Elections in a Pandemic: How Filipinos Can Safely Elect Their Leaders

First published on The Diplomat on 9 March 2022, "Elections in a Pandemic: How Filipinos Can Safely Elect Their Leaders" was produced under the ANFREL Southeast Asia Media Fellowship on Election Reporting.

The Philippines will soon conduct one of Asia’s largest elections in 2022. One expert says the campaign period is beginning to look like a “public health nightmare.”

On February 8, tens of thousands of people left their homes to support their preferred presidential and vice presidential candidates, as the Philippines marked the start of the 90-day campaign period leading to national elections in May.

Candidates have formally launched the race to replace President Rodrigo Duterte, whose six-year term will end in June this year. Presidential and vice presidential hopefuls, together with their senatorial slates, held proclamation rallies in various parts of the country, drawing large crowds of supporters.

With a record-breaking 65.7 million registered voters, the Philippines will hold one of the largest elections in Asia on May 9 even as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into its third year. A total of 18,100 positions, from the president and vice president down to city board member positions, are up for grabs. Millions of voters will leave their homes in 106,174 clustered precincts to cast ballots at 37,141 voting centers across the country.

Learning from the experience of other countries that held elections during the pandemic, the Philippines can safely hold its national election. But this pivotal democratic exercise must be done with extra caution to ensure that voters are safe and won’t be disenfranchised if the coronavirus wrecks havoc in the country.

As the election season heats up, candidates tour the nation, wooing voters in a country spread across more than 7,000 islands, in a desperate attempt to secure votes before election day. Although the coronavirus has tempered what is otherwise usually an ecstatic time in the country, candidates are still drawing thousands of people to events that often neglect prevailing protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

At the prime tourist destination of Boracay Island, opposition Vice President Leni Robredo made a stop to have a dialogue with residents and tourists alike. Wearing pink shirts and masks, Robredo’s supporters gave her a rock star reception in a simple event organized by volunteers near the island’s famous white sandy beach. Attendees were organized at first, but protocols were neglected as soon the event ended and everyone attempted to get as close as possible to Robredo.

Scenes of huge crowds are repeated each day as candidates make the most out of their limited time to campaign. Often, physical distancing, mask-wearing, and the prohibition on taking selfies to avoid close contact are violated by candidates and their supporters, across all political camps.

The lack of physical distancing, the cheering, and people pulling down their masks are beginning to look like a “public health nightmare,” Dr. Albert Domingo, health systems specialist and public health consultant, told The Diplomat.

“It’s concerning that your candidates are going around the country and they’re actually organizing superspreader events and rallies,” Domingo said. “Our candidates are practically, I don’t know, if they’re still doing distancing, I don’t see any distancing anymore.”

Since the pandemic hit the Philippines in 2020, the country has had one of the longest lockdowns in the world and at one point recorded the most COVID-19 infections in Southeast Asia.

Just a month before the start of the official campaign period, the Philippines welcomed 2022 with a record-breaking surge driven by the highly infectious Omicron variant. As soon as the Christmas festivities were over, the country’s hospitals were quickly overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients; testing laboratories were swamped and pharmacies ran out of common medicines to treat flu-like symptoms. The January surge saw daily reported cases reaching as high as 39,000 cases, with a positivity rate of 47 percent, the highest since the pandemic began.

“No election is out of the question. It’s unconstitutional,” Domingo said. “We do not want to eliminate the elections because, from a public health perspective, good governance is the solution to end this pandemic, not only in the Philippines, but also worldwide. It’s a medicine that we have to take. But we have to minimize the side effects of that medicine.”

Cases started to drop in February just as the campaign period for the national elections kicked off. The country has also reopened to international travelers and tourists who are fully vaccinated after nearly two years of imposing travel restrictions on foreigners.

Experts are projecting that new daily COVID-19 cases could be as low as 400 in March. But the Philippines is not out of the woods yet. More and more public health experts are expressing fears that the campaign activities could become superspreader events and could set off a new surge.

High Stakes

The May 2022 elections are expected to be one of the most hotly contested votes in recent Philippine history. Analysts and observers see the elections as a referendum on President Duterte: a choice between continuing his style of governance and power or shifting to a more democratic government.

Leading the presidential race according to early surveys is Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the son and namesake of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos who was ousted and forced to flee the country during the EDSA People Power Revolution in 1986.

Vice President Leni Robredo, the leader of the opposition, is Marcos’ closest challenger. She defeated him in the vice presidential race in 2016.

Other candidates for the presidency include Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, Senator Panfilo Lacson, boxing champ Manny Pacquiao, and labor leader Leody de Guzman.

Jayeel Cornelio, sociologist and director of development studies at Ateneo de Manila University, said 2022 will be a “crisis presidency.”

“This is unprecedented, at least in recent Philippine history, precisely because we are still in the middle of a crisis. So whoever wins this presidency or whoever, I mean, the totality of all the candidates, all these national and local leaders will become crisis leaders, whether they like it or not,” Cornelio told The Diplomat.

Whoever wins will have to deal with the great economic fallout from COVID-19 and will have to draw up a strategy for emerging from the pandemic.

Historically, more Filipinos votes in presidential elections every six years than in the midterm elections, which are conducted every three years. In 2016, 54 million Filipinos participated in the polls that elected Duterte, some 84 percent of registered voters, while only 46.3 million people, or 75 percent of registered voters, participated in the 2019 senatorial elections.

“Emotions are much more different when it’s a presidential election. Presidential elections are pivotal moments,” Cornelio said.

Vote Safely

Angelina Longalong, 62, is a senior citizen and has a comorbidity that puts her at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill from the coronavirus, but this will not stop her from coming out on May 9 to cast her vote.

“I think like everyone else I’m worried, I’m scared,” Longalong, a mother of seven told The Diplomat. “But voting in the elections is everyone’s responsibility so I will come out to vote.”

Longalong will be just one of the nearly 66 million registered voters who will head out on May 9.

“I have no problem voting in May. Everyone wants to see change, right? That’s why we need to vote. I just hope that I and my family will be safe,” she said.

“Even better if the pandemic would be over by then,” she added.

Ensuring that the elections will be conducted safely is doable, experts say, but making sure that people will not be disenfranchised or everyone will be given a chance to safely vote is a challenging undertaking.

The Commission on Elections, or Comelec, has redrawn election rules to incorporate safety measures as the Philippines enters the pandemic “new normal.” One of the notable changes voters can expect on election day is the extension of voting hours by an hour. Proposals for multi-day voting were thumbed down as this would require legislation.

“We start at 6 a.m. and end at 7 p.m., however, at 7 o’clock if there are still voters outside the polling place… we will still continue with the voting,” Comelec Commissioner Marlon Casquejo told the House committee on suffrage and electoral reforms in November 2021.

Lawyer Helen Graido, policy consultant for elections during COVID program at Legal Network for Truthful Elections (LENTE), said their two main recommendations for election managers are ensuring safe and well-ventilated venues and the provision of additional personnel to traffic the crowd of voters on election day.

“We actually recommended that all venues that will serve as voting centers should be audited and inspected beforehand so that the election officers will know how well they set up, for example, the separate or are those specific points for ingress and egress,” Graido told The Diplomat.

Classrooms in public schools are the usual election venues in the Philippines, but they do not have air-conditioning units. These classrooms were not used in the last two years as classes were held remotely, either online or through take-home modules.

“The presence of crowds and actually dissipating the crowd is a solution to help implement safe distancing or social distancing. So we actually pushed for additional support staff,” Graido said, adding that they noted an increase in Comelec’s budget for support staff.

Public health specialist Domingo, who once served as a poll watcher in previous elections, urged Comelec to implement engineering controls to minimize the spread of COVID-19 in thousands of polling centers nationwide.

Domingo stressed the importance of venues that are al fresco or well ventilated, with windows on either side to allow the air to circulate. He also urged Comelec to consider installing HEPA filters or consult the services of engineers to construct the do-it-yourself ones that have become popular during the pandemic.

“If your polling place is in a very, very cramped, not good ventilation place, please, the election officer should have to reconsider that and maybe be transferred to a better site. That’s the best engineering control that can be done, followed by mechanisms to increase air exchange, industrial fans, this is where the engineers come in,” he said.

Aside from ensuring the venues are safe and well-ventilated, Domingo also advocates for special accommodations for vulnerable populations such as senior citizens and those with disabilities or comorbidities that put them at higher COVID-19 risk.

“There can be early or staggered voting, as in the case of absentee voting, but this is only established in so far as the election code is concerned,” he said.

Local absentee voting (LAV) is voting ahead of the elections and only covers essential workers who will be serving on election day, such as security forces, teachers, and members of the media. Domingo said elderly voters must be covered by the LAV, although he admits that legislating that change might not be possible at this point.

For LENTE, these suggestions can be pushed in the next election cycle.

Lessons from Palawan Plebiscite

On March 31, 2021, the Commission on Elections successfully conducted a plebiscite on a proposal to divide the natural resource-rich island province of Palawan in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) into three separate provinces.

Coming out of their homes during a pandemic to vote, Palawan residents overwhelmingly junked the proposal, with voter turnout out of 60 percent of the 490,219 eligible voters.

The Palawan plebiscite was the first electoral exercise ever held during a pandemic in the Philippines.

Lawyer Helen Graido traveled to the island to observe the elections in a remote town so they could come up with recommendations for this year’s national elections.

“The voter turnout was high. It helped that the civil society organization pushed for everyone to vote,” she said.

A public school teacher who served as an election inspector said enforcing COVID-19 protocols during the first two hours of the plebiscite was challenging.

“Everyone wants to vote as early as possible,” said the teacher, who requested anonymity over fear of violating election rules. “There was crowding at first, but we were able to handle the voters.”

“In the end, the plebiscite was like a reunion for us. I was able to see faces I haven’t seen in a long time. I saw some of the parents of some of my students and many of my colleagues,” she said.

As the national election nears, observers and voter rights advocates urged the election commission to start their information campaign and dissemination as early as possible to educate voters of what to expect on May 9.

“At this point communication is also very crucial. Communication affects [the people’s] acceptance and their confidence in the system and the results that will come out of the system,” Graido said.

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