While the novel coronavirus was first reported by international media outlets in late 2019, Philippine media outlets only started covering the epidemic in the first few days of January. In early 2020, the Southeast Asian country began scrambling for answers. Lifestyle magazine Esquire was among the first to publish a piece on January 9 providing some background on the virus. The following day, national daily newspaper Philippine Star published an article calling COVID-19 a “viral mystery pneumonia in China.” Coverage has ramped up since then, exploding in the week of January 27 (as seen in the graph below), as the country reported its first case of COVID-19 on January 30, identifying a 38-year-old female Chinese national. Two days later, the first death from the coronavirus outside of China was reported in the Philippines: a 44-year-old Chinese man from Wuhan, according to the country’s department of health. Data as of April 29 show that there are more than 8,000 cases of coronavirus in the Philippines, with over 550 deaths. The country currently has 18 testing centers for COVID-19.
The Philippines, a country of over 108 million people, has long enjoyed press freedom as guaranteed under its constitution. Government censorship, although steadily increasing under the Duterte administration, historically has not been a serious problem. Free-to-air networks dominate the media landscape and cable television has an extensive reach. Daily newspapers and tabloids are also regularly consumed by the masses. Hundreds of radio stations air almost 24/7, remaining popular with those residing in far-flung provinces with limited connectivity.
From the end of December to the end of March, the virus has taken center stage, especially in local news outlets: in the three-month period, reporting on the virus peaked on March 13 with nearly 400 published pieces—just hours after President Rodrigo Duterte floated the idea of a “lockdown” of Metro Manila, home to nearly 13 million people, to slow the virus’ spread. Duterte suggested that all land, domestic air, and domestic sea travel to and from the country’s capital were to be suspended until mid-April. (As of the date of this article, the country’s enhanced community quarantine is still in effect and will be lifted on May 15).
On March 24, when Duterte was granted extraordinary emergency powers by the Philippine Congress, coverage slightly increased compared to previous days. The new special powers allow the strongman leader (who downplayed the threat of the virus in February) to direct hospitals and public transit, and to reallocate funds from the country’s 2020 national budget in the fight against COVID-19.
The administration has come under fire for implementing sweeping orders without seemingly giving much thought to how they will affect the country’s most vulnerable, further exposing the gaping inequalities in food, healthcare, shelter, and basic rights. The president most recently received backlash from critics after saying that those who do not comply with the rules can and should be shot dead. His late-night pronouncements, held close to midnight, have also, at times, been challenged by his cabinet secretaries and contradicted by various government agencies. As such, coverage of the virus remains heavy as the Philippines battles conflicting information within its own government.
Isabelle Lee is a dual master's student studying international affairs and journalism at Columbia University. Before graduate school, she worked as a journalist in Manila, Philippines.