Duterte’s looking-glass world and the idolatry of death

4th Update, July 31, 2020,8 PM
3rd update: July 31, 2020, 9:53 AM
2nd Update: July 31, 2020, 8:42 AM
Updated: July 31, 2020, 8:05 AM


By Joel Pablo Salud 

July 30, 2020

Salud is the author of several books of fiction and political nonfiction.

Member: Philippine Center for International PEN, Unyon ng Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL) and the Manila Critics Circle.


Day after day we face what many call the “new” normal.

We now live in a looking-glass world where everything is wrong-side-up. Where bad leadership has become the norm rather than the exception; and poverty, unemployment and death the only three choices left for most Filipinos to look forward to, that is, if the virus or a bullet doesn’t get to us first.

With the arrival of Covid-19, it’s safe to say we are living on borrowed time. The poorest of the poor, in particular, have very little chance of surviving the aftermath of infection. Close-quarter living conditions, with little more than a few inches of squalid roadways separating shanties, make for an overwhelming argument in favor of contagion. 

Let’s not even go to where a poor patient is required to foot the bill regardless of the trillions of pesos in loans the country is now forced to pay in the future.

The rich are in no way exempted from the threat. Itching for their establishments to return to “business as usual,” investors run the risk of spreading the virus among themselves and a largely middleclass workforce who couldn’t help but choose plague over the loss of wages and jobs.

It’s as if the virus hasn’t done enough damage already, continuing assassinations leave the public in fear for their safety. Duterte’s drug war remains in a trigger-happy rampage despite the pandemic, putting even children in the crosshairs of an attack which, I’m sure, would not be long forgotten. 

In the middle of all this, the government of Pres. Rodrigo Duterte remains blasé, imperturbable in its indifference. Proof of this is the silence of his recent State of the Nation Address (SONA) on matters relating to the pandemic, particularly the clear and practical solutions to overcoming the spread of the virus.


He insists on militarization and the creation of a police state as the answer to the rising tide of infections as though camouflage suits and high-powered rifles have the power to shield soldiers from the coronavirus. 

In all of four months since the enhanced community quarantine, all that the police state has achieved is to amplify its cases of abuses, beatings, and maltreatment of those accused of breaking quarantine.

It seems that any scientific and medical solution has been shunned in favour of heavy-handed tactics. As I write this, positive cases are closing in on the one-hundred-thousand mark, a tad more than the current cases recorded in Wuhan. 

It was clear from the President’s address that, if at all plans, are on the drawing board, it has been grossly narrowed down to the purchase of a supposed vaccine being manufactured by the People’s Republic. 

“Living Experiment”

There is, in fact, no other plan in place, save for what Malacanang spokesperson Harry Roque said shortly after the SONA: forcing Metro Manila into a “living experiment,” which translates simply as new quarantine measures. Every other scientific option to overcome the virus is left to decompose behind a growing propaganda of inaccuracies, defamations and lies.

There’s more. Duterte confesses to wanting capital punishment for drug-related crimes placed once more on the congressional wish-list. Why the clamor of the government for capital punishment at a time of pandemic? 

Death Penalty

Next question: why reinstate the death penalty when Duterte himself, who after four years and a little over 25,000 deaths due to his bogus drug war, admits his utter failure in curbing the operations of drug cartels?

Death, so staggeringly real in the time of pandemic and a relentless drug war, deprives the country further of any clear understanding—and experience—of the person’s right to life. 

Sen. Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa immediately defends the President on the death sentence by saying that the promised reinstatement of capital punishment was precisely the reason why the former police chief won the elections for senator. Bato’s claim belies a 2018 Social Weather Stations survey revealing that 7 out of 10 Filipinos oppose the death penalty.

Under Duterte, the Filipino people’s right to life is swiftly being spirited away in the name of law and order. Human rights have become a notion constrained only to liberals and those tagged as communists. It’s as if the Bill of Rights has become a flea market catalogue of profanities than a social contract out to preserve human dignity.

This brings me back to the words of Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano, whose depiction of Argentina in the day of military dictatorships goes like this: “For the elected government, justice meant vengeance and memory meant disorder, so they dribbled holy water on the foreheads of the men who had waged state terrorism. In the name of democratic stability and national reconciliation, they passed laws that deterred justice, interred the past, and preferred amnesia.”

What we are looking at is a clear case of betrayal. The Duterte administration’s impertinence and insouciance in the face of the pandemic have already caused quite a stir among his critics as well as his loyal minions. 

Protest marches in the tens of thousands have begun. Noise barrages to signal the people’s opposition to the closure of ABS-CBN network have started. Online and social media protests in writing and videos have taken cyberspace by storm. Never in the history of dissent in this country have journalism and literature left an indelible mark than they do today.

If the recent leaps of Duterte loyalists to the “other side” are any indication of the thinning support he is getting, it stands to reason why the President is hellbent on gripping the last straws with an iron hand. 

The moment of truth for Duterte: losing his grip on power can be terrifying to any dictator. History can attest to this with blinding accuracy in the story of the rise and fall of Ferdinand Edralin Marcos.

A little over four years ago, two weeks ahead of his decision to run for President, I had the chance to interview the populist mayor of Davao City. It was sometime half-past one in the morning at the posh Marco Polo Hotel in downtown Davao. Inside a large hall where we all sat for the interview, Rodrigo Duterte apologized for being late. 

The next two-and-a-half hours saw us swapping questions with answers. He was quite unlike any powerful personality I have interviewed in the past: wholly candid, quick to the draw, even well-nigh dangerously sincere. In fact, he was anything but “political” in terms of the buffed tall tales and white lies I have come to expect from seasoned politicians.

What grabbed my attention was how he spoke of killing and death like these were the easiest things in the world to do. As a writer of close to 40 years, I’ve had my share of interviews coming from the dregs and scums of society. But nothing that ever came close to this come to mind.

Shortly after, I scuttled back to my hotel knowing that if this man ever decided to run for President and wins, Filipinos would lose everything this nation has stood for and worked hard to gain all these years of independence.

Today, the power that Duterte wields tells a narrative that is largely deceptive: that murder is the perfect solution to social ills, and death, whose idolatrous dogma sums up this regime’s legislative policy, is evermore needed at this time when the spread of the virus is blamed for the most part on the public.

The only way we can hack away on this wall is to persist in reiterating the people’s right to life in ways that challenge our creativity as well as our skills to articulate it. With the signing of the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act, this is easier said than done. 

Likewise, should both houses of Congress pass the death penalty anytime soon, any chance at raising a grievance or a dissenting opinion against the State would be altogether a frightening exercise, if not totally impossible.

But then again, what have we got to lose? Death has been hounding our heels even prior to the proposal to reinstate capital punishment and the signing of the Terror Law. 

Duterte’s drug war has meted out the final punishment on both the guilty and the innocent outside due process since his term began.

The question remains: how much fear must Filipinos endure before it turns into rage?

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