Disease and epidemics the only winners in Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’

Jonas Bagas

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte repeatedly declares that the government is winning the ‘war on drugs’. Despite criticism from home and abroad, he insists that the bloody war is delivering results: ‘overall crime rate is down’; ‘close to 1 million drug users and pushers have surrendered’. He also claims this has led to a significant slowdown in drug trade and that ‘bigtime’ drug criminals have been identified.

There are, of course, reasons to question the authenticity of these claims. In the first place, Duterte’s war is premised on sketchy and exaggerated data, and as Reuters earlier reported, his claims on the extent of the Philippine drug and crime problem are belied by official government data on the prevalence of drug use and drug addiction in the country. The same report notes that overall crime rate was already in decline prior to Duterte’s presidency, thus this change cannot to be attributed to the current ‘war on drugs’. Furthermore, while Duterte has been quick to attribute crimes and even domestic terrorism to drugs, there is no credible data that show causal relationship between drug use and criminal acts.

Similar doubts have been raised about the so-called surrenderees. Using an arbitrarily drawn list of accused drug users and dealers, police officers go around predominantly poor communities to “ask” drug suspects to surrender and sign a waiver confirming that they are indeed a drug offender. Called tokhang (from toktok knock and hangyo ask), this anti-drug police operation has led to hundreds of killings and has instilled fear in many communities. Tokhang operations have been linked to extrajudicial and summary killings, and a Senate panel has declared the operation to be unconstitutional for violating the rights of the accused.

For now, the government is winning the perception war. Armed with his own online warriors and trolls, many of whom have no qualms about circulating fake news (see the BBC’s report on Duterte’s sophisticated social media machine), the President is still very popular among Filipinos, the majorityof whom remain satisfied with the anti-drug campaign.

Sustaining the public’s support, however, will be challenging. The ever increasing political and social costs of the anti-drug campaign will eventually start to erode Duterte’s popularity. In six months, more than 6,000 people have been killed as a result of ‘legitimate’ anti-drug police operations where drug suspects allegedly had either fired at policemen, resisted arrest, or were victims of extrajudicial killings.

Duterte’s previously solid support base is starting to show dents, which can be attributed in part to his narrow-minded focus on drugs. Duterte allies praise the war on drugs, saying that it will make the Philippines as safe as Singapore, and yet a survey done by the Social Weather Station shows that few Filipinos believe police claims that they only kill drug suspects in self-defence. Eight out of 10 Filipinos fear that they or someone they know will be killed in this drug war. It is expected that by early 2017 the government campaign will face legal challenges, and even though he is only in the first year of his six-year term, there are already talks of an impeachment complaint against Duterte.

The hidden costs of this bloody and punitive anti-drug crusade could weaken the Duterte government. The ‘war on drugs’ approach with its resulting mass incarceration of drug users is a known driver of HIV, TB, and hepatitis epidemics, according to a study that published recently in the Lancet. Mass detention under the Duterte government has furthered overcrowding in the Philippine prisons, a scenario that converts crammed prisons into incubators of HIV, TB, and hepatitis. Mobility between prisons and communities guarantees these diseases spread from epidemics in closed settings to the general population.

These public health threats are not unknown to the Philippines, which, according to UNAIDS, is facing one of the world’s fastest-growing HIV epidemics. In the last 10 years the country has witnessed a sharp rise in HIV infection among drug users and it is also among the 22 countries with the highest prevalence of TB, including multi-drug resistant TB. The International Red Cross confirms that TB is more prevalent in Philippine prisons than in civilian communities.

These concerns have led some regional groups and their Philippine-based partners to ask UN agencies, including the UN special rapporteurs on extrajudicial killings and the right to health, to intervene in the human rights and public health crises in the country. The same groups are working with policymakers who are interested in proposing a health and human rights approach to address the country’s drug problem. An advocacy and communications tool is being developed to counter the misconceptions about drugs and drug users that the Duterte government has been promoting. With Duterte emboldening other Southeast Asian governments to intensify their anti-drug campaigns, civil society groups are developing regional strategies to prevent Duterte’s approach to drugs from spreading.

The aim of these strategies is to convince the Philippine government to adopt evidence-based and health and human rights-based approaches towards people who use illegal drugs. Until this happens, no one, not even Duterte, will emerge victorious in his war on drugs. Sadly, the winners will be epidemics and diseases.

Jonas Bagas is a Filipino human rights and HIV advocate currently working for APCASO, an Asia-Pacific regional civil society network of community-based and non-governmental organisations on HIV, health, and social justice