Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has ordered the deployment of more military troops as the Armed Forces prepares for a possible martial law-like takeover to implement more strictly the Luzon-wide lockdown.
Lorenza issued the directive as the Philippine National Police on Sunday said over 130,000 people have so far violated guidelines on the Enhanced Community Quarantine nationwide imposed to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.
AFP chief of staff Gen. Felimon Santos Jr. was tasked to mobilize troops in Metro Manila, particularly in highly-infected areas following reports of residents drinking on the streets, holding cockfights, and violating social distancing protocols.
“These sights do not inspire confidence that we will achieve our objective by the end of this month. That is why I have ordered the AFP chief of staff to deploy more troops in Metro Manila and other places with high COVID-19 incidence to augment the police to strictly implement social distancing and the ECQ,” Lorenzana said in a text message.
“We are worried about these people. There are too many people out in groups, in supermarkets, streets, and other places,” he added.
Lorenzana described the remaining 11 days of the lockdown as crucial to the final decision of President Rodrigo Duterte on whether to lift, extend, or modify the ECQ.
Last week, the President threatened a “martial law-like” crackdown if the public continued to defy the restrictions imposed by the ECQ.
“I am just asking for your discipline, because if you don’t like, if you don’t believe me, the military and police will take over to enforce social distancing and curfew. It will be similar to martial law,” the President said.
According to the latest PNP data, 130,177 violators were arrested, fined and warned as the police stepped up the quarantine implementation.
Luzon posted the highest number of violators with 80,180, followed by Mindanao with 26,216 and Visayas with 23,781 violators since the ECQ was implemented on March 17.
Police also nabbed 716 individuals allegedly engaged in hoarding and profiteering activities while 9,349 public transport vehicles were apprehended for violating the mass transportation ban.
On Saturday, PNP chief Gen. Archie Gamboa said the police force supports President Duterte’s intention to “decisively enforce a total lockdown for the entire period.”
Gamboa said some local officials have agreed to impose tougher measures against the ECQ violators.
“Some violators feel they can get away with the enforcement of quarantine rules and local ordinances. I call on all regional directors to put action to the strong words of the President. I expect all of you to support this,” Gamboa said in a statement.
He also ordered a massive crackdown on illegal activities violating physical distancing and gathering of persons such as illegal cockfight, card games, mahjong, and drinking sessions in public places.
The AFP on Sunday also confirmed the authenticity of a leaked internal memo ordering an expanded role for the military in enforcing the Luzon-wide lockdown.
The memo from Air Force Commanding General Lt. Gen. Allen Paredes told unit commanders to prepare for “strict implementation” of an “extensive enhanced community quarantine.”
The order said the “AFP will be the over-all in charge along roads and highways.”
Air Force spokesman Maj. Aris Galang said the memo, which was leaked on social media Friday, merely anticipated “any scenarios in case the President as commander-in-chief of the AFP would decide to implement his statements lately.”
Galang said the memo simply reflected the President’s pronouncements and that they were just telling their personnel to be ready.
Meanwhile, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases is expected to hold “extensive” discussions on the possible scenarios after April 30, the day the lockdown ends.
The IATF, the policy-making government body in the battle against the coronavirus, will then present its recommendation to Duterte.
“We will probably have one topic on Monday [today)] because all of us have recommendations and suggestions. But at the end of the day, first, the IATF will arrive at a consensus. Second, the President will ultimately make the decision on whatever will be our recommendation. That’s the process. Let’s wait for it on Monday,” he said
He said the task force will try to “balance everything” and take into consideration the five parameters before deciding on next action plan address the pandemic and mitigate its impact on the people.
Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Guillermo Eleazar, PNP Deputy Chief for Operations and commander of the Joint Task Force Corona Virus Shield, said the country’s crime rate dropped by 58 percent during the ECQ implementation.
According to latest PNP data from eight focus crimes, Eleazar said 1,984 crimes were reported nationwide from March 17 to April 18 – 58 percent lower than the 4,776 crimes tallied from Feb. 13 to March 16.
The eight focus crimes are murder, homicide, physical injury, rape, robbery, theft, carnapping and motor vehicle theft.
For his part, Senate President Vicente Sotto III said the use of the Armed Forces to strictly implement the ECQ does not amount to martial law.
“If the use of the AFP is necessary to keep people off the streets then so be it,” he added.
Senator Panfilo Lacson said the President was just emphasizing discipline during the ECQ when he issued that warning.
“No military takeover. PRRD made the remark to emphasize discipline. He did not say we are under martial law,” Lacson said.
Lacson said he shared the view of the President that a “martial-law-style lockdown” might be needed as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise.
“We still can’t imagine that the curve will flatten. We’re far off from it because first of all, we still do not have massive testing,” said Lacson.
But human rights advocates said the government was using the wrong “militaristic” approach in dealing with the pandemic.
“We are not at war. We are in a state of defending a life with dignity of peoples and communities,” Dr. Nymia Pimentel Simbulan, chairperson of the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates and executive director of Philippine Human Rights Information Center said.
Simbulan said it is dangerous to use war as a metaphor in the fight against COVID-19 because it highlights reliance on the Armed Forces and on state violence as key instruments in addressing the pandemic.
“In a state of war, there is no room for questioning, there is no room for doubting, officials of the military would say. General attitude should be to follow because that will ensure order and stability in society,” she said.
“That’s why if there are violators, the order is to hit them, punish them, torture them, use iron fist because that’s the only way you can force them to comply,” she said, referring to Duterte’s various statements during the lockdown.
In a statement Friday, London-based Amnesty International its Philippine section expressed alarm over Duterte’s threat of a possible military takeover similar to “martial law” to enforce discipline among Filipino who continue to defy the ECQ.
“President Duterte’s warning that he will further extend police and military authority to respond to the pandemic, and possibly introduce a state of martial law, is worrying. Under the emergency legislation Bayanihan to Heal as One Act that is currently in effect, security forces already have wide powers to enforce the community quarantine,” said Amnesty International Philippines Director Butch Olano.
“Extra powers must go through procedural safeguards, and have the least possible negative impact on the human rights of millions of Filipinos who are struggling to survive under the enhanced community quarantine, including the rights to life, to fair trial, and to access basic needs, as well as the prohibition of torture or other cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment,” he added.
Senator Christopher “Bong” Go said the President would meet with health experts including former DOH secretaries before deciding on whether to extend or modify the ECQ after April 30.
In an interview over Dobol B sa News TV, Go said with the input from health experts, the President would assess the current situation and determine the next course of action.
Earlier, Nograles said Duterte wants to listen to expert opinions on whether to lift or extend Luzon-wide quarantine.
In related developments:
- Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Sunday vowed to support the “collective decision” of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases on the coverage of the enhanced community quarantine after the April 30, but cited to restart of the economy without waiting for a “zero-level of human transmission” of COVID-19. Guevarra said waiting for a zero-level rate of transmission would have a debilitating impact on the economy.
- Samar Rep. Edgar Mary Sarmiento on Sunday cited the need to “liberate” certain areas from the ECQ and adopt a full lockdown in highly dense barangay areas where the rate of infection has not flattened after April 30 deadline set by Duterte.
- The Trade Union Congress of the Philippines said it agrees with the Labor department’s proposal for a gradual return to work in Luzon after the April 30 ECQ is lifted but there must be policies to be implemented to ensure the welfare of the workers.