PCEDS STRATEGIC ANALYSIS: COVID-19 Monitoring Issue No. 2: 03 April 2020
The Armed Forces of the Philippines in the Threat of the COVID-19 Pandemic
By: Glyzel Anne B Sapla, Analyst for Military Operations
John Michael Ojano, Analyst for Policy and Strategy
COVID-19: Global Health Emergency
In December of 2019, the Chinese Government alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) of several unusual cases of Pneumonia in the city of Wuhan, central Hubei province of the country. On 07 January 2020, the WHO has identified this as a new virus naming it the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and is identified as belonging to the family of coronaviruses, which includes the common cold and the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). On 30 January 2020, the WHO declared the COVID-19 as a global health emergency with 9,692 cases and at least 213 deaths reported worldwide The disease was declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organization on 11 March 2020 as the reported cases globally rose to 118,000 with 4,291 deaths spread across 114 countries. As of 10:00 CET 31 March 2020, the virus has already infected a total of 719,700 people and has claimed the lives of 33,673 all over the world with Italy identified as the new epicenter of the disease with 10,781 confirmed deaths due to the virus.
With the alarming rise in cases globally, more than 50 of the world’s governments or almost one-third of the world affected by the COVID-19 pandemic have looked to security measures in order to contain the situation and prevent the possible spread of the virus. Governments have tapped on their law enforcement agencies and military to enforce lockdowns of their communities and to strengthen border security while its health departments and institutions work around the clock in addressing the health emergency at hand.
The Philippines Situation
In the Philippines, the government’s health department has recorded a total of 1,075 COVID-19 cases in 2-3 weeks with 68 of the cases resulting in the death of the patients and a total of 35 recoveries, bringing the total number of closed cases to 103. In total, the health department has conducted 2,686 COVID-19 tests as of writing.
The Philippine government issued Presidential Proclamation 922 s. 2020 which placed the whole country in a state of a public health emergency. This placed all national government agencies and local government units in alert to readily provide their cooperation and support in response to efforts addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects in the country. This also created the Inter-agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID) as a response to the emergency. On 12 March 2020, the government placed its national capital region, Metro Manila, under community quarantine by virtue of Joint Resolution No. 11 issued by the IATF-MEID. This imposed restrictions on the movement of the populace within Metro Manila as well as those entering and exiting the region starting midnight of 15 March 2020. Said restrictions covered all land, air, and sea travels during the community quarantine period.
On 16 March 2020, the second day of the implementation of the community quarantine, the government declared a state of calamity in the whole country for six (6) months and placed the entire island of Luzon under Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ) due to the rapid increase of cases of infection until 12 April 2020. The enhanced community quarantine enforces stricter restrictions on the movement of the populace within the island of Luzon limiting it only to medical workers, security personnel and other essential workers and industries such as food, medicine, waste disposal, etc. For those not in the said sectors, they are directed to undergo strict home quarantine only to leave their houses in cases of emergency and to buy necessities. The executive department has also instructed its offices to observe work from home arrangements except those in offices providing essential services. Essential services are required to have skeleton workforces during the period of the ECQ.
With this, the government has instructed its security forces to place quarantine checkpoints to limit the movement of people that can contribute to containing the spread of the virus. The law enforcement agencies such as the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), with support from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and in coordination with local government units, have been directed to exact all measures in ensuring peace and order in all affected areas during the period of the ECQ.
In support to the law enforcement agencies handling the peace and order situation during the ECQ period, the AFP deployed its forces and assisted in manning the quarantine checkpoints ensuring the smooth movement of basic commodities in and out of affected areas while monitoring and keeping the health of those passing through in check. The military has also deployed some of its assets in response to the emergency.
The AFP’s mandate and other policies on Civil Defense
The AFP is mandated under the constitution as the protector of the people and the State. Its primary goal is to uphold and secure the sovereignty of the State and the integrity of the national territory. This makes the AFP one of the primary agencies of the government in providing security and safety to its population during times of emergencies along with the country’s police force. With this, in the initiatives to curb the worsening of the COVID-19 pandemic situation in the Philippines, the AFP was one of the very first agencies tapped by the national government to enact and enforce the mechanisms put in place as a response to the said emergency.
The AFP, along with the Philippine National Police (PNP) is part of the Whole-of-Government Approach observed in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. Hence, all agencies of government, both national and local, take part in this endeavor, especially in providing adequate resources, facilities, and even human resources. Notably, the measures outlined by IATF-MEID, which is headed by the Department of Health (DOH) and where the AFP is a part of, have to be enforced diligently, including the enforcement of a community quarantine in Metro Manila and the setting up of checkpoints in its borders to restrict the movement of people going in and out of the capital region to prevent the spread of the virus.7 Also, the National Action Plan (NAP) to address COVID-19 indicates that to supplement the IATF which serves as the policy-making body of the operations, the National Task Force (NTF) for COVID-19 shall serve as the operational command with the Defense Secretary at the helm. In line with this, the recently signed “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act” grants the President special powers that will allow the NAP on COVID-19 to be implemented in the most expeditious manner. Besides these measures, the AFP plays an active role in taking action and in the prudent contingency planning to respond in a timely way to any request from other government departments or civil authorities for support during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vital to the success of this effort is the high level of inter-agency coordination that the defense and security sector should implement with the AFP and Philippine National Police (PNP) taking the lead. This coordination will be facilitated in tandem with government agencies, LGU, non-government organizations, and civil society organizations so that a holistic approach to this challenge can be pursued
As the constitutionally mandated institution to protect the people and the state, the AFP is prepared to contribute to the national efforts to respond to epidemics and pandemics like that of COVID-19. Their contribution supplements the hard labor of the medical workers and other frontliners towards the implementation of the ECQ to successfully curb the rise of COVID-19 cases. It is because of their organized nature and apparent Chain of Command, their expertise not only to conventional enemies, their sufficient logistics, proficiency in civil operations and combat awareness, as well as their indomitable spirit is what makes the men and women in uniform fit to the job. It is because of these set of skills and their organization’s capacity that other government agencies and the civilian populace can rely on them in building temporary clinics, in carrying tons of supplies and equipment, in maintaining peace and order, ensuring the unimpeded supply of food and non-food supplies in the communities, as well as maintaining a systematic and orderly implementation of the measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, and in assuring that government response is not hampered by any threat.
AFP’s Response to COVID-19
With the country being placed in a state of calamity and its national capital region, Metro Manila, placed under enhanced community quarantine, the AFP extended its support to law enforcement agencies by providing personnel to assist in maintaining peace and order in affected areas and deploy its essential assets in the efforts to prevent the widespread proliferation of the disease in the country and to augment the government services and responses during the enhanced community quarantine period.
1. AFP Support as Force Multiplier
In terms of its personnel, on 16 March 2020, immediately after the placing of Metro Manila under community quarantine, the Philippine Army (PA) fielded one (1) army battalion, amounting to 3,000 soldiers, to augment the personnel of the Joint Task Force – National Capital Region (JTF-NCR) which was initially tasked to man the border quarantine checkpoints of Metro Manila and its nearby provinces placed under the community quarantine. During the said period, the Army also placed its units with Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) defense capabilities as well as its military doctors on standby alert status and are ready to be deployed once called upon.
The Philippine Navy (PN) deployed a total of 500 Marines to assist law enforcement agencies such as the Philippine Coast guard in enforcing the community quarantine in the Manila Bay Area. The deployment of additional military personnel by the PN is in response to the issuance of Presidential Proclamation 929 which places the whole island of Luzon under enhanced community quarantine and the country as a whole under the state of calamity.
2. Logistics Support Provided
In terms of logistics support, the various military units in all major service branches have put on standby their military equipment with some other units such as the Philippine Air Force’s Tactical Operations Group 11 based in the Davao region formulating 70% ethyl alcohol which they intend for use of their personnel deployed in response to the crisis with the shortage of supplies in supermarkets and groceries of the said necessity.
The PA also boosted up its medical capabilities with the addition of two (2) new ambulances donated by the Lucio Tan Group of Companies, Inc. on 23 March 2020. Said equipment is to be utilized to boost the capabilities of the technical units especially medical personnel in support of the efforts of the government against the spread of COVID-19 in affected areas.
While serving the country and protecting the public from the spread of COVID-19, the Philippine military also takes care of its personnel deployed in the frontlines of the fight against the disease by providing free check-ups to said personnel as well as providing their necessities while on duty such as in the case of the PA wherein the Army Headquarters sent medical teams to their personnel on the field augmenting their law enforcement counterparts to provide the necessary care for them.
The military is also ready as tasked to provide logistics and security support for the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) in ensuring the unhampered delivery of supplies through coordination with LGUs as well as transporting stranded individuals seeking to return to their provinces in coordination with the DOH, such as in the case in the Cordillera region.
3. Asset to Mobility
The three branches of service of the AFP have provided and augmented their various mobility assets to aid civilians and the government in its plight against COVID-19. For instance, the “Libreng Sakay” transportation scheme of the PA operates in nine (9) routes all over Metro Manila and, is available from five to nine in the morning and from four in the afternoon till nine in the evening and has been serving an average of 1,500 citizens a day. However, this transportation assistance is only limited for health workers and employees of essential services in Metro Manila. Besides assisting the mobility of frontlines within the Region, PA has also managed and delivered numerous donations from private organizations and individuals such as, but are not limited to, ambulances for additional medical aid, camper mats for medical professionals, food and water supply, and other relief goods. The military, however, cannot cover all bases of the mobility requirements especially on food and water supply coming from distant provinces.
The PN, on the other hand, has continued to conduct maritime patrols along with the Coast Guard. Task Group Laban COVID-19, which is under the supervision of the Naval Task Group-National Capital Region, aims to intercept and deny entry and exit of commercial passenger watercraft to and from the vicinity of Manila Bay. Their efforts complement all land quarantine assistance stations or checkpoints of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the Philippine National Police and other government agencies to ensure that people from outside NCR do not enter NCR by sea and vice versa, preventing people coming in or going out thereby risking the spread of the virus. Besides the Enhanced Community Quarantine in NCR, several provinces have likewise implemented similar quarantines to prevent the spread of COVID-19 outside NCR. However, as an archipelagic country with vast waters, the logistics and personnel of the PN and CG are likewise limited, and thus, are deemed insufficient to ensure that no water transportation/vehicles can roam freely in the provinces with community quarantines emplaced.
Likewise, since the imposition of travel restrictions for all international and domestic flights, the Philippine Air Force (PAF) has airlifted sealed laboratory specimens for COVID-19 testing and boxes of personal protective equipment (PPEs) to and from different provinces in support of ongoing efforts to contain the spread of the disease. Also, PAF extracts purchased and donated PPEs and testing kits from neighboring countries.14 Furthermore, PAF is continuously assisting in the manning of airports and helipads and is on standby for emergency airlifts. As military aircraft are also limited, determining the priority of flights has been crucial.
4. Specialized Contingent
Modern military power is designed to respond to a comprehensive suite of conventional, asymmetric or unconventional threats. The latter includes chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons, often referred to as CBRN. The AFP has standard operating procedures in the deployment of its CBRN Medical Responder Teams, particularly to undertake medical intelligence and surveillance on preventive medicines and biological risk assessment. For instance, the PA has deployed soldiers who belong to their CBRN units to deal with the control and neutralization of a virulent virus that has infected hundreds of Filipinos across various parts of the country. These soldiers are also in charge of decontamination and disinfection of areas that may have been exposed to the virus.
The following are the short-term recommendations for the defense sector:
- AFP Health Service Units must be equipped for COVID-19.The AFP Health Service falls within the sustainment and protection functions of the military. In terms of sustainment, the Health Service Support (HSS) is at the forefront while the Force Health Protection (FHP) falls within the protection function. The objective of the HSS is to conserve the fighting strength of the tactical units by reducing the incidence of Disease and Non-Battle Injury (DNBI) and to respond to combat and operational stress. FHP, on the other hand, protects all military personnel before and after deployment and is designed to improve the soldier’s health, prepare them for deployment and prevent casualties. In times of a CBRN threat, the AFP Health Service is the backbone of the CBRN capability of the military, particularly to address chemical and biological threats. Thus, they must be well equipped and proficient in conducting medical intelligence and surveillance, detection, preventive medicines, biological risk assessment, and biohazard communication. Their expertise can ensure that the AFP can address the health risks of its frontline personnel and their dependents, as well as to contribute to the national health efforts of the government.
- Improve medical and non-medical protocols to properly manage military personnel who are PUMs, and PUIs. Military personnel are not immune to the virus, thus, like other citizens, they are at risk especially given their exposure from being part of the frontline to their engagement with foreign counterparts and other high-level officials who are either PUMs, PUIs, or are COVID-19 positive. This further complicates the situation given the possibility that without proper protocol and equipment, the number of infected frontliners may increase thereby affecting the operational tempo for support to law enforcement activities and operational readiness for humanitarian assistance. Of course, disclosure of information regarding the number of military personnel affected by the COVID-19 should remain confidential as other military forces with malign objectives may exploit this information. What is even alarming is the possibility that top military officials, not just those deployed at the frontline, will be infected by the virus. In that case, it will create more uncertainty and noise that can be taken advantage of by other militaries to effortlessly pursue their objectives.
- Improve Strategic Communication. The national government has deployed the AFP to be part of the frontliners in the fight against the COVID-19. Many misconstrued this as the militarization of the pandemic and even as a quasi-martial law. Though the source and political inclination of this interpretation and messaging are quite obvious, the initial confusion on the policy measures of the government contributed to this perceived ‘plot hole’ in the narrative of the government to address the health concern. And so, while this may be brushed off as political exploitation, doing so does not dismiss the observation that strategic communication is all the more important in times of crisis. Deploying AFP personnel at check-points to implement community quarantines is not an isolated case, it has been a practice and many countries are now deploying their military forces to respond to this crisis. Yet, those who understand the power of messaging and information has again painted the AFP in a negative light.
- Identify communities that are at high risk to both COVID-19 infection and social unrest.The security consequences of the socio-economic implications of the COVID-19 situation should be closely monitored by the defense department. The department and its bureaus should be able to monitor vulnerable communities that may revert to communist affected status or unaffected but fragile areas following the socio-economic disruptions in their areas. The insurgent groups may exploit the current situation to recruit more fighters and members. Using appropriate resources, the department should create a monitoring system for this purpose and ensure that relief and assistance are extended to those most vulnerable and greatly affected by the pandemic.
With the current situation and the urgent need to address the alarming rise of cases and spread of the disease not only in the country but also globally, a holistic whole of government approach is needed to prevent the worsening of the situation. This can be done by focusing all resources in initiatives to strengthen the efforts of the health department and the medical sector in finding the cure to the disease, augmenting the basic needs sector in aiding the public to get through economically throughout the enhanced community quarantine, and ensuring the peace, order, and safety of the public by the government security forces.
The COVID-19 public health emergency is no longer a situation that is only of medical concern and can be addressed by medical solutions alone as it affects public safety on a larger scale and is a national security concern. What the situation calls for is a multi-pronged approach where health, social welfare, economy, and security are the main lines of efforts needed to be addressed.
With security as one of the main lines of efforts, the government’s security forces (PNP, PCG, and AFP) are needed to enforce the laws and other issuances that have been passed to address the current emergency. By manning quarantine checkpoints and providing increased police visibility to ensure peace and order during the period, the security and safety of the public are in at most the purpose and the main role of the government security forces during this emergency. They do not only maintain and enforce the law but also contribute and help in the spread and contain the virus by enforcing the strict home quarantine in place by the government.
The able government security forces may also contribute, if need be, directly in the line of effort on health by deploying its medical personnel and capabilities as well as assets and equipment to augment the country’s health department. In a worst-case scenario, the government is ready to deploy the military’s CBRN capable units in the event of massive spread and infection to augment the country’s health department’s response to the threat of widespread proliferation of the disease.
Overall, with the current crisis that the nation faces, the military heeds the call of the civilian authorities to perform and uphold their duty to protect the people and help enforce the law. It is of utmost importance for the national security policymakers and responders to work for and uphold public safety in situations like this.
NDCP-PCEDS is a specialized research and training center established at the National Defense College of the Philippines through Department Order 404 dated 18 September 2018. It is mandated to provide policy-relevant research on global strategic affairs to address strategic change and security priorities of the country, and to facilitate cooperation and coordination with national, regional, and international organizations working on defense and security issues.
The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense College of the Philippines, the Department of National Defense, and the Philippine Government.
COVID-19 Research Group of PCEDS
Dr Gloria Jumamil-Mercado, MNSA – Chairperson and Editor-in-Chief
Mr Rej Cortez Torrecampo – Senior Analyst
Mr John Michael Ojano – Analyst for Policy and Strategy
Ms Glyzel Anne B Sapla – Analyst for Military Operations
Ms Kim Ellise Bartilad – Analyst for Crisis Management
Mr William Vincent Obcemea – Analyst for Global Affairs