On Feb. 2, the Philippines announced the first death outside China from the coronavirus, which originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. The news set into motion a considerable public outcry targeting popular Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and pried open the wounds of a long history of racist treatment toward those of Chinese heritage.
Duterte’s perceived reluctance to respond quickly to the virus, which critics saw as tied to his administration’s warm relations with the Chinese government, led the hashtag #OustDuterte to trend on Twitter. The virus has not only shaken public trust in Duterte’s government, which remains broadly popular, but it has also worsened the already fraught relationship between the majority of ethnic Filipinos and the country’s sizable community of Chinese Filipinos, known locally as Tsinoys, along with hundreds of thousands of Chinese nationals residing in the Philippines. While Chinese Filipinos are well integrated into Philippine society, resentment sometimes arises due to their relative wealth and their traditional presence among the nation’s elite.
Duterte announced an entry ban on Chinese travelers from affected areas on Jan. 31, one day after saying he did not want to restrict the entry of Chinese nationals. Two days later, the ban was expanded to all foreigners traveling from China, Hong Kong, and Macau. The travel restrictions, however, came long after two infected Chinese nationals had arrived in Manila from Wuhan via Hong Kong on Jan. 21 and traveled to three Philippine provinces before being hospitalized on Jan. 25. One of the patients, a 44-year-old man from Wuhan, died from the virus on Feb. 1.
As of Friday, three cases had been confirmed in the Philippines, and 215 people remain under watch for possible infections.
The anti-government backlash was sparked in the days before the travel ban. As Filipinos fretted about the virus’s arrival, Health Secretary Francisco Duque rejected the idea of a temporary ban on Chinese tourists, saying it would spark “political and diplomatic repercussions.”
The government’s slow response—and the public outcry over it—has ignited long-standing perceptions that Duterte is soft on China at the expense of protecting the rights of Filipinos and the country’s sovereignty, said Herman Kraft, an associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
The popular president has faced criticism for a weak response to Chinese naval incursions into Philippine-claimed areas of the South China Sea, along with allowing China to build artificial islands in the South China Sea and signing high-interest loan deals with Chinese companies for big-ticket infrastructure projects.
“It feeds impressions that more people who might carry the virus could have entered the country because the president was more concerned with hurting China’s feelings than protecting Filipinos,” Kraft said.