Philippine police arrest a suspected drug dealer in Taguig, south of Manila, on Feb. 28, 2018. (Photo: Noel Celis/AFP)
The Philippine government’s response was remarkable when reports circulated online that the Health Department had instructed a Manila hospital to stop counting Covid-19 deaths.
As quick as lightning, it immediately announced that “all hospitals and health centers are mandated to report on consultations and/or admissions” of all Covid-related cases.
Health reports are made on national television every day and include the number of Covid patients, recoveries and deaths caused by the virus. These reports have become important to the public. Everyone has become interested in the story behind the numbers. Who died? Where did the patient contract the virus? Who recovered?
With 335 deaths so far, Filipinos have treated the coronavirus as the angel or bringer of death. In one day, I heard the expression “death is just around the corner” more than 10 times.
While it is understandable to arm oneself with facts during this pandemic, one must not forget the number of deaths in President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.
According to a Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency report, 4,948 suspected drug users and dealers died in police operations from July 1, 2016, to Sept. 30, 2018.
The number does not include killings caused by unidentified gunmen. Before Covid-19 menaced the Philippines, figures were up by 10 percent in January 2020, according to the same report.
Moreover, the Philippine National Police reported in 2019 that there had been 22,983 drug-related deaths since the war on drugs began. More than 90 percent of these deaths remain unresolved. There are complainants but no suspects have been arrested.
The figures are jaw-dropping. Offhand, the 335 deaths caused by Covid-19 are no match for the drug war’s casualty figures. Facts show that nature is not the primary killer of mankind. Man still poses a greater threat to his own kind than a virus.
But what is interesting is that society seems to care more about Covid-19 deaths than extrajudicial killings. Is this because only the poor are being shot in cold blood while the rich are spared?
Both the government and the public are now very keen on data gathering and reporting. But the same level of diligence with regard to reporting the exact number of deaths in the administration’s drug war is lacking.
There are certainly no televised reports and daily counting of who has been killed in the drug war. There are also no public announcements nor a national clamor to investigate the killings. Perhaps nobody cares anymore. Or perhaps society has chosen not to care.
Philippine society has become callous to reports about extrajudicial killings. The killings have become ordinary news, so ordinary newspapers do not print them on the front page anymore.
What is worse is the bias the majority have developed. Many had jumped to conclude that the victims were killed because they were addicts and drug pushers. Death has become the very proof and indication of guilt in an alleged crime rather than evidence.
The present pandemic brings out the best and the worst in humanity. While it may teach society to fight for survival, it can also cause societal amnesia. Yes, Philippine society is suffering from a societal amnesia — the inability or intentional refusal to confront a dark past that needs resolution in the present.
We, as a nation, have simply brushed the killings aside by pretending they have never existed. We have created what Philippine sociologist Randy David described as “necessary fiction.” David believed that it is possible for a people or individuals to remember something even if they have not experienced it. “Or, alternatively, individuals can develop amnesia or experience psychological disorientation due to severe injury,” David wrote in one of his columns.
Has the war on drugs become a massacre too much for Philippine society to endure that it chooses to forget rather than to confront it?
The coronavirus is indeed the great equalizer. But sadly, the government’s war on drugs is not an equalizer at all. It chooses. It discriminates the rich from the poor. It knows borders. Thousands living below the poverty line have been killed. And the killings happen in dilapidated shanties, not in exclusive and rich villages or subdivisions. Thus, either in a pandemic like Covid-19 or in Duterte’s drug war, the poor are always on the losing side.
Joseph Peter Calleja is a lawyer and editor of Bayard Philippines. He is also a member of the Lay-Religious Alliance of the Assumptionists. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.