterals to avoid directly tackling the root causes and bring down systemic barriers, and while the systemic barriers remain unresolved, we know that poverty, hunger, inequality, conflicts and human rights violations will only get worse.

People’s movements have been pushing back against repression in the time of CoViD-19 and this indicates that ever since the beginning of the lockdown, there has been ferment of counteraction against this growing repression. We can expect that there will only be a much stronger resistance because the pandemic has yet again proven that in every crisis, the corporate rule and profit-oriented politics will only look at further exploiting the people and environment. The intensifying attacks to the people are just a mere manifestation of the governments’ desperation in protecting and maintaining the profit-oriented economy. 

Unless we deal with these systemic failures that render exploited groups more vulnerable, this crisis shall not end. Solidarity is not just morally right, it is a necessity. We must carry on with our struggle for development justice that could truly promote the people centered growth, genuine equality and just and peaceful society.

We call on all governments in the region to respect and protect civil society space and recognize the vital work civil society organizations perform as independent development actors. We appeal to international bodies and platforms to ensure human rights in the Asia-Pacific and hold to account governments for its gross human rights violations, including the crackdown of civil society.

We must use this opportunity to deliver a just and equitable transition away from a consumption-based,  extractive and exploitative economy to a just, sustainable and caring economy focused on the needs of the people and communities.

We must cure the serious problems of the world worsened by the pandemic not for going back to normal but for reconstructing a new and better normal. We need to ensure that our post-COVID19 world is truly inclusive, resilient, and sustainable – one that pushes for genuine development and justice for all.

#DevelopmentJusticeNow!

#AsiaPacificPeoplesForum2021

The Asia Pacific Research Network (APRN) strongly condemns the attack against our fellow researcher and trade union activist Otto De Vrie. The Philippine government cancelled his permanent visa and issued a deportation order to De Vrie because of his active participation in the labor rights  advocacy. 

According to documents issued by the Philippines’ Bureau of Immigration, De Vrie has been accused by the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency or NICA of participating in protest rallies organized by “Communist-Terrorist Groups (CTG) front organizations.” After the passage of the Anti-Terror Law, the Duterte administration has intensified its already unabated red-tagging spree. NICA has labeled the Ecumenical Institute for Labor Education and Research (EILER), the labor NGO for which De Vrie has been volunteering, as “CTG-affiliated.”

De Vrie, 62, hails from the Diocese of Rotterdam, Netherlands and started his immersion in the Philippines in 1991. He was invited by Bishop Julio Xavier Labayen, OCD of the Prelature of Infanta to do pastoral work in the country. For more than 30 years of his pilgrimage in the Philippines, he has witnessed the dire conditions of Filipino workers and other marginalized sectors of society. He has regularly visited striking workers in picketlines and has lived in urban poor communities to see the workers’ plight and hear their demands and struggles. As part of his mission for the working class, De Vrie has been a volunteer researcher for EILER five years.

He also worked as an electrician in various construction projects to investigate the harsh working conditions in the construction sector. His immersion among construction workers provided the material for his contributions to studies. Among the notable research papers with which De Vrie was involved are: “Mega-FTAs and Their Implications on Asian Workers” (2017), “Garment Workers Training Manual” (2018), and “Will Healthcare Become Universal in the Philippines?” (2019).

De Vrie’s present predicament is reminiscent of that of late Archbishop Helder Camara of Brazil who said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” 

EILER is an active member-organization of the APRN in Southeast Asia. It participates in workshops and webinars aimed at advancing the rights of society’s marginalized sectors, and engages with other regional CSO formations such as the ASEAN People’s Forum on Sustainable Development (APFSD) and Asia-Pacific Regional CSO Engagement Mechanism (APRCEM).

EILER’s humble beginnings can be traced to the 1970s when it started as a church labor center. It continues to be an ecumenical service institution devoted to labor education, research, training, and advocacy work. Its flagship output in the 1990s, “Genuine Trade Unionism” has brought together church groups, academic institutions, and the youth working to defend workers’ rights. EILER has become a worker’s school — building the capacity of workers for forming unions and training new leaders and educators.

The APRN expresses its concern over the government’s “communist-terrorist” tagging of EILER, a labor think-tank which the APRN has worked with over the years. This is the Duterte administration’s maneuver to vilify its critics to silence them.

The grave terror and communist tagging of NGOs and people’s organizations are part of the Duterte government’s vilification campaign against independent and critical voices. Instead of heeding the plight of the marginalized in the country being given voice by institutions like EILER, the Duterte government chooses to silence them.

Despite, for example, the record levels of job losses, price hikes, and hunger during the pandemic, the National Task Force To End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), one of the government’s machinery that orchestrates these wrongful accusations, has received a total of P 16.4 billion (USD 339,430,800) for its 2021 budget, which should been allocated to social services and aid that will benefit the workers and the poor. 

The administration has been negligent in its duties to its people. More than 500,000 people have been infected by the coronavirus. Joblessness is worse than ever with 10.9 Million workers who lost their jobs and are suffering from lower income. Hunger spikes due to price hikes. The trend of shrinking and closing civic spaces rapidly escalates with the spate of illegal arrest, fabricated charges, and killing spree against rights defenders and activists.

It is no wonder that the Philippine government ranks lowest among ASEAN countries in terms of Covid-19 response. According to a recent survey titled “The State of Southeast Asia: 2021” published by the Asean Studies Centre of the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, 53.7 percent of Filipino respondents expressed disapproval of the Duterte administration’s pandemic response, 17.9 percent expressed “strong disapproval, and only 6 percent expressed “strong approval.” Continuing protests of various people’s organizations and CSOs amid the pandemic is proof of the people’s dissatisfaction with the government’s actions.

APRN stands with EILER and Otto De Vries. The research group urges the Philippine government to halt the revocation of De Vries’ permanent visa and revoke instead its terror- and communist-tagging of EILER. APRN is also inviting its members, affiliates, and network of advocates to express solidarity with De Vries and EILER and condemn the Duterte government’s continuous and rabid red-tagging rampage.

Despite repression, a joint general strike by workers and farmers has shut down India. Over 250 million workers took part in the 26 November strike.

The global pandemic has caused a meltdown of the world’s economies. Millions of businesses, most of them small and medium enterprises (SMEs), were forced to close down and billions of workers were left unemployed. Many of them remain deprived of economic amelioration from their governments. Worse than these economic disruptions, however, the militarist approach has become the banner of COVID-19 response in Asia Pacific and protocols made necessary by the pandemic are being used to justify repressive measures against dissenters.

Weaponization of pandemic response

The government of India implemented drastic, ill-prepared, and military-centered actions in response to the pandemic, making the country a hotbed of coronavirus infection. Excessive use of police power in imposing movement restrictions has resulted in blatant human rights violations.

Covid-19 response has been used to justify the dispersal and arrest of Shaheen Bagh picket protestors. The said camp protest led by Muslim women was calling for the junking of the proposed anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2020. Gagging the press also worsened during pandemic. According to the Rights and Risks Analysis Group (RRAG), 55 journalists have faced arrest warrants, show cause notices, physical assaults, and serious threats for criticizing government response. Four human rights defenders were also arrested in Manipur for expressing disagreement with the Narendra Modi regime’s response to the pandemic.

Pakistan’s de facto military rule has been manifesting the symptoms of totalitarian rule. On April 16, Pakistani doctors in Quetta staged a protest against State mistreatment of health workers. Over 47 doctors were detained and beaten by the military. In Bangladesh, at least 50 people have been arrested for criticizing the government’s inefficiency and negligence.

The human rights situation in the Philippines is currently in a critical state. Killings and illegal arrests of activists have persisted and worsened during ‘community quarantine.’ At least 20 victims of extrajudicial killings have been reported, including the massacre of farmers in Sorsogon province in May. Randall Echanis, prominent peasant leader and peace talks consultant, has been allegedly killed by state forces. Hundreds of activists are also facing fabricated charges related to illegal possession of firearms and explosives, making their jailing non-bailable. According to rights group Karapatan (Human Rights), a total of 426 political detainees were arrested under the Duterte administration.

These cases clearly show a trend towards authoritarianism and militarism among governments in the Asia Pacific, which is also characterized by inefficient, negligent and blatantly anti-people response to the pandemic. Governments have intensified attacks that have further shrunk civic spaces. This has brought about a suppression of the people’s right to demand for accountability.

Serious healthcare crisis in Asia Pacific exposed

The current pandemic has exposed fragile public healthcare systems of underdeveloped countries. Health experts in India feared that it would be impossible to curb Covid-19 because of neglected public healthcare. Indian government only spends 1.15 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for health, the lowest among BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). Out-of-pocket expenditure for health is 60 percent while 15.5 percent of its total budget goes to military expenses.

The pandemic has also worsened the healthcare system in Pakistan. Dubbed as one of the worst, only 0.7 percent of its GDP is allocated to healthcare. As a result, there are shortages of personal protective equipment (PPEs), medical supplies, ventilators, hospital beds, and testing kits. The underfunded public healthcare in Bangladesh also brought disastrous conditions among its people. Hospitals are incapable of accommodating all the infected patients and more than 73 percent of hospitals have no Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

Neoliberal outbreak and corporate bailout

For decades, neoliberal regime has totally wrecked the healthcare system around the world. Many States have privatized hospitals and eventually abandoned their responsibility to provide free healthcare for the poor. As the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was signed by party states last November, it is feared that it will be used by pharmaceutical giants to extend its patent rights on potential Covid-19 vaccines for more than 20 years. Moreover, immunization could be inaccessible for everyone in the near future.

People’s demands

In line with the commemoration of International Human Rights Day, the people’s demands are:

  1. Harness government resources, especially black funds, discretionary funds, intelligence budgets, and anti-insurgency funds, towards ensuring mass testing and treatment for all and strengthen policies that ensure the provision of healthcare;
  2. Guarantee the safety of all medical workers and auxiliary personnel in the frontlines by giving them appropriate and adequate protective equipment; just hazard pay; and, access to health support including periodic testing;
  3. Enact and strengthen policies from the national to the local levels that guarantee the right to food especially to the workers, farmers, fisherfolk, indigenous peoples, refugees, women, children, and all the vulnerable sectors. This includes prioritizing local food production; providing agricultural input and support to growers; establishing food markets that are accessible to the rural population; and, providing unconditional food and cash aid. National land use policies must be reviewed to reflect the increasing demand domestically;
  4. Prioritize compliance to local and international labor laws by providing economic relief to contractual and permanent workers;
  5. Continuous monitoring of state and non-state perpetrated rights violations as well as vigorous condemnation and action from social movements as well as in courts and in parliaments;
  6. Deescalate use of state armed forces; dismantle oversight bodies led by active and retired military personnel; and, create oversight bodies that encourage the participation of civil society organizations and people’s organizations; and,
  7. Place medical care and people’s rights as the main components of the framework of COVID response to deliver timely and proper solutions; and ensure democratic participation of all citizens in decision-making processes.
  8. Cancel onerous debt obligations to multilateral organizations and focus all finances on general public welfare and not select corporate entities. 

Stepping into the new decade, the world is confronted with a multitude of crises. COVID-19 has continuously exposed and exacerbated existing societal ills across the world: from the overall poor public health systems that are ill-equipped to contain health crises; the failure of the prevailing neoliberal economic framework in providing to those who most need health and vital social services; and the opportunistic maneuvers of imperialist countries, authoritarian governments, and profit-driven businesses to sustain their dominance in the global economy. Marginalized sectors across the world, especially in Southeast Asia, carry on amid these challenges and harness their strength into bringing genuine change and development in these pressing times.

Civil society organizations (CSOs), people’s organizations, and grassroots sectors in Southeast Asia have long engaged in policy-making arenas to raise their demands and hold governments, businesses, and intergovernmental institutions accountable to the people. These platforms, however, continue to be bureaucratic and out-of-touch with realities on the ground and thus limit the democratic, civic space for people’s engagement.

The 2020 ASEAN People’s Forum (APF) and ASEAN Civil Society Conference (ACSC) takes its annual event online with the theme “Southeast Asian People Solidarity for an Inclusive, Cohesive, and Responsive Community”. To enjoin various sectors across the region, the forum integrated convergence spaces spearheaded by CSOs, people’s organizations, and grassroots sectors which aims to discuss pressing issues affecting Southeast Asia namely: Peace and Security; Human Rights and Access to Justice; Ecological Sustainability; Labour and Migration; Alternative Regionalism; Transformative and Solidarity Economy; Trade, Investment, and Corporate Power; Life with Dignity; Culture and the Arts; Innovation, New and Emerging Technology, Digital Rights; to Racial Discrimination and Religious Extremism. These convergence spaces seek to bring together stories of resistance and struggles for change in the region, enhance CSOs, people’s organizations, and grassroots sectors’ participation in policy advocacy, and promote solidarity amongst different sectors. 

We call on the APF/ACSC to anchor the three-day event to its goal of being inclusive, cohesive, and responsive to the people of Southeast Asia.  Its mechanism and mode of engagement should not be the opposite — exclusive, disjointed, and indifferent to the plight of CSOs, people’s organizations, and grassroots sectors. We stress the importance for the APF/ACSC to engage people’s movements for it to not fall short in maximizing its platform to advance people-to-people solidarity, hold state and corporate actors accountable, and assert the critical role they play in policy development processes that can potentially pave the way to transformative development the region badly needs. Addressing language barriers is one of the ways to understand each other, and communicate our urgent policy recommendations and call for decisive action. Unfortunately, the Webex platform aside from being complicated does not provide language translations. Congruence on the information regarding the event is likewise lacking.

We call on CSOs, people’s movements, and grassroots sectors across the region to continue strengthening solidarity with the vulnerable sectors, amplify their demands and reclaim civic spaces amid government and institutional restrictions, and address the worsening health and human rights crisis.

We, as ASEAN nations, will continue to stand our ground in the face of these attacks on our fundamental freedoms. We renew our commitment to dismantling the prevailing neoliberal framework that only serves corporate interests. We will work collectively to create an ASEAN that is truly inclusive, cohesive, and responsive to the needs of its people.

Power to the people!

Defend peoples’ rights! 

Stop the attacks!

Resist fascist attacks and corporate plunder!

Asia Pacific Research Network (APRN)
People Over Profit Network (POP)
Indigenous People’s Movement for Self-Determination and Liberation (IPMSDL)
People’s Coalition for Food Sovereignty (PCFS)
IBON International
Reality of Aid – Asia Pacific (RoA-AP)
International Trade Union Confederation – Asia Pacific (ITUC-AP)
Center for Environmental Concerns- Philippines (CEC)
Center for People’s Development and Governance (CPDG)

The Asia Pacific Research Network (APRN) vehemently denounces the Duterte government’s shutdown of ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ top broadcasting station, which has been in existence for 74 years.

While it is a corporate entity, ABS-CBN has been providing information and commentary that do not conform to those promoted by the government, especially about issues widely seen as the latter’s weak points. It has also been providing crucial information about the current pandemic.

“The media, the Fourth Estate, is one of the pillars of democracy. Attacking the media and legitimizing such attacks constitute excessive abuse of authority. It is akin to using the so-called rule of law to systematically destroy civil liberties,” stated Jazminda Lumang, APRN general secretary.

Since February, the safety of journalists and media practitioners covering CoViD-19 have been severely jeopardized. In China, Chen Quishi and Fang Bin, who were reporting from Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in China, went missing.

Governments in Asia Pacific have intensified media suppression against reports that criticized haphazard state responses to CoViD-19, documented increasing human rights violations, exposed illicit deals in the procurement and distribution of medical equipment and aid, as well as warned of the emerging economic crisis.

“This unwarranted reprisal violates the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights that guarantees the freedom of opinion and expression. During this time when the unhampered flow of information is key to protecting societies against the pandemic, stifling the media also denies the people, especially the vulnerable sectors, of the right to know,” Lumang noted.

APRN calls on civil society organizations to defend press freedom. “We cannot allow ourselves to be blinded or gagged by tyrannical leaders who want us–the people to accept the convenient lies that they spin hook, line, and sinker. We stand for democratic governance that genuinely responds to public demand, rewards free flow of information, and encourages the participation of the majority of citizens,” asserted Lumang.

#DefendPressFreedom
#NoToABSCBNShutDown

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The Asia Pacific Research Network (APRN) joins the global solidarity to commemorate the workers who have been killed, disabled, maimed, injured, and made unwell due to lack of safety measures in workplaces.

“We mourn for the workers who have been subjected to poor and hazardous working conditions. Tragedies in workplaces continue to soar for years in profit-driven economies under the neoliberal regime.” Jazminda Lumang, General Secretary of APRN said.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the Asia Pacific region recorded the highest number of annual work-related deaths in the world at 70 percent or 1.4 million (2017). The poorest, least informed, and least trained are the most vulnerable. More often than not, they are made to undertake dirty, dangerous, and difficult jobs. Women, children, migrant workers, and ethnic minorities are mostly involved.

Work-related deaths in Asia Pacific

In 2013, the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing more than 1,134 workers. The illegally built sweatshop factory is a consignee to international companies Benetton, J. C. Penney, Carrefour, Walmart, Joe Fresh, the Children’s Place, Mascot, El Corte Ingles, Cato Fashions, and Primark. Factory workers were earning US $2.00 a day for 12-14 hour shifts six to seven days a week.

In West Bengal, the United Tea Workers Front (UTWF) recorded that 1,000 farmworkers have died over the past decade due to malnutrition and other hunger-related diseases. Workers reportedly earned only US $ 1.18 a day to produce the expensive Darjeeling tea.

In 2015, a fire broke out at Kentex, a small manufacturer of flip flops in Valenzuela City, Metro Manila. Seventy-four (74) people were trapped inside and killed in the fire. Sweatshop conditions of the workers, non-compliance to fire safety regulations, and lax implementation of occupational safety were the main causes of the tragedy.

Strengthen occupational safety and health for the frontline workers

As the world faces the coronavirus havoc, the frontline workers – the health workers, the factory workers, and transporters display uncommon courage and valor to serve humanity in these tough times. Moreover, in exerting all efforts to stop the spread of CoVID-19, APRN asserts the primacy of occupational safety and access to health care for frontline workers in Asia Pacific.

Recent analysis from Deep Knowledge Group, a company of data experts, shows that nine (9) out of the twenty (20) riskiest countries during the coronavirus pandemic are from Asia Pacific. The following countries are Iran (7), Philippines (9), Bangladesh (13), India (15), Sri Lanka (16), Indonesia (17), Myanmar (18), Cambodia (19), and Laos (20).

“Since this region is one of the hotbeds of the pandemic, it is all the more necessary for governments to provide all-out social protection. They must ensure the provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to every health worker. Manufacturers of essential goods and the transport sector should be monitored to guarantee that they are complying to occupational safety and health measures. The frontline workers should be entitled to wage increase, hazard pay, and free medical assistance.” Lumang said.

Remembering the frontline heroes

The research group commends the extensive efforts of frontline workers in providing services for the people amid the lockdowns. APRN also pays tribute to fallen healthcare workers.

“We applaud the heroic task of our frontline workers. We revere those who have lost their lives to save others. They deserve honor and should be remembered for their nobility to save humanity.”

Jaz Lumang

Asia Pacific Research Network (APRN) joins the global indignation over the arrest of seven (7) relief volunteers who were en route to their second wave of relief operations to a farming community in Norzagaray town, Philippines on April 19, 2020. 

They brought with them ‘nutri-lief’ bags containing rice, mung beans, dried fish, rice noodles, egg, coffee, sugar, condiments, vitamins, cooking oil, and educational materials on CoViD-19. They also had in their possession a Food Pass or authorization from the Bureau of Food and Aquatic Resources (BFAR). This was a requirement needed to buy vegetables in the market and distribute these to local communities. 

The volunteers, including former lawmaker Ariel Casilao of Anakpawis (Toiling Masses) Partylist, were illegally arrested and detained before they were formally charged with sedition on April 21, 2020. Charges remain baseless as the group did not commit any crime before or during the time of apprehension. 

Emergency powers as a carte blanche to suppress critics

“We need to raise the alarm on the government’s exclusion and repression of civil society organizations (CSOs) who are trying their best to provide for the needs of vulnerable groups heavily burdened by the pandemic,” emphasized Jazminda Lumang, General Secretary of APRN. 

This is in view of the lockdown in Luzon that started in mid-March. Dubbed as the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), the goals were to restrict mobility and stem CoViD-19 spread. When this was put to force, however, there was no clear socio-economic plan for the majority of residents on the island – the wage laborers, farmers, and fisherfolk. To date, government agencies have been running like headless chickens as they scramble to realize the aims of the ECQ. 

“CSOs have been mobilizing resources not only to heed the  call for national cooperation but also to address the appeals of vulnerable sectors who have gone hungry. It is disturbing to have a government that prevents and even harasses CSOs to discourage them from helping their fellowmen,” Lumang added.  

“Governments implementing lockdowns should realize that the quarantine will only be effective if there is mass testing and the people’s right to feed oneself in dignity is not neglected,” she advised. 

Lockdowns literally shrink civic spaces in Asia Pacific

The period of lockdown has seen an increase in human rights violations in Asia Pacific. 

In India, Shaheen Bagh protesters were violently dispersed, conveniently using the rule of physical distancing as an excuse. The Shaheen Bagh protest is a long-running rally against the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The Ministry of Interior of Turkey announced that they arrested 229 people for posting “provocative messages about coronavirus” on social media. Bangladeshi authorities are also reported on cracking down its dissidents. Since March 2020, the government has arrested dozens including activists and students through their repressive Digital Security Act.

Despite coronavirus havoc in world economy and health, Israeli military operations in the occupied Palestine territory continue – including raids, home demolitions, mass arrest, detention, and land confiscation. Blatant violation of international laws and the systematic imposition of repressive measures have exposed, not only Palestinians but Israeli settlers to a greater risk of infection.

Surveillance among activist groups has also been observed as in the case of the Center for Women’s Resources (CWR). On April 17, the online legal clinic on violence against women organized by APRN member CWR, in cooperation with Gabriela National Alliance on Women, was attacked by trolls and “zoom-bombers”.  The webinar was disrupted when trolls suddenly started doodling offensive images and writing hate messages on the screen in one of the presentations.  

“We condemn governments in Asia Pacific who harass CSOs and limit their involvement in crisis mitigation measures and relief operations. It is unconscionable for some governments to use the CoVID-19 response to silence its critics. Doors for cooperation must be open to CSOs because we are equal development partners. We are willing to act with governments for as long as it serves public good so that we can heal together,” Lumang concluded. 

The world is currently under distress, with the CoVID-19 pandemic infecting and killing tens of thousands of people in just a matter of days. Capitalist greed has led to destructive impacts on the climate and degradation of the environment, facilitating the rapid mutation of viruses. We are now facing a global crisis that may lead to greater catastrophes such as the looming economic recession and the possibility of more contagions in the decades to come.

Underdeveloped nations in South Asia are among the most vulnerable to outbreaks of disease, which overwhelms the region’s already subpar healthcare systems, as most governments in the region devote the least priority to public health spending vis-a-vis military and defense allocations in their national budgets. This reflects the generally militaristic approach and lack of readiness to fight the pandemic. For instance, India allocates only 1.6 percent of its annual budget for health, while devoting 15.5 percent to military expenditures. Pakistan’s health budget is not far off, capping at only 2 percent, compared to 16 percent for defense. Both Bangladesh and Nepal have the highest allocations for health in the region, with around 6 percent; and incidentally the lowest in comparison to its neighbors in military spending, amounting to 6 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively.

There is a rapid increase of CoVID-19 cases and casualties throughout the region, with an estimate of around 100 getting infected by the virus each day since the first reported case[1]. The number of testing kits remain small. India’s testing as of March 31 only covered 16 percent per million population. Similar situations and trends can be observed in the neighboring countries of Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.  Hospital isolation rooms and ventilators, which are essential in treating the complications brought about by the infection, are also very limited across the region.

Several reports within the region state that the lax approach of some countries in light of initial news of confirmed cases contributed to the region’s current undesirable situation. This is supported by the fact that governments in the region did not immediately implement precautionary policies. In India, the first case of the disease was discovered last January 30, but a concrete policy was not declared until March 21; the first confirmed case in Bangladesh was on March 8 and it took two weeks before anything was done. Pakistan’s first reported case was on February 26, a precautionary warning was issued on March 13 by the President, and an official lockdown was declared on March 23.  Nepal’s first case was on January 24, but imposed a community quarantine on March 24 following its second case the day before.

The introduction of an enhanced community quarantine or a lockdown was originally to implement social distancing, which aimed to slow the rate of the virus’s spread. Most countries in the region followed this tactic. Although its effectiveness in curbing the number of infections cannot be refuted, supplementing policies are still necessary to provide for those affected by lockdowns.

Residents in rural areas and small cities are the most vulnerable among the population, with far less access to goods and services during the lockdown. Daily wage earners, “no work, no pay” laborers, and the informal sector are also heavily affected since their livelihoods depend on them being able to work each day. Migrant workers have become refugees overnight, fleeing the cities and being forced to walk for days to their home provinces. In addition to the closure of public transport systems, stay-at-home orders during the lockdown prove the need for the government to provide sufficient and immediate economic relief to the vulnerable sectors of the population.

Despite the priority of taking care of people’s welfare, the lockdowns are being used as tools to achieve more power, contain outrage because of the absence of government aid and social services, and promote selfish interests. Police are authorized to exercise full control in the implementation of the quarantine. Military forces are also on standby.

The militarization of the community quarantine has intensified the attacks against the poor.  This has done nothing to address food scarcity and the lack of preparedness of the existing health systems. Members of indigenous communities in Manipur, India have been subjected to police brutality despite being out only for essentials and observing physical distancing policies. Health workers lobbying for protective equipment in Pakistan were harassed and arrested. Illegal attention awaits those who ply the streets to work or to survive as not all have the privilege to work from home. Those who get caught are stuffed into cramped prison-like environments – highlighting existing inequalities, revealing the selectiveness of the lockdown, and unmasking the governments’ anti-poor and fascist tendencies.

In light of the current crisis, building people-to-people solidarity despite the premise of physical distancing is essential. Various creative platforms must be maximized. Discussions and dialogues regarding the pandemic and its comprehensive solutions must continue. A united call to for states to prioritize the health, safety, and rights of the marginalized sectors must be pushed forward.

The spread of the virus should be managed holistically with people’s rights at the core. Its socio-economic and political impact must be dealt with immediately with the imperative of securing lives. The people in South Asia demand for:

  1. Immediate economic relief for those severely affected by the community quarantine, most especially the basic sectors. Guaranteed food, livelihood, and income must be provided due to the current economic standstill. Governments and corporations must provide bailout options for their workers;
  • Cancellation of debt as a form of substantial economic relief at the national level. The World Bank statement of the pandemic creating a ‘perfect storm’ for South Asia because of its adverse economic effects is detestably opportunistic and predatory.  Imposing loans to address the pandemic is profiteering from the current ills of humanity;
  • Increased government support to the healthcare sector must be immediately given; with an emphasis on mass testing and treatment, protective equipment for the frontline, as well as medical equipment and infrastructure; with the goal of pursuing genuine and effective health care systems; and,
  • Transparency in government responses to the pandemic. Address the people’s demand for a comprehensive health solution to the current crisis with respect for human rights and social protection in policy making and implementation.

We are grateful to the healthcare workers at the frontlines of the battle against the virus. We stand in solidarity with people’s organizations and civil society organizations who, despite the risks, unrelentingly provide aid to those who need it most.

We enjoin all governments, CSOs and POs, and citizens to fight repression as well as economic subjugation and political opportunism.#


[1] Pakistan: 135.4; Bangladesh: 7.45; Nepal: 0.9; India: 178.4.

Research group Asia Pacific Research Network (APRN) urges governments to provide free mass testing and health services amid soaring cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) worldwide. The group also furthers that governments should prioritize medical attention for the poor as they are the most vulnerable to diseases. As there are governments in the Asia Pacific that already imposed lockdowns in metro cities, it is their responsibility to sufficiently provide for the needs of affected families. Authorities must impose A “No Layoffs” policy on the business sector to secure jobs of the workers during work suspension.

The APRN also warns that government lockdowns could be used to suppress the civil liberties of the people. Public health emergencies should not be used as a pretext to bolster authoritarianism. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte announced an “enhanced community quarantine” on the island of Luzon. Thousands of armed police and soldiers were deployed and checkpoints installed across Metro Manila.

On the other hand, the Network also commends doctors, nurses, and all health workers who are at the frontlines of containing the spread of the coronavirus. The State must guarantee their occupational safety by providing protective equipment, disinfectants, and regular checkups. They should be entitled to greater allowances and hazard pay.

In this global health pandemic, the APRN calls for solidarity of people’s organizations, CSOs and NGOs in the Region to exert all forms of engagement in asserting the rights and demands of the people especially in the most affected and vulnerable countries.

Railroading RCEP must be condemned

Meanwhile, at the heels of the 9th year of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) talks on March 10 in Da Nang, Vietnam. The research group also warns that the coronavirus pandemic might be used as a cover up to fast track the conclusion of the untransparent RCEP negotiations.
RCEP and other Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) promote neoliberal economic policies of liberalization and privatization of public resources for corporate interest.

More than just the threats of COVID-19, market-oriented reform policies continue to devastate health services around the world. According to the World Bank and World Health Organization (WHO), half of the world still lacks access to substantial health services. Statistics show that 800 million people spend 10 percent of their budget expenses for health spending while 100 million people are unable to avail any health service at all.

Decades of neoliberalism made the situation worse in Third world countries. It pushes nations to completely abandon social services. Giant pharmaceutical companies and Multinational Companies (MNCs) gain super profits and prevent countries from regulating and producing generic life-saving medicines. Once the RCEP is passed, it will enable them to monopolize drug markets through Intellectual property rights policy impositions. These provisions propose to extend pharmaceutical patents and data exclusivity. Aside from patent extensions, MNCs are entitled to sue countries who are producing generic life-saving medicines under the Investor State Dispute Settlement provision in RCEP.

Resistance is the key

“The world has an opportunity to understand that health is not a commercial asset but a basic right,” said renowned Cuban doctor Luis Herrera, who discovered Interferon Alfa 2-B, one of the most successful medications against COVID-19.

As neoliberal policies continuously wreak havoc on health care systems and the global economy, the widening discontent of the masses shall only fuel the movement for the people’s right to health.

The APRN shall continue its support to peoples’ struggles against RCEP and other FTAs. We must strengthen solidarity and advance our aspirations for a trade system that respects sovereignty, guarantees mutual benefit, and promotes people’s long-term interests. ###