The Philippines has had the longest and strictest lockdown in the world, yet COVID-19 cases continue to rise daily by the thousands. As of September 5, 2020, the country had a total of 234,570 cases, officially eclipsing the archipelago of Indonesia—the country that once was the leading coronavirus hotbed of the Southeast Asian region.

Governments across the globe are making steady progress towards lifting lockdowns and reopening the economy through various phases. Meanwhile, the complete collapse and implosion of the Philippine healthcare system is seemingly imminent. The global pandemic has put a spotlight on the role of our government as the leading voice of the people. The continued high number of COVID-19 cases in the Philippines is a result of internal governance malfunction and leadership failure.

The Philippine community is under the responsibility of the Rodrigo Duterte administration. The rhetoric of the Duterte administration plays a vital role in shaping not only public opinion, but the entire response of the Philippine community. There is therefore a need to question the rhetoric of the incumbent government and look at how the Philippine community has responded to this.

According to Barry Buzan, the Securitization Theory looks into the key political actors and decision-makers of higher authority that define, shape, and construct a certain issue as something that is beyond a mere political issue, or in this case a mere health issue. According to Buzan (1998), it “has to be staged as an existential threat to a referent object by a securitizing actor, to generate endorsement of emergency measures beyond the rules that would otherwise bind”.

Securitization is a highly processual, context-sensitive and fact-based approach that is often performed by a specific securitizing actor. Under emergency circumstances, the securitization process is often cut short to tailor fit the situation. The securitizing actors are responsible for assessing and evaluating the context in which the issue is situated, in order for the issue to get the proper attention, response, and gauge possible solutions for it.

On a global level, the WHO is the securitizing actor for COVID-19. On March 11, 2020 the outbreak was deemed a global pandemic and this act declared a public health emergency. National governments followed suit, grounding the pandemic threat within their respective territories. For every country, the national leaders and premiers are the primary securitizing actors. Specifically, for the Philippines, incumbent president, Rodrigo Duterte is the main securitizing actor that is problematized in this discussion.

National security issues are not naturally occurring nor organic. Rather they are articulated, specified, and most importantly, framed as issues that are “extraordinary threats”. Securitization is a speech act, it is performative and targeted towards an audience. The WHO as the global securitizing actor legitimized and spread the meaning, and more importantly, the gravity and magnitude of the threat.

However, traditionally, according to the Copenhagen School, security threats are state-driven. Following this logic, the WHO’s securitization efforts are rendered ineffective without the securitizing voice of a national government.

In the month of January 2020, the coronavirus was in its initial global stages and steadily making its way across borders from ground zero, Wuhan, China. Considering the Philippines’ close proximity to China, President Duterte was asked to evaluate the option of closing off the Philippines’ borders to China—supposedly taking cues from Singapore and Taiwan.

In an official press conference on January 29, President Duterte showed reluctance in doing so, stating that “If we do this, then the concerned country might question why we’re not doing the same for other countries that have reported confirmed cases of novel coronavirus”.

From the perspective of the Securitization Theory, this is a speech act that was an unsuccessful attempt at securitization. Unsuccessful in that it undermined the context and realities that surround the COVID-19 pandemic. It sent a message to Chinese nationals that the Philippines’ borders are open and consequently, viruses in this sense are transboundary and have no problem crossing borders. In the Philippines’ response to the pandemic, this was its first crucial mistake out of many.

The following day, on January 30, 2020, the Philippines’ leading government health agency, the Department of Health (DOH) headed by Sec. Francisco Duque, announced the country’s first case. The reluctance and lack of seriousness continued to show in the rhetoric of the primary securitizing actor as he downplayed the possible outbreak on February 3, prematurely stating that “everything is well”.

This piece reiterates that the diagnostic framing stage of securitization is crucial and imperative for proper steps towards averting a looming crisis. This statement from the president, coupled with another remark mentioning that “we should be kind to China” and avoid any xenophobic tendencies, diverts attention away from the core of the crisis.

Instead of framing the issue as a health crisis, these statements put a spotlight on social issues which are currently not dire matters. The central tenets of the theory posit that the securitizing actor must consider power relations between nations, hence President Duterte’s remarks regarding China.

However, President Duterte has been known to court the goodwill of China at the expense of Filipinos. In light of the highly-processual characteristic of successful securitization, these statements beg the question of if there was a process undertaken at all.

The previous press releases of President Duterte fall under the diagnostic stage of framing and securitization. The official proclamation by the WHO on March 11 that the outbreak is a global pandemic brought forth the prognosis stage for securitization.

Expectedly, on March 12, President Duterte again took the stage to address the current health threat and the supposed action plan to combat it. The address included an imposition of heavy travel restrictions and a nationwide lockdown.

The Securitization Theory looks at the specific speech act, specifically the future plans that will be undertaken. President Duterte made a detrimental remark, “Walang solusyon unless there is a vaccine by the grace of God na may makita o maimbento ng ating mga scientists” [There is no solution unless there is a vaccine by the grace of God if scientists find one or invent one].

This sent a signal of public fear and distrust regarding the competency of government. More importantly, a threat is securitized to achieve proper attention and be responded to with urgency, plans of action, and quick responses. Rather this remark conveyed a message to the private sector and public sector that no solutions are needed if a solution is not in sight.

As of October 12, 7 months after the imposition of strict lockdowns, the Philippines continues to be the COVID-19 hotbed of the Southeast Asian region. However, the country is seeing a slight downward turn in the number of daily cases. With a total of 342,816 cases and average daily numbers that range between 2,000-3,500, the Philippine battle against the pandemic is far from over.

In the most recent addresses by President Rodrigo Duterte (September 28 and October 5), the pandemic is no longer the focal point of the addresses. Rather various other political concerns are lengthily addressed by the president, despite the dire state of the country.

Failed securitization runs the risk of long-term failure. In the Philippines’ and the Duterte administration’s response to the outbreak, this long-term failure manifests in the delayed and mismanaged responses of both the private and public sector. More importantly, it is seen in the imminent collapse of the health system.

The speech act involved in securitization expectedly takes a different process under emergency situations, but a process of evaluating the context and circumstances of the situation are nonetheless still vital. Alongside this process, it is the responsibility of the securitizing actor to situate the threat guided by the facts and current conditions of the threat.

A dangerous fact that surrounds President Duterte’s securitization approach and speech act is that it cannot be strategically negotiated with the Philippine public. Channels of discussion and dialogue between the national government and the public are very much lacking. If situation x, according to the administration is not a threat and “everything is under control” then the public is left with no choice but to accept that situation x is indeed not a threat; when in reality it very much is.


Zoe Adriel P. Escobar is a Master of Public Management student in the Ateneo School of Government, Manila. The author can be contacted at [email protected].