‘Schizophrenic’ COVID-19 approach tests local autonomy in Philippines

Christian V. Esguerra, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 16 2020 05:01 PM

Police officers in protective gear check the identification and temperature of motorists crossing from Cainta to Pasig City on April 15, 2020. Local government units have set up checkpoints between their boundaries to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while the island of Luzon is on enhanced community quarantine. Fernando G. Sepe Jr., ABS-CBN News

MANILA — Residents uploaded Facebook photos of well-stacked grocery packs as their way of thanking local leaders, and boasting of how their community was doing during the coronavirus-induced lockdown in Metro Manila.

But in a nearby city, the mayor was getting a beatdown in angry social media posts over delayed food rations and inadequate help during the COVID-19 crisis.

Some local governments have apparently performed better than others in response to a killer disease, which has posed the biggest challenge to the Philippines’ 29-year venture into local autonomy. 

The pandemic has also exposed weaknesses in the country’s local government framework as shown in insufficient resources to deal with a crisis that requires massive aid for most of Luzon island’s 58 million residents kept in home quarantine.

And with President Rodrigo Duterte long pushing for federalism, government response to the health crisis, both in the local and national levels, is seen as a preview of what could lie ahead if the country jumps into this next stage of decentralization.

“The way the Duterte administration is managing this national health emergency just shows that there are still a lot of work and studying to be done before we can shift to a federal system,” said Michael Henry Yusingco, senior research fellow at the Ateneo School of Government.


Widespread opposition to the proposed structural shift earlier prompted the administration to go for “maximum decentralization short of federalism” while keeping the present unitary setup. 

But the approach, contained in a mixed bag of proposed “constitutional reforms,” will also require surgical amendments to the 1987 charter. 

The present constitution gives local governments wide latitude for autonomy as detailed in the Local Government Code passed in 1991.

It made sense, then and now, to empower cities and municipalities, for instance, to decide on and respond more quickly as front liners to crisis situations, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As we have seen, not only with the examples of our local governments in Metro Manila but also in other parts of the world, there is wisdom in sharing power especially if there are well-performing local government units,” said Julio Teehankee, former chair of De La Salle University’s political science department.

Decentralization, or even full-fledged federalism, can provide a “vertical check and balance” to the central government, he said.

“If you have a non-performing chief executive, then there’s still hope that there might be some local government officials who will deliver… Pag pumalpak yung isa, di guguho lahat,” he said, citing the case of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has earned praise for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis compared to that of the federal government.

[… if one fails, not everything will crumble.]

“Pag centralized, pag pumalpak yung presidente, patay tayong lahat.”

[Under a centralized system, if the president fails, we’re all doomed.] 


Among the functions devolved to local governments in the early 90s were health services, such as maintaining barangay health centers and implementing programs for say, communicable diseases—a responsibility that now weighs heavily on local officials in the face of COVID-19.

Many local officials have “risen to the occasion,” said Teehankee, citing mayors who have initiated their own mass testing for a clear picture of the extent of infection and of whether the community quarantine was actually working.

“It’s in times of great crises where innovation or innovative leadership is tested,” he told ABS-CBN News.

But such efforts also put some mayors on a collision course with the national government like Pasig City Mayor Vico Sotto, who shelved a tricycle service plan for medical front liners after being warned by the Department of the Interior and Local Government.

Marikina Mayor Marcelino Teodoro earlier announced that his city would open its own testing center, even without the Department of Health’s approval, citing the urgency to deal with the virus in his area.

“This crisis highlights the continuing tension between central and local governments,” said Teehankee.

“No doubt that the central government is ultimately in charge. It’s the only one with the capacity to address such national undertaking. But the local governments will always be the frontliners especially when speed is critical.”

As a matter of “inter-local government cooperation” provided in the 1991 law, the Marikina testing center can also run samples from other Metro Manila communities, said Alex Brillantes, former public administration dean at the University of the Philippines.

“Metro Manila is too fragmented in the delivery of services,” he told ABS-CBN News. “Kanya-kanyang kamada e. Hindi pwede yan.”

[Every one is doing his own thing. That’s not the way to go.]


Duterte’s handling of the health crisis has so far reflected a “governance schizophrenia,” said Yusingco, who cited the high-handed tone of the president’s proclamations while his inter-agency task force “recognizes the benefits of local autonomy.”

The president earlier told local governments to “stand down” following claims that some of them were implementing programs beyond the rules he had set.

“Good leaders would put a premium on cooperation and collaboration between the 2 levels of government rather than on intimidation and domination,” Yusingco said.

“So, to see this administration resort to the latter is disappointing especially since the president claims to be a champion of decentralization and federalism,” he added, noting that local government should have been given full responsibility to implement the quarantine.

This way, he said the national government could have focused on beefing up hospitals for the influx of more COVID-19 patients, conducting mass testing, and crafting a “coherent economic strategy to partner with the lockdown.”

“This did not happen precisely because there was no cooperative and collaborative approach from the very start,” Yusingco said.

“The focus of the administration’s immediate response was on strongly enforcing the lockdown order and imposing its unilateral directives on local governments.”