In mid-March, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered parts of the country to go into a quarantine that would eventually last up to 80 days, and become one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns.
Protests against job losses and food shortages during that period were met with a strong police response and mass arrests. In April, Duterte publicly said police should “shoot … dead” anyone who violated virus restrictions.
Though restrictions were eased in June, owing to concerns around the economny, coronavirus cases have since risen with the Philippines currently reporting the second-highest number of confirmed cases in Southeast Asia.
But as millions of Filipinos return to lockdown, critics of the President allege that newly introduced sweeping anti-terror legislation could be used to further stifle dissent — especially around the virus.
“If (this) happened at a time when we weren’t under quarantine, there would have been mass protests outside,” said Maria Ressa, a journalist and critic of the Duterte administration.
“For Filipinos, to do that meant risking not just the virus, but risking arrest. And if the virus doesn’t get you, prison will.”
By March, half of the country was under a complete lockdown as coronavirus cases began to spread rapidly.
But the law also gave Duterte emergency powers, including the ability to take over private medical facilities and public transportation. Under the new law, anyone who violated quarantine restrictions faced up to two months in prison or a $20,000 fine.
And as the lockdown continued, tensions began to rise.
Videos from the rally appeared to show protesters being violently dispersed by police officers, including some senior citizens. It was that same day that Duterte made his “shoot to kill” speech.
Human rights groups have alleged that some people who were arrested were singled out for public humiliation at the hands of local police, including LGBT youths saying they were forced to kiss each other in custody.
Countrywide lockdown extended
The law, which the government maintains is necessary to combat rising Islamic militancy in the south of the country, expands the legal definition of terrorism and allows suspected terrorists to be arrested without a warrant and detained for up to 24 days.
The Philippine government didn’t respond to CNN’s requests for comment on allegations of police misconduct and claims the anti-terrorism laws could be abused.
The countrywide lockdown officially ended on June 1 after 80 days — longer than the restrictions in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak originated.
“President Duterte likes to say he likes to govern using violence and fear. That’s certainly been exacerbated by Covid,” Ressa said.
The anti-terror law in particular has caused concern over its potential misuse and broad application.
“The Anti-Terrorism Act is a human rights disaster in the making,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The law will open the door to arbitrary arrests and long prison sentences for people or representatives of organizations that have displeased the President.”
Supporters of the law have pushed back at such concerns, however, noting that under the law, protest, advocacy, and dissent are protected so long as they don’t “create a serious risk to public safety.”
Back into lockdown
Medical professionals had pushed for a reintroduction of restrictions. At least 80 medical association signed a letter Saturday urging the President to tighten restrictions. “We are exhausted, both physically and mentally. Most of us are already getting infected with Covid-19,” said Philippine College of Physicians President Mario Panaligan in the letter, according to CNN Philippines.
But with new restrictions come fears from critics, such as Ressa, that authorities will take further advantage of the crisis.
Ressa said she is concerned the new emergency powers put in place to prevent the epidemic will remain in place even after the pandemic is over.
“This is the death by a thousand cuts. … (The government) takes power away from you and you will not regain those rights. That’s what we’ve learned in the last four years. That’s why we keep saying we have to hold the line,” she said.
CNN’s Emily Liu contributed to this article.