By Maria Elissa J. Lao
The first month of 2020 has given us much to consider. The current climate of unrest in the Middle East, the sudden eruption of Taal Volcano, and the emergence of the coronavirus strain from Wuhan, China has no doubt given us more than a little cause for pause. It has also brought to the fore the different roles that the Philippine State plays in responding to the needs of Filipinos in times of crisis, whether natural or manmade.
The relationship between citizen and state is not a static one. It is one of adaptation and constant interpretation and re-interpretation and should be premised by the fact that by the current political, social, economic, and environmental context, the state is only one of many actors that has the power to regulate the way citizen’s behave during times of uncertainty. It no longer has monopoly of people’s actions in times of great (or even small) change.
In the case of the Middle East, mandatory repatriation in affected areas may not necessarily mean full compliance as past crisis events have shown numerous considerations by Filipinos abroad factor into their decision to stay put during perilous times. These periods of unrest abroad also reveal that non-state efforts to keep Filipinos safe (churches, local networks and groups, media outfits, and even individual employers) are similarly robust and are considered by Filipino workers as options to secure their safety. There is no judgement here in terms of the effectivity of state and non-state actors, but the reality is that previous similar events have shown that our citizens abroad utilize multiple channels when considering their options, which points to the fact that the State does not have the monopoly on their care.
On a more local level, the days following the Taal Volcano eruption has likewise shown variation in the response of the national and local government representatives, as well as other actors in the scenario. Assistance has also found form in multiple state and non-state channels with both donors and recipients having the agency to choose the forms of assistance to give and receive. The forays into the 14-kilometer danger zone to assess damage, prevent looting, and preserve livestock has been enforced by the state but also negotiated by the LGUs and their constituents as affected populations struggle with the unthinkable consequences of the loss of livelihood and the disruption of their way of life.
Finally, the uncertainty of a more undetectable threat, the novel coronavirus 2019, has required international and national government agencies, including ports, hospitals, and even local governments to implement additional protocols to protect the local population from the spread of the virus. Again, in the requiring vigilance of both public and private actors, a shift takes place in the context of a robust tourism industry and the increased Chinese population entering the Philippines for employment: one that requires some re-evaluation again, of the role of the state in protecting the Philippine population. While at times subtle, the transportable nature of diseases may figure more prominently in the redefinition of the relationship between citizen and state in the near future.
None of the scenarios outlined here have a certainty to their respective conclusions and in relation to this, I argue that contrary to the what it is supposed to be, the state should not be as inflexible in its role as it responds to these issues. The shifting relationship between citizen and state is a hallmark of 21st century governance as the world and all of us in it, continue to evolve.
Maria Elissa Jayme Lao, DPA, is the Director of the Institute of Philippine Culture and an assistant professor at the Department of Political Science at the Ateneo de Manila University.