‘Accountability Frontliners’: Citizen Monitors are on the Frontlines of the Pandemic Too
When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, the word “frontliners” turned into a buzzword all over the world. In the Philippines, before COVID, the term ‘frontliners’ was not commonly seen in papers or used in everyday or policy conversations. Health workers were hardly in the news.
However, during the time of COVID, health workers have become front and center of news coverage and policy conversations. They have been referred to more and more as ‘frontliners.’ The term highlights medical and health workers’ precarious positioning in the pandemic. Being at the frontline, medical and health workers are the ones immediately exposed to the virus, attending to the endless growing need for health care and largely bearing the brunt of the pandemic.
As the COVID crisis continued, many other sectors have adjusted their work, needing to be on the frontlines too. Now that the term frontliners has come front and center in pandemic discussions, this blog introduces and defines another actor, the accountability frontliners, as a way of asserting the vital role accountability plays in pandemic response. Accountability frontliners are citizen monitors who are physically at the frontlines – observing the actual delivery of public services or implementation of a government program, engaging government and beneficiaries face-to-face to advance accountability. In the COVID-19 pandemic, G-Watch accountability frontliners were on the frontlines too, monitoring pandemic services and calling out government shortcomings and abuses.
When the first case of COVID-19 surfaced in January 2020, the government first tried to downplay the issue. However, the government was forced to order a lockdown when the cases started to increase.
The Philippine lockdown was one of the longest and most stringent in the world. Only people working in a few sectors were allowed to leave their houses. There were checkpoints at every border, including in some local districts (barangays). One group with liberty to move around were the ‘frontliners.’
The government first used the term ‘frontliners’ in its policy documents at the onset of the COVID-19 crisis in March 2020 to refer to “health and emergency frontline workers” to label them as a group of people whose movements should not be impeded by the lockdown measures. This means medical frontliners only need to show their identification cards and/or employment certificate and they are allowed to pass checkpoints. They also need not observe curfews imposed in all localities under lockdown.
Later, in government policy documents, the term was expanded to cover all essential workers who need to go to work despite the pandemic, “who have high levels of interaction with the public, and are needed to ensure security and consumer and worker safety.” This includes government officials at the frontline and “economic frontliners.”
The government vaccination plan targets to prioritize frontliners that it indirectly defines as those “who bear significant additional risks and burdens of COVID-19 to safeguard the welfare of others,” such as “all health workers and including…workers outside the health sector, those with high-risk of exposure, such as contact tracers, social workers providing social services, among others.”
While non-government organization (NGO) workers have been included in the government’s expanded definition, making them eligible for vaccination, other civil society actors who have also been at the frontline have been left behind in the definition and hence have not been given sufficient support and assistance. These are ‘accountability frontliners,’ who, in the experience of G-Watch monitoring of pandemic services, were mostly volunteer grassroots civic leaders who aimed to hold power to account even during a disaster, ensuring that the right quantity and quality of public services were delivered at the right time to the right beneficiaries following the right processes.
The dangerous COVID frontlines
Frontline work in the Philippines has become dangerous and precarious due to government neglect and inefficiency in the COVID crisis. Aside from the slow progress in testing and tracing, what became evident in the Philippine government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic was its lack of preparedness to protect the country’s health workers.
The shortage in supplies of Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) was among the biggest hurdles that the country had to face that directly endangered many medical frontliners. As early as April 2020, 1,245 health workers tested positive for COVID-19, and 27 of them had died. As of July 2021, the death toll among health workers was 101.
The country’s ill-preparedness in handling a pandemic has a lot to do with how the Rodrigo Duterte government has prioritized security over basic services, including health, even before the pandemic. It was reported that the health budget was cut in 2020 by Php10 billion, which was a 10% decrease from the health department’s 2019 budget.
In late 2019, a study came out where the Philippines scored ‘0’ in Global Health Security Index. ‘Communication with healthcare workers during public health emergencies’ is one of the five indicators in that index. The country’s average was 1 doctor for every 33,000 persons as the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
On top of the failing health governance that has turned COVID frontlines in the Philippines precarious, the government’s militarism made it even more dangerous, especially for those who monitor the official COVID-19 response.
Who are ‘accountability frontliners?’
Medical and health workers are not the only ones on the frontline, citizen monitors are there too, facing the dangers of COVID made worse by threats of government repression.
As early as April 2020 at the onset of the pandemic, G-Watch monitors were already on the frontlines monitoring the delivery of pandemic services by the government in person, particularly social assistance, health services, and other basic citizen entitlement. When the vaccination started, G-Watch monitors were also in the vaccination sites to check on the roll-out of the government vaccination program.
These G-Watch monitors are accountability frontliners.
Accountability frontliners are citizen monitors engaged in frontline accountability work, being physically at the front to check on services delivered by the government, secure citizen feedback, and access public information. They face real risks of getting infected, yet they continue coming out of their homes and monitoring government.
Accountability frontliners fill a critical gap in getting direct feedback from beneficiaries – a job that no one is doing at the onset of COVID. The recent controversies surrounding the pandemic procurements, where allegedly anomalous government contracts amounting to billions of pesos involving the highest officials of the land underscores once again the importance of transparency and accountability in pandemic governance. Citizen monitoring from procurement to actual delivery of services to fight corruption during disasters would be one crucial part of that.
An expanding accountability frontlines
Accountability frontliners also refers to citizens demanding accountability through various means, including online, who face the threat of repression and assault by authorities simply by speaking truth to power. Risks involved in accountability come in many forms, including risks of reprisals and violence.
In many countries, governments used the pandemic as an opportunity to further the curtailment of civic rights and liberties. In the Philippines, the repressive Anti-Terrorism Law was passed in the middle of the COVID pandemic, in June 2020. There were cases of citizens imprisoned due to their criticism of the government, particularly the President. There have been palpable threats to critics, dissenters, and any citizen who would call out the government for its shortcomings. This has made accountability work, even online, dangerous. These citizens are accountability frontliners because they face the dangers of a crackdown by the authorities. Those physically at the frontlines also face the same threats, putting them in the most precarious situation.
In G-Watch’s recent online conversation that reflected on the group’s use of the term ‘accountability frontliners,’ one of the G-Watch leaders opined that “sometimes, being at the frontline, going to government offices despite the restrictions, is the only way vital information are made public.”
Information is a key element of accountability. Yet, aside from the worsening of public access to information during the pandemic, online news has also become unreliable and toxic. G-Watch’s recent assessment of the upcoming elections underscores the importance of fighting the growing misinformation and disinformation online, especially since Filipinos get their news via the internet that in the Philippines has been spewing the heaviest traffic of fake news in Asia. Digital activism has emerged as an especially significant accountability frontline during a pandemic, when movements are restricted and most people engage online.
G-Watch defines accountability as consisting of four key elements: access to information, accountability mechanisms, government response and citizen participation. Following G-Watch’s 4 Key Elements of Accountability, frontliners are those who:
- Help make correct and factual public information available/ accessible/ useful to citizens [Information]
- Use mechanisms of accountability, such as monitoring processes, feedback and grievance redress systems, assessment and evaluation efforts [Mechanisms]
- Work to generate response/ actions from government based on facts and monitoring findings [Government Response]
- Participate in public spaces to hold government to account [Citizen Participation]
Placed in the context of a pandemic, the frontline accountability work has gotten harder. Elevating awareness about ‘accountability frontliners’ would ideally make society more conscious of these actors, who are very vital in making government more responsive and accountable, which is most crucial during the pandemic.