Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the police to shoot anyone seen protesting against the lockdown measures in the country in the face of the worsening coronavirus cases. Duterte said in a televised address on Wednesday that those causing trouble and harming healthcare workers will be shot.

"My orders to the police and military ... if there is trouble and there's an occasion that they fight back and your lives are in danger, shoot them dead," said Duterte.

Safety of healthcare workers paramount

Duterte's stern warning came after several frontline healthcare workers were attacked and discriminated against. Manila has imposed a lockdown in several parts of the Philippines to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported on 30 March that two medical workers — a nurse at a hospital in Cebu City and a hospital employee in Tacurong City — were attacked, pointing towards a worrisome trend of targeting essential health workers.

Duterte tells European lawmakers:
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte Reuters

Addressing these increasing attacks, Duterte said: "And do not harm the health workers, the doctors ... because that is a serious crime."

Reports of unrest and arrests

The main island of the nation, Luzon, is under a month-long lockdown in order to tackle the spread of the pandemic. There have been indications that an extension or expansion could not be ruled out. "In this discussion, science is in charge," Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said in a televised interview recently. A stimulus package to ease the uncertainties presented by the situation is also said to be in the works.

However, amid the growing number of cases, which have exceeded 2,300, disturbance and several arrests were reported on Wednesday in a poor slum area in Manila's Quezon City. The residents of the area had protested against the non-receipt of food and supply packages after the imposition of the lockdown over two weeks ago. "We are here to call for help because of hunger. We have not been given food, rice, groceries or cash. We have no work. Who do we turn to?," said Jocy Lopez, a resident who was arrested, according to Al Jazeera.

Duterte's warning came shortly after the incident. "Do not intimidate the government. Do not challenge the government. You will lose," said Duterte during the address.

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Protest (Representational Picture)

Excessive force not the solution say activists

President Duterte has been criticized by activists both in the country and abroad for his aggressive rhetoric which they say has resulted in vigilantism and violence, with his war on drugs being an example. Thousands of individuals accused of selling or using drugs have been killed by both the police and unknown assailants.

Pointing towards the suppression of the protest in Manila, Gabriela, a woman's rights group told Al Jazeera: "Using excessive force and detention will not quell the empty stomachs of Filipinos who, up to this day, remain denied of the promised ... cash aid for the poor."

However, on Thursday, Philippine National Police (PNP) chief, Gen. Archie Gamboa, said that the police understood the gravity of the seriousness associated by the president for the need to maintain public order and that none will be shot. "I think, ano of course not. Probably the President just overemphasized on implementing the law in this time of crisis," Gamboa told ABS-CBN News.