Is the government sabotaging its own COVID-19 response by undermining trust and neglecting social assistance?

By Joy Aceron* 

In the past weeks after the expiration of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, the Duterte administration took several actions that indicate its overreliance on policing or enforcement of quarantine laws as its main approach in fighting COVID-19.

For one, the fate of the Social Amelioration Program (SAP) is unclear. While the implementation of the SAPs remains incomplete and facing major delays, there is no indication that it will be continued or that another social assistance program is going to be launched. Most of the relief operations both by the national government and local governments have also halted. These indicate that providing social assistance so that people will remain at home has been dropped or de-prioritized from the government's COVID-19 response.

Meanwhile, the government launched 'Oplan Kalinga' whose main objective is to contain the spread of COVID-19 by bringing people who are infected or suspected to quarantine centers. Initial pronouncements from the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) covered by media say that Oplan Kalinga involves house-to-house visit by the police to forcibly take people who are infected or suspected to be positive of COVID-19.

As part of Oplan Kalinga, DILG Undersecretary Martin Diño also suggested last week a shame campaign against those who are infected or suspected to be positive of COVID-19. “So now, it may be right for us to have a shame campaign. This COVID is no longer a joke. Just imagine how many [cases] there are now. Let's not let it grow,” Diño said.

Hyper-policing instigates fear

Since the lockdown, from March 17 to May 31, the Philippine National Police (PNP) have apprehended a total of 188,348 Filipinos for violating quarantine. Of that figure, 57,177 were arrested and charged; 14,712 underwent inquest meaning the person was arrested without a warrant; 107,794 were warned and 23,377 were fined. (See

There were also at least three well-reported killings committed by the police in relation to COVID-19 policing. The most recent of which was the 15-year old girl from Ilocos Sur who was killed after reporting a molestation committed by police officers who arrested her and her friend for allegedly violating quarantine rules.

Central in the COVID-19 response of the Inter-Agency Task Force Against COVID-19 are the check-points and travel bans that are managed mainly by the PNP. There have been several reports of abuses at the checkpoints, including sexual harassment of women.

Fear vs. Trust

The government's over-reliance on policing and its plan to shame COVID-19 patients is premised on the use of fear to make people obey and to control people's behaviors. People are being made to fear taking actions that are violative of quarantine rules lest they will be arrested and punished.

Similarly, the forced quarantine akin to arrest through house-to-house police visits, as well as the shaming campaign, are also likely to make people afraid to come out in the open if in case they feel any symptoms of COVID-19 or if they have close encounters with COVID-19 patients. This will be a serious hurdle in the government's contact-tracing and containment efforts.

In other words, the government's instigation of fear and shame will seriously jeopardize its efforts. This is anathema to trust-building where the government uses transparency, information and awareness-raising as a way to make people get involved and participate in social actions. The involvement and cooperation of people in the Duterte government's COVID-19 response is forced through compulsion, coercion and fear.

Trust is a function of transparency and performance

Several studies in social sciences have shown that citizens are highly likely to trust institutions that are performing well and consistently in providing well-being and delivering results that are beneficial to citizens. A study on the level of political trust in six Asian societies concludes that "economic and political performance of government, are powerful determinants of political trust" (Wong. 2011). 

Meanwhile, an evaluation study of the Aquino government's flagship peace program for conflict areas called PAMANA (Payapa at Masaganang Pamayanan) shows that "delays or non-delivery of 'promised' projects…undermined trust…[and] issues around service delivery and quality erodes trust of peace partners" (Haim, 2019).

There are clearly evidence pointing to the direct relationship between citizen trust and good performance of government. This has been one of the basic premises of good governance and effective public service delivery.

This point is consistent with emerging findings from G-Watch's independent validation of the Social Amelioration Program. Covering 12 barangays in 4 localities all over the country, G-Watch's survey of about 400 SAP beneficiaries and non-beneficiaries shows that there is a significant difference in the trust level towards the government between those who are SAP beneficiaries and those who are not. Consistently, those who are SAP beneficiaries sampled from the SAP list have given high trust rating towards the national, local and barangay governments compared to those conveniently sampled from the community consisting of mixed SAP and non-SAP beneficiaries.

The G-Watch independent validation survey result shows that 68% (164 out of 240) of the SAP beneficiaries surveyed have high trust level towards the national government, while only 54% (115 out of 212) of the mixed SAP and non-SAP beneficiaries who responded gave high trust rating towards the national government. Consistently, fewer SAP beneficiaries gave a low trust rating towards their barangay, 3% of the total respondents, compared to the mixed SAP and non-SAP beneficiaries, 8% of those who responded gave low trust rating towards their barangay. (See here for the G-Watch draft report:

G-Watch's monitoring of citizen entitlements under COVID-19 has also shown that the unclear and confusing information about SAP is a reason people mistrust the program, raising allegations of corruption and favoritism in the program that may or may not be true, but are real in terms of how it affects people's attitude and behavior towards the program (See

This shows the importance of transparency in instigating trust among people. It is a critical element in building confidence and avoiding misinformation that undermines a disaster management and crisis response. Involvement and cooperation of people are best enabled through clear and complete information.

Hyper-policing minus an effective social assistance program dooms the government's COVID-19 response

Without an enabling environment for people to follow quarantine rules, there will be violations regardless of how much force and fear is used by the government. An enabling environment means people are able to more easily observe social distancing, handwashing and wearing of face mask in public places while doing their essential activities. This requires a public transportation system, a work environment and public spaces adjusted to COVID-19 requirements. These are system and policy agenda on the COVID-19 response that only the government can attend to.

Hyper-policing will only instigate fear and mistrust detrimental to a crisis management as huge as dealing with a pandemic. The government will not be able to completely control the actions and behaviors of people, especially if it is people's source of living that is on the line. As per media reports, many of those apprehended are poor and struggling Filipinos who are forced to violate quarantine rules to earn a living. To ensure that no one is forced to go out unless it is absolutely necessary, social assistance must continue. Effective and reliable social assistance programs invite trust of citizens towards the government needed to make people cooperate and be involved in the country's COVID-19 response.

* Joy Aceron is convenor-director of G-Watch ( and research fellow-adviser at Accountability Research Center (