Issue No. 6 | 30 May 2020

Asia Pacific states’ skewed priorities laid bare by COVID-19

Across Asia Pacific, governments are more focused on repressive measures to strengthen political power and on protecting business interests instead of prioritizing public health and people’s welfare, said activists from Australia, Hong Kong, India, Myanmar, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Filipino policemen wearing face masks man a checkpoint as authorities begin implementing lockdown measures on March 16 in Metro Manila, Philippines. (Photo from Ezra Acayan / Getty)

Even before countries in Asia Pacific began to relax COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, already most governments had focused their policies more on getting economies off the ground than on providing relief to hard-hit sectors. In some cases, the pandemic has also functioned as a pretext for severe, often militarist interventions that would have been ordinarily more easily opposed. Civil society and human rights groups say the crisis has not so much exacerbated as laid bare such misguided priorities. 

Myanmar is a case in point. With generals and allies installed in parliament, the country’s military has jockeyed with civilian lawmakers for a more outsized role in handling COVID-19. Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, who, in the 2015 elections, pitched a campaign in defense of minorities, has yet to put the brakes on the military’s continued offensives against ethnic communities.

“It seems that the ethnic people are more afraid of the military than of COVID-19,” said Wahkushee Tenner, joint general secretary of the Karen Women’s Organization, in a webinar hosted by the International League of Peoples’ Struggles (ILPS) on May 14. “The Burmese government, the military, see COVID-19 as an opportunity,” she said, “so there’s more militarization in ethnic areas.”

Tenner recounted how, on May 6, the Burma Army burned down two COVID-19 screening posts set up at controlled boundaries in Karen State, where the Karen National Union (KNU) fought for self-government for over 60 years. The pandemic struck at a moment of stalled peace negotiations, which ethnic groups fear the military has exploited to the hilt to undermine the former’s autonomy.

A ceasefire agreement, from May 10 to August 31, does not even apply to certain areas such as Rakhine State, where UN human rights experts claim the military carries out war crimes against hundreds of thousands of Rohingya using expanded powers supposedly meant to curb COVID-19.

“It shows that they are not sincere about peace but want to show the international media that they are cooperative to lessen some of the pressure from the international community,” Tenner said. “All these actions by the Burma military and government show glaring double standards.”

Military and police overkill is likewise doubly magnified in the Philippines. But not much, in terms of international pressure, has deterred President Rodrigo Duterte from emboldening state forces, using congressionally approved emergency powers, to crack down on supposed quarantine violators.

Limitations to people’s movement due to an island-wide lockdown has had over 30,000 Filipinos locked up, notwithstanding about 120,000 quarantine violations, which critics believe to be the highest tally globally. “You cannot just have militarist interventions at this time, although we understand the need for a strong response,” said Dr. Edelina Dela Paz, chair of the Health Alliance for Democracy (HEAD). “But it should not be at the expense of people’s livelihoods and people’s right to life.”

Dr. Dela Paz noted that the majority of those behind bars since the lockdown belong to low-income groups, most of whom have not only been deprived of COVID-19 mass testing but whose incomes, much to their families’ dismay, have also easily run out. “There should be some support from the government in the sense of really providing space where they can go and perhaps, really, giving more than what is given now,” she said. “Like one kilo of rice and three canned goods — how can they survive on that?”

The Philippine government has promised so-called social amelioration but failed to deliver it on the scale the people need to recover their losses and tide them over for now. In the country, as in the rest of rural Asia, the biggest losers are farmers who await the government’s much-touted but delayed relief.

Similarly, such is the tragic irony in Pakistan, a net food exporter that employs almost half of its workforce in agricultural and forest-based production. Yet the USD 7 billion stimulus package that Prime Minister Imran Khan has loaned from multilateral creditors like the World Bank has yet to reach farmers and agricultural laborers, said Azra Sayeed, founder of the development nonprofit Roots for Equity.

In the meantime, they are told to shelter in place and, with the movement of goods halted, essentially leave their crops ripe for harvest to rot in the fields. “Social distancing is actually basically mocking the working class, in my opinion,” Sayeed said. “The rich can actually live in these five-star hotels and be quarantined in better and plush settings, whereas the people are really in an abominable situation.”

The pandemic is a far cry from the equal-opportunity disaster that most governments would like the public to believe it is, Sayeed added. In India, this much is also true. Now, despite coronavirus infections still climbing fast, health experts worry that the country is reopening too soon — the same way Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a lockdown over two months ago, leaving millions of the cities’ migrant workers literally in a lurch, with barely four hours to scramble their way back to villages.

The few lucky ones were able to do so, but the rest either died of starvation and exhaustion from traveling for miles on foot or rounded up into quarantine outposts. There, “they all suffer these 50 days like animals — no water, no sanitation facilities, no lighting, no fans, at 40-degree Celsius,” said Poguri Chennaiah of Andhra Pradesh Vyavasaya Vruthidarula Union (APVVU), one of the largest agricultural union federations in southern India, and chairperson of the Asian Peasant Coalition (APC).  

Several state governments, such as in Manipur, have opted to shoulder the train fare of their residents who are stranded elsewhere. “The government took up some evacuation process to bring back the migrants, but then this was too slow and suffered from a high amount of mismanagement,” said Malem Ningthouja, founder and chairperson of the Campaign for Peace & Democracy (Manipur).

Officials are beginning to question the union government’s consensus about the lockdown having effectively stemmed the contagion. It appears to be the other way around in remote areas of India. Fresh case curves are emerging from clusters traced to migrant workers who have returned from New Delhi.

Despite the still-mounting caseload, worries for India’s economy, which has already been bucking over the past months, plague the government too much for lockdown rules to drag out much longer. The same justification underlies most other countries’ decision to loosen quarantine restrictions one by one.

In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has boasted of a downturn in confirmed coronavirus cases and deaths, thanks in no small measure to a healthcare system that is, in theory, universally accessible unlike in the Global South. Morrison has laid out a three-step plan to get people back to work and industries back on track, upon individual states’ discretion.

The move comes at the rear of businesses’ plunging revenues, as reported by seven in 10 Australian companies, according to a recent survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. 

“Their priority is to rescue big business profits, not the health and safety and lives of ordinary people,” said Shirley Winton of the Spirit of Eureka, a non-government committee that seeks to build a people’s mass movement in Australia. Winton shared that there are not nearly as many people, especially casual and contract workers, on the government’s flagship JobKeeper program as previously promised.

Last week’s report of the federal government’s miscalculation supports this observation. A staggering accounting error overestimated the wage subsidy’s recipients at 6.5 million Australians, whereas the actual number is only around 3.5 million, according to the Treasury. This does not mean, however, that the uptick in unemployment is any lower than 10% as per the Labour Force survey’s initial forecast.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, was also quick to bail out the city’s businesses battered by the pandemic, with a USD 10.32 billion subsidy scheme in early May. But the devil is in the details — the first tranche is up for grabs, if only for employers, within three to four weeks of their application. There is not a foolproof way to ensure the cash would trickle down to their employees, many of whom are compelled to take a no-pay leave, said Charles Fung, a columnist and critic from Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“An indirect consequence of the COVID-19 is that it attacks the mass base of the movement,” Fung said, referring to the broad pro-democracy camp that led one of the biggest rounds of demonstrations in the territory in the recent decade. Tensions have been brewing. Many Hong Kongers, afraid of losing their jobs, are progressively drawn to the protest movement. “You can see this as an ironic twist in how the neoliberal policies in Hong Kong reinforced the business-government hegemony,” Fung added.

The legacies of successive colonial governments have sustained workers’ marginalization, Fung said. Initially, the coronavirus seemed to have lulled the unrest, but as the outbreak wanes, the city’s political framework in Hong Kong, dubbed “one country, two systems,” is once again falling apart at the seams.

Social distancing fell by the wayside as workers frustrated with big businesses and Lam’s pro-Beijing sympathies joined pro-democracy demonstrators to swarm the city’s busiest neighborhoods on March 24. This first large-scale protest since COVID-19 was triggered by China’s new security legislation to stiffen control over the semi-autonomous city. For the protesters, however, it is but a follow-through on their defiance of crises that their government’s imperial loyalty has wrought long before the pandemic. ###  

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