COVID-19 and geopolitics behind Philippines’ U-turn on US military deal

U.S. Marine Lt. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, center, and Lt. Gen. Oscar Lactao, of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, left, unfurl the Balikatan flag at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, May 2017. (Reuters)
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Updated 03 June 2020

COVID-19 and geopolitics behind Philippines’ U-turn on US military deal

  • President Rodrigo Duterte said in February that he was going to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which was signed in 1998
  • Global circumstances and the pandemic prompted a presidential U-turn, according to Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.

MANILA: The COVID-19 outbreak and “heightened superpower tensions” lay behind Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to keep a vital defense pact with the US, his Foreign Affairs secretary said on Wednesday.

Duterte said in February that he was going to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which was signed in 1998. It allows US troops to enter the country and exempts them from passport and visa regulations so that they can participate in military activities within the Philippines.

But global circumstances and the pandemic prompted a presidential U-turn, according to remarks from the Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. 

“We look forward to continuing our strong military partnership with the United States even as we continue to reach out to our regional allies in building a common defense toward enduring stability and peace and continuing economic progress and prosperity in our part of the world,” Locsin told the media. “But in the vast and swiftly changing circumstances of the world, in a time of pandemic and heightened superpower tensions, a world leader must be quick in mind and fast on his feet for the safety of our nation and the peace of the world.”

Locsin sent a note to the US Ambassador to Manila Sung Kim on Monday, informing him that the Philippines was suspending the revocation of the VFA which was due to take effect in August.

The US welcomed the decision to suspend the termination, saying that the long-standing alliance had benefited both the countries and that it looked forward to the “continued close security and defense cooperation” with the Philippines.

Locsin also said that the government’s action “alarms no country in Asia and the rest of the world” and that “on the contrary, it greatly reassures everyone.”

In separate interviews, Manila’s ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also cited the pandemic and rising tensions in the South China Sea as the reasons for Duterte’s change of heart.

“The assistance of the US will increase the government's capacity to fight the pandemic,” Lorenzana replied when asked in what ways it would help the Philippines.

A report from the US Congressional Research Service in March said that the decision to terminate the VFA raised “uncertainties about the future of US-Philippine military cooperation, an essential part of the U.S. security posture” in Asia.

“The Philippines is a US treaty ally, and the termination of the VFA would not change that status,” the report added. “However, broad aspects of US-Philippine cooperation, including military exercises and US access to Philippine military facilities could be made difficult or impossible without the legal protection of the VFA.”

Pregnant mom, unborn child die in India

Updated 08 July 2020

Pregnant mom, unborn child die in India

  • Devastated family mourn latest victim of health system struggling to cope with outbreak

NEW DELHI: The death of an expectant mom and her unborn child after 13 hospitals in one day refused to treat her has put India’s strained health care system under the spotlight.

The devastated husband and 6-year-old child of eight-month pregnant Neelam Singh, 30, are still struggling to come to terms with the “unwarranted loss” a month after her agonizing death in an ambulance outside a hospital in New Delhi.

With more than 100,000 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in the Indian capital, Singh became another victim of a health system battling to cope with patient demand due to a lack of bed space and infrastructure.

That, however, has been little comfort for her family members who said they would never be able to overcome the trauma.

“Those 12 hours were the most traumatic experience of our lives, and we have to live with that trauma,” Shailendra Kumar, Singh’s brother-in-law, told Arab News on Tuesday. Singh had developed complications with her pregnancy on June 5, and Kumar said she was rushed to the same hospital in Noida, Uttar Pradesh where she had been going for regular checkups, but was turned away.

“Shivalik (hospital) gave no reason for refusing to admit her. Despite our pleadings, the hospital did not budge from its stand,” Kumar added.

A day-long ordeal ensued, with one hospital after the other unable to treat her. Eventually, she died in an ambulance some 35 kilometers away from her home in Khoda.

“I took her to 13 hospitals, both government and private facilities, and every one refused to admit her. The image of her writhing in pain will always haunt me,” said Kumar, who was accompanied by Singh’s husband. He added that the reasons provided varied from “high costs” to a lack of facilities.

“One hospital told me that I could not pay the high cost so better try my luck somewhere else. At Sharda Hospital in Greater Noida, I was asked to buy a coupon for COVID-19 treatment for 4,500 rupees ($60), which I did, but still, they refused her entry. It was not the loss of one life but two lives,” he said, referring to her unborn child.

He pointed out that the entire family was in a state of shock following her death with her husband “the worst impacted.”

Kumar filed a complaint against Shivalik and other hospitals but said so far “no action has been taken.”

A day after Singh’s death, the district magistrate of Gautam Buddh Nagar, which Noida falls under, ordered an inquiry and issued instructions for all hospitals “to admit patients regardless of the nature of the case.”

However, 20 days later, on June 26, a similar incident was reported in the Dadri area of Noida.

On that occasion, 21-year-old Robin Bhati had developed a fever, and relatives had taken him to a nearby hospital where a week earlier he had been admitted suffering from influenza. However, the hospital refused to admit him and referred him to a different facility.

Five hours and four hospitals later, a city hospital agreed to take him in, but by then Bhati was already seriously ill and hours later he died after suffering a heart attack.

“We don’t know whether he was a COVID-19 patient or not, but why should hospitals refuse to admit a patient in need of immediate attention,” his uncle Jasveer Bhati told Arab News. A number of the Noida hospitals which allegedly denied admission to Singh and Bhati refused to comment on the cases.

In a statement on Monday, the office of Noida’s chief medical officer said: “Strict instructions have been given to all the private and government hospitals to admit all patients showing COVID-19 symptoms.”

Dr. Loveleen Mangla, a pulmonologist working with Noida-based Metro Hospital and Heart Institute, said: “The government did not prepare itself to face this situation. Now the government is trying to create extra beds and medical facilities, but it’s late. They should have done this three months ago when the nationwide lockdown started.

“With the entire medical infrastructure overstretched and not many quality health workers available in the government hospitals, it’s a grim scenario now,” Mangla added.

With more than 723,000 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, India is now the world’s third worst-affected country after the US and Brazil, with approaching 21,000 people losing their lives.

And the problem is not unique to northern India.

On Saturday, the southern Indian city of Bangalore reported the case of 50-year-old Vasantha, who was rejected by 13 hospitals before she was accepted by the K.C. General Hospital where she eventually died.

Lalitha, a relative of Vasantha, said: “Some hospitals said they didn’t have beds; some said they didn’t have COVID-19 testing facilities, and that way we lost critical hours. She died because of a problem with her respiratory system.”

Experts have questioned whether health care facilities in India are being overstretched purely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Anant Bhan, a Delhi-based independent researcher in global health, policy and bioethics, said: “Is there a real shortage of beds or is it the shortage caused by lack of efficient management? If the cases increase further, we might find it difficult to provide care.”