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COVID-19 and the Shadow Pandemic

When the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic on March 11, 2020, an outbreak of anti-China and anti-Chinese hatred and revulsion flooded cyberspace in almost every part of the world. During this time, two other outbreaks seemed to have hijacked governments across the globe.

The COVID-19 outbreak revealed not only the increased vulnerabilities of States, particularly those with weak public health infrastructures. It also intensified citizens and media’s increased demand for transparency and accountability from their governments in spite of governments’ increased call for tolerance and calm from their citizens and media.

While containing the COVID-19 pandemic remained high on both the global and national agenda, COVID-19 has also created an outbreak of “moral panic” resulting in peoples’ increased feelings of fear and anxiety exacerbated by feelings of lack of protection and certainty. More alarmingly, COVID-19 revealed another outbreak, that is, a global surge in gender-based violence exacerbated by the very measures put in place to mitigate the spread of the virus, such as lockdowns, physical distancing, and other forms of restrictions on movement or mobility.

In its “Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women,” the United Nations (2020) noted the exponential increase of gender-based violence. With restricted movement and social isolation measures, “many women are being forced to ‘lockdown’ at home with their abusers at the same time that services to support survivors are being disrupted or made inaccessible” (p. 2). The increase in cases of gender-based violence and the intensity of these incidents prompted the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (2020) to declare violence against women and girls as probably the most devastating consequence of the COVID-19 lockdown.

In light of the global increase in gender-based violence amid the COVID-19 health crisis, the UN Women (2020) launched the Shadow Pandemic public awareness campaign with a 60-second video. The video underscores the alarming upsurge in domestic violence during COVID-19 and urges people to be aware of domestic violence and to act to support women if they know or suspect someone is experiencing violence.

The UN Women’s “Gender Snapshot: COVID-19 in the Philippines” highlighted how various measures to contain the COVID-19 increased the vulnerabilities of women and girls to different forms of violence, harassment, and discrimination. In its recommendations, the UN Women identified the enhancement of reporting and monitoring mechanisms for violence against women and girls as well as of social protections, the availability of women’s shelters as essential services to women and children, the delivery of sexual and reproductive health services, and the implementation of laws on gender-based violence and gender equality.

While the Philippines has various laws addressing violence against women, it does not have any law that addresses the specific increased vulnerabilities of women and girls during a pandemic. It is in this light that the recent proposal of the women senators in the country to push for a bill that seeks to establish programs and protocols to meet women’s special needs during disasters and public health emergencies becomes both timely and relevant.

Senate Bill No. 2088 or “An Act to Ensure Gender Responsive and Inclusive Protocols and Programming to Address the Gender-Differentiated Needs of Women During COVID-19 and other Public Health Concerns, Emergencies, and Disasters” or the “Gender Responsive and Inclusive Pandemic Management Act of 2021” recognizes that the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated violence against women. Its proponents, led by Senator Risa Hontiveros, believe that “it is imperative that policies are tailored to fit the specific needs of women” as the COVID-19 crisis is far from over.

Some of the salient features of the bill include the following:

1. The participation of women in leadership, decision-making and policy-making positions in national and local government’s response and recovery systems during a public health emergency;

2. A higher penalty for any form of discrimination against women during the occurrence of a pandemic or any public health emergency;

3. Gender-based violence preparedness and response systems as essential services;

4. Access to sexual and reproductive health services and other essential services during pandemics and other public health concerns emergencies, and disasters; and

5. The provision of social protection and safety nets.

While the bill is still at the committee stage, it is hoped that the Senate Committee to which the bill has been primarily referred expedites its hearings when the Senate commences its Third Regular Session on July 27. It is also hoped that the members of the House of Representatives see the timeliness and relevance of the proposal and that they will adopt the Senate’s version of the bill to further expedite the legislative process.

The “Gender Responsive and Pandemic Management Act of 2021” is one urgent and important piece of legislation. Members of the House of Representatives must see its importance in the same way as (or more than) it sees charter change. On June 1, the House adopted on third and final reading the Resolution of Both Houses No. 2 (RBH 2) which proposes amendments to the “restrictive” economic provisions of the 1987 Philippine Constitution. The vote seems like an affirmation of the need of the country to arise above the pandemic.

Yes, the country needs to arise above this pandemic. But a charter change is not the way. Not at this time of the pandemic. And not before the synchronized national and local elections are held.

If it is pursued, charter change can lead to another shadow pandemic. Benign at first, to focus on economic provisions; but once it unfolds, it unleashes the malignant force of self-serving interests seeking the removal of term limits, or a shift to a parliamentary system, or the latest craze, that of the president seeking a re-election as vice-president.

This pandemic must end. And it must end now!

 

Diana J. Mendoza, PhD is Chair of the Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University.

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