A survey by the polling firm Social Weather Stations (SWS), the results of which were released on July 12, found that hunger incidence among Filipinos had reached 21%+ of the country’s 105 million population, or more than four million families whose members had gone hungry at least once during the past three months. Only in the National Capital Region (NCR) has hunger incidence declined; it has risen in Mindanao, the Visayas, and the rest of Luzon.

It was hardly news to this country’s poorest families whose already desperate plight became even more urgent when their breadwinners lost their jobs or had their occupations and paltry earnings restricted and diminished by the government’s lockdown of their communities. In a number of instances that the more responsible news media reported, such self-help initiatives as community pantries have been overwhelmed by thousands of needy people, who, when interviewed, told harrowing stories of their children’s perennial hunger, and thanked the heavens for the vegetables, instant noodles, and rice they had managed to procure which they said were enough to feed their families for a week.

The pandemic is, of course, responsible for the shutdown of many businesses, the consequent loss of some four million jobs, and the resulting economic recession. Containing the contagion is the first condition necessary to achieve some measure of economic recovery. But despite a Department of Health (DoH) claim that the Philippines is already in the “low risk” category of COVID-19 afflicted countries, only some four million out of the 70 million who have to be fully vaccinated to achieve herd immunity have been immunized. Many localities are still under Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ), even as a number of the more transmissible Delta variant infections have been detected among returning travelers and overseas workers from afflicted countries.

At about the same time that the results of a survey on respondents’ preferences for President and Vice-President were released, 12 senators proposed an investigation into the alleged use of public funds to pay for the troll farms that spread disinformation through the internet and even incite violence against human rights defenders and regime critics. Those troll farms would very likely be used in support of the campaigns for public office of Mr. Duterte’s chosen candidates.

Pressed for a response, the lead public relations arm of government, the hugely funded Presidential Communication Operations Office (PCOO), admitted that it had recently hired more than 300 “consultants” but denied that they would be part of the keyboard army of trolls that over social media have been adding to the crisis of information on public matters by demonizing government critics and spreading outright lies about the regime’s alleged accomplishments and Mr. Duterte and company’s continuing popularity.

As if to give credence to that latter claim, SWS rival Pulse Asia released the results of its own recent poll, which found that if the Presidential and Vice-Presidential elections were held today, a (Sara) Duterte-(Rodrigo) Duterte combination would prevail over such other likely candidates as Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno Domagoso, boxer cum-senator Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao, and Vice-President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo.

The surveys since 2016 have found an average of 75% approval rating for Mr. Duterte, which was recently at 65%. Many informed Filipinos were as incredulous about it as they were about the electorate’s alleged preference for a Duterte-Duterte tandem. Hunger incidence among Filipinos has, after all, been steadily rising during the Duterte regime. It has been aggravated by regime failure to contain the pandemic by acquiring enough vaccine doses and accelerating the rate of vaccinations so as to hasten the normalization of business activities and end the recession in addition to easing the public health crisis.

The regime has also harassed and terrorized organizers of community pantries and red-tagged charitable organizations that tried to set up soup kitchens to feed the hungry, and it has mismanaged — to put it politely — the billion-peso social amelioration program (SAP) that could have helped tide over millions of families while they await the economic recovery that would enable their heads to find employment and put food on the table, but which Pacquiao, among others, says is so corruption-ridden as to merit an independent inquiry on who are responsible. The drug-related killings that local and international human rights groups say have claimed the lives of 30,000 alleged drug users and pushers are also an additional factor in hunger incidence, most of the victims being family breadwinners.

The skeptical have questioned the methods of the polling firms, among other attempts to denigrate their findings that on the matter of hunger incidence and Mr. Duterte and company’s approval ratings contradict each other. (If more people are hungry, why do they still want to keep the Duterte clique in power?) Others, this writer included, have suggested that the favorable results of the polls on Mr. Duterte could be at least partly due to fears that any criticism of the regime will invite retaliation.

But these results may not be due to infirmities in the leading polling firms’ methodology. Crucial to the polling method is the survey respondents’ being representative of the entire Philippine population. Both SWS and Pulse Asia’s track record of their findings’ being validated by the outcome of elections over the last 30 years suggests that they have indeed found such a community. While fear could account for the answers of some survey respondents, as Pulse Asia has admitted is possible, it may not be so dominant a factor as to decide survey results as some believe.

What is most likely is the extent and resounding success of the regime disinformation campaign that, while primarily based in social media, is evident as well in the reports and commentaries by mercenary practitioners in some print and broadcast media organizations. Disinformation has spread enough to debase public awareness of what is going on in this country and to contribute to the worsening of the crisis in information that already afflicts vast sectors of the populace, particularly and ironically its poorest, who are the first victims of the extrajudicial killings that have widowed and orphaned thousands of women and children, and of the hunger and deprivation that have surged during the current regime.

Because of the disinformation campaign the troll farms have been relentlessly conducting, it is the least critical and most disempowered who think that the Duterte regime is doing the best it can in a bad situation. Many think the pandemic an act of God and something about which little can be done. Still others also assume that because “he’s one of us,” Mr. Duterte cannot possibly be blamed for their predicament. Most all, however, what can account for the disparity between the difficulties being experienced by millions and their continuing approval of the regime responsible for them is the mass incapacity to see the connection of one with the other: how central the quality of governance is to the quality of everyone’s lives.

The disconnect between mass suffering and mass approval of the regime is indisputable — and distressing in its implications. The possibility that by next year the country will find itself still under the same provincial despotism that has been ravaging it since 2016 may very well be the most outstanding achievement of the keyboard army of trolls that, sustained by the billions in public funds in the hands of the huge government public relations bureaucracy, will very likely find their numbers further augmented as the May 9, 2022 elections draw near.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).

Published in Business World
July 22, 2021

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