Exasperation in some quarters met the President’s light-bulb moment on Monday when he told the nation, “Ang importante, I realize now, is testing.” He then announced that he would do what people had been urging him to do for months, which is to invest in testing in a big way. As part of his presidential pivot, the President, in true politico fashion, raised the ante: So big will testing be this time around that he wants it done free of charge, and so serious is he that he has assigned the task of figuring out how to do this to his Secretary of Health, who helped bungle things in a big way in the first place.
The exasperation with the President comes from advocates of a scientific approach to the pandemic who have called for the widespread use of testing as a necessary companion to the lockdown the country’s population centers endured for months. Seeing as (either from defeatism, or ignorance, or both) a multi-pronged effort seemed impossible, what government did, instead, was restrict everyone to quarters in the hope it would buy time and the pandemic would blow over. Then, when the economy reached breaking point (around August), life would then be allowed to gradually return to normal, in the hope things might be more manageable.
It didn’t turn out that way, and while the rest of the world is gingerly expecting vaccines to finally turn the tide, we have been told by our officials that it will take years to roll out the vaccine to 65-70 percent of the population, which seems to be the maximum the government thinks its resources and databases can achieve.
Until then, we will be stuck with the threat of blunt force trauma as the chief antidote to the pandemic. Back in January 2019, I had a Twitter conversation in which I mentioned watching a noontime show and seeing that, as its people went around a typical Manila barangay, I noticed besides the barangay tanod a phalanx of potbellied “hawi boys” armed with big rattan sticks. Add security guards which, it takes foreigners to remind us, represent a remarkable level of militia presence in daily civilian life, and you realize our society rests on a non-subtle use of armed intimidation just to function from day to day, from setting up a noontime show zumba portion to daily commerce. Which assumes (and supposed society assumes) that without threats, society would collapse.
I was reminded of this again in March of this year when someone on Twitter posted a video of a barangay captain in Taguig encountering someone doing laundry, so the barangay captain promptly went over to the man doing laundry and hit him. Then, in April of this year, I was reminded of this again, when the armed forces deployed one of its brand new MDT Tiger 2 APCs in Blumentritt market to enforce the ECQ.
Last Dec. 5, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) cautioned the authorities “against unnecessary use of force and actions that may lead to humiliation and trauma,” adding that violence, “even in its slightest suggestion, is not the best way to address the pandemic.” Along the way, one news item referred to the sticks being used as “yantok,” a term for the rattan stick used in the martial art Eskrima; older generations might more often use “baston” and the stick-wielder as a “bastonero,” which is our political term for what is called a “whip” in legislatures in the West. The CHR was apparently responding to Police Lt. Gen. Cesar Binag who declaimed that “They [the cops] will have a rattan stick—one meter length. It’s for stopping (violators) and as a measure device, and would be used to hit hardheaded individuals,” underscoring the official attitude that citizens are recidivists—or what would otherwise be called “pasaway.”
In the memoirs of Clint Hill, the US Secret Service agent who famously pushed Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy back into the speeding presidential limousine after she scrambled onto the car’s trunk to retrieve a piece of her husband’s shattered skull, there’s a remarkable story about President Dwight Eisenhower’s visit to India, where Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was taken aback by the popularity of the visiting American leader. So massive was the crowd that Nehru had to repeatedly jump out of the car, swinging his swagger stick like a club back and forth, to help beat a path through the crowd to get the car through.
This reminds me of what one participant said in a gathering of “Thought Leaders” I attended in Jakarta: We may be discussing 21st-century problems, when large parts of our society are still in the 19th century.