An officer of the neighborhood night-watch with five young men locked inside a dog cage after breaking community quarantine rules in Laguna province, the Philippines on March 20, 2020 (Eric Panisan Ambrocio via Facebook/Human Rights Watch)


When my sister told me not to make plans to come home to the Philippines over the summer, I initially thought this was a precaution because of my recent hospital admission. But it turned out that she was worried about something else: a “shoot to kill” order was issued by President Rodrigo Duterte on April Fool’s Day. In a televised address, he admonished those “who may cause trouble,” referring to the political left, but also to others who protested or questioned the government’s quarantine measures, saying, “I will not hesitate. My orders are to the police and military, also the barangay, that if there is trouble or the situation arises that people fight and your lives are on the line, shoot them dead. Do you understand? Dead. Instead of causing trouble, I’ll send you to the grave.”

The National Bureau of Investigation, the equivalent of the FBI in the Philippines took this as a signal to quell the tide of political grumblings by issuing “invitations” to prominent members of the government opposition. I expected for Duterte’s authoritarian opportunism to at least rest during the pandemic or to be confined to political rivals, but three days ago, I read that a 25-year old public school teacher who offered “Php 50 million (1 million USD) to kill the president” on his Twitter account was arrested without a warrant and charged with the serious felony of inciting to sedition. Before being jailed, he was coerced to confess and apologize in front of television cameras without the presence of an attorney. The following day, a salesman who questioned the motives of the President and his minions in launching government projects under their names was also arrested. Both the teacher and the salesman—powerless, ordinary citizens—were publicly shamed, having their mugshots posted online.

Before I came to the United States, I participated in political demonstrations and was vocal about my criticism of the President, but there has never been a moment when I feared for the life of my family as I do now. My folks back home face the two-fold threat of the Covid-19 pandemic and the abusive methods used to punish those accused of breaching quarantine.

They informed me of a story of local officials in Santa Cruz, a town in Laguna province just south of Manila, who admitted locking up five young men inside a dog cage on March 20. The officials sought to justify their actions by saying that as they were rounding up stray dogs that evening, they caught the men violating the curfew and have been verbally abusive.

The Philippine government has taken an oppressive approach against those struggling with looking out for basic needs amidst the government’s inept reaction during the ongoing health crisis. Based on the latest information from the Philippine National Police, over 17,000 people have already been arrested for violations related to the community quarantine and curfew orders, while an Amnesty International report pointed out that most of these arrests have been carried out against poor people. Prisons have gotten more congested despite the elevated risks of transmission of COVID-19 in places of detention. 

Duterte’s response to the pandemic is dismal but his administration has particularly excelled in one aspect: the use of disconcerting images of arrests and killings to strike fear into voices of dissent. While police brutality has usually been carried out in torture chambers hidden from public view, government officials have now exploited documentations of their violence for propaganda.

The release of these images is made even crueler and more terrifying with the effectiveness of government-owned TV networks in conveying a sense of helplessness of the body of the ordinary citizen. Even before the pandemic, the horrendous killings in Duterte’s drug war were preceded by the spread of dehumanizing photographs of drug users, often showing them handcuffed, malnourished, shirtless with eyes bulging and moving like vermin inside police stations.

It is not difficult to connect how their images stand at the center of a campaign to elicit fear and malice by deliberately mixing them into social media feeds along with memes and sponsored advertisements to caution against rebellion. When I see social media posts of Americans complaining about wearing facemasks and being “muzzled,” in the #newnormal, I think about that image of men imprisoned in dog cages.

Read the full article “Images in a Pandemic” here:

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