Kill The Protesters, Or Allow Hundreds of Thousands of People To Die Of COVID-19?

When does a logical fallacy become a matter of life-and-death for hundreds of thousands of people?

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Philippine police patrolling. We Americans would call it a slum. But this one isn’t so bad by local standards. (source)

A very good friend of mine sent me a link about Philippine President Duterte’s shoot-to-kill order for protesters. From a different source:

I know the Metro Manila “suburb” of Quezon City very well. My house and extended family are there. That’s where my oldest son graduated college, and my youngest graduated high school. They were both born here in America, but we chose for them to go there.

Duterte’s order is not just criminal, but tyrannical, a crime against humanity. After all, the title of this article clearly violates the “False Choice/False Dichotomy” logical fallacy. Isn’t this just another example of Duterte being a murderous dictator after his bloody war on the drug dealers?

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An anti-Duterte protest in July, 2019. (source)

But there’s an old saying: let me not criticize my neighbor until I’ve walked a mile in his shoes. If the duty of a nation’s leader is first and foremost to protect the people, I challenge anyone to provide a better, more effective solution, given the conditions and disadvantages Duterte faces.

Think the answer’s easy? Think “just don’t kill people” is the be-all, end-all of the matter? First consider the conditions and disadvantages first, and then provide your solution.

Congratulations! You’re now the president of the Philippines!

You — like most leaders — love the people. But there’s a pandemic that is sweeping the planet. It’s overloading the hospitals in Europe and America, and it’s already in your nation, in your capital city. And you know that you must do what you can to protect your own people. But this isn’t a video game, and the lives at stake — even including yours and your family’s — are very real. And you know that if left unchecked, COVID-19’s transmissibility and mortality rates could combine to kill as many as 415,000 people in Manila alone (as I demonstrate in this article).

Problem 1: Your nation is dirt-poor

The first problem is that you’re the leader of a third-world nation. The pandemic’s overloading the hospitals of first-world nations, so what’s going to happen to your own nation’s chronically-underfunded hospitals? The metropolitan region of Manila is a megalopolis packed with fifteen million men, women, and children. While there are many high-end (and even filthy-rich) places, there are many more slums. Metro Manila is wracked by poverty and homelessness. Yes, there are many other big cities in the Philippines, but Metro Manila’s by far the biggest. As the president, this is your major concern, but you don’t have a fraction of the resources that first-world nations do. You can’t depend on aid from those nations either, for they’re all facing COVID-19 crises of their own.

See this? Slums like this are common throughout the Philippines.

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This slum is about 1.5 miles from Malacañang, the presidential palace. This is not unusual. (source)

Problem 2: You have a hopelessly-corrupt government and low tax revenue

America’s government under Trump is probably more corrupt than that of any other administration in living memory. But guess what? Compared to many third-world nations, our government is a shining example of integrity.

As president of the Philippines, you know your government is corrupt, from the Congress all the way down to the traffic cops who work for below-poverty wages. Your nation’s tax base is abysmal, for generations of corruption have made it impossible to reliably collect taxes from those who should pay, and the local oligarchs are all but untouchable. In other words, you’ve got relatively very little money to pay for proper law-enforcement and regulatory agencies whose workers often have to take bribes in order to put food on the table for their families.

Thing is, the Filipino people know all this, too, so they have much less trust in their government than we Americans do in our own. This means that when the government says “you must do this for your own safety!” the normal reaction is something along the lines of “Whatever. I’m too busy to listen to you.”

Problem 3: Population density beyond anything we see in the West

As if rampant poverty and endemic corruption weren’t enough, the population density of your capital city is far greater than anything found in New York City, the current “epicenter” of the worldwide pandemic.

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This is normal traffic in Manila. This is why Filipino immigrants laugh when they see what we think are “newsworthy” traffic jams here in America. (source)

Why don’t more take mass transit? Take a look:

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This is people waiting to board the mass transit rail system. Ever heard someone say “It was so crowded you couldn’t even turn around”? There, it’s not a joke. I’ve experienced it. (source)

Ever been to a crowded mall in America on Black Friday or in the few days before Christmas? That’s how they are in Manila almost all day, every. single. day.

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Notice it’s still daylight outside? This is not an unusual day. It’s probably not even a weekend. (source)

Problem 4: Hunger

Worst of all is the hunger. In your nation there are millions who have known hunger. Not the faux hunger we have in America, but real hunger. The kind where you’ll desperately eat anything (incl. pets, grass, scraps in the trash) and it will be delicious — not because it tastes good, but because it fills the emptiness in your belly, if only for a little while. Almost everyone in your nation has either known hunger, or is only one or two generations removed from hunger and knows the stories of their parents or grandparents or extended family. My own wife remembers that hunger, when all they had to eat was a few bites of rice with a little salt, or rice with one bite of banana, and how there were many nights she couldn’t sleep because of the hunger in her belly. And every time, she notes how lucky she and her family were, for they knew many who had even less, or who had nothing at all.

As president, you are painfully aware of how the people would suffer from hunger, but you’ve still got to shut most of your nation down, just like they did in Wuhan, China. That’s the only real option you have in order to slow the spread.

If the people don’t obey the shutdown, the virus spreads, and it would quickly overwhelm the woefully-underfunded hospitals and clinics that are a hallmark of third-world health care systems. But how do you enforce that shutdown when hunger starts gnawing at the bellies of the people, and of their children?

In Metro Manila, there are millions who live hand-to-mouth, who couldn’t possibly afford to stock up on food like we Americans can. Now they can’t work because of the shutdown, and so they can’t afford more food. Hunger begins to set in, and when they’re hungry enough, they really don’t care what any government fat cats tell them about “social distancing.” They’re hungry. And so are their children. It breaks the parents’ hearts to see them cry because they’re so hungry and there’s no food. So what do the people do? The Philippine government’s been trying to give out as much food as they can to help the people, but it’s never enough. So one by one, then by the score, then by the thousands, they take to the streets of the barangay (neighborhood) to protest, to demand something, anything to end their hunger.

And when the people start protesting, what happens? They instinctively know that there is strength in numbers, so they gather in ever-larger groups. And so the virus spreads. If you order the arrest of even small groups of the protesters and put them into jail, what happens? The virus spreads (especially given the near-total lack of separation between prisoners in your sorely-underfunded jails). Worst of all, you put your own police (and their families in the densely-packed slums) in very real danger of catching and further spreading COVID-19.

There is never an excuse for killing innocent people who are only protesting because of hunger, but when those same people, simply by the act of gathering together in a group, place tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands in mortal peril regardless of whether the protesters are left alone or arrested, what is the duty of the nation’s leader?

The real nightmare: social breakdown

Those four problems combined may result in a nightmare even worse than COVID-19 itself : social breakdown. What happens when the pestilence is raging out of control, overwhelming the police and the health care system, and hunger spreads in a megalopolis of fifteen million people? Then those who bring truckloads of food to sell to distributors in the city will no longer come out of fear for their own safety. How long would it take for Metro Manila to run out of food? A few days, maybe a week? Remember the picture of the traffic jam above? The great majority of people in Manila don’t own cars. If Manila runs out of food, they’re stuck there.

Picture mobs swarming through the streets for every source of food, from the street vendors to the sari-sari stores that dot every street and corner, from the neighborhood grocery stores to the supermarkets in the malls. The looting would certainly be extended to the other stores filled with household goods and tools and whatnot, but the food would soon be gone.

All the while, COVID-19 would be ravaging the population, but added to that would be the death toll of the rioting and looting and starvation. How long would it take to stop the violence, not to mention the hunger that triggered it, let alone the contagion that set this great tragedy in motion? How long would it take to rebuild the physical damage, to recover from the economic catastrophe, to repair the psyche of the society itself? It is that possibility that haunts the nightmares of most leaders of third-world nations facing this kind of catastrophe.

The Duterte Solution

Again, you’re the president, and you know that the only way to prevent the above nightmare from happening is to “flatten the curve”, as the phrase goes here in America. And as we Americans are finding out, the only way to do that — at least in urban or suburban areas — is to lock it all down, to issue stay-at-home orders, to keep people inside their homes (and the homeless in their chosen sleeping spots), away from other people until the spread becomes manageable.

How do you do that, especially when the hunger begins? It’s hunger that led to the protests in Quezon City.

Duterte’s idea — to force people to stay in their homes (except for food and medication) at the point of a gun, to authorize lethal force to end protests— is inhumanly brutal by any measure. He has sacrificed human rights for effectiveness and expediency, but consider what is at stake. Some will surely die, but how many more would die in the all-too-likely event that COVID-19 spreads out of control in such a densely-packed poverty-ridden population?

You’re the leader. How many would you be willing to sacrifice if you knew that it meant saving the lives of tens of thousands — perhaps even hundreds of thousands — of your people? Given all the problems listed above, this is not a false choice — it’s reality. Or would you indeed be willing to endanger that many people to preserve the lives of those protesters?

For the life of me, I can’t think of a more effective solution than Duterte’s, one that has the best chance of avoiding the above-described nightmare.

If you’ve got a better solution, one that would be more effective, I’d love to hear it, because I’ve got a lot of family there. My wife has more than forty first cousins alone, most of whom are in Metro Manila. We’re both very worried about them. I love the people and the culture. I don’t want them to be consigned to life under tyranny. But even more, I want them to live.

I want my family to live.

That is what Duterte is trying to do for all of us who have family there. He may not succeed. COVID-19 may still spread and cause the nightmare scenario I described above. But what he’s doing now is the single most effective way I can think of to prevent it.

Again, if you’ve got a better, more effective solution, I want to hear it.


Most international travelers soon learn that what works for one nation or culture simply won’t work in others. Examples abound of great tragedies that resulted from imposition of our own cultural mores and sensibilities on other nations. Yes, on the individual and familial level, people really are much the same, all over the world, but cultures — and what works or doesn’t work within those cultures — can be wildly different. And the differences are exacerbated all the more when income inequality and degree of poverty become part of that same equation.

The lesson is this: third-world nations are not like first-world nations. They do not have our resources. They do not have the same solutions available to them that we have. What works for us will not always work for them, all the more in a time of true crisis, one that is not of their own making, and which presents a clear and present danger to their society and economy.

Retired Navy. Inveterate contrarian. If I haven’t done it, I’ve usually done something close.

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