At a shopping mall in the heart of the Philippine capital, a 10-foot tall doll has been drawing crowds, with people taking selfies and playing the “Red Light, Green Light” survival game, a very lethal kids’ game depicted in the Netflix hit series “Squid Game.”
“Squid Game,” which has become the most popular series in the Philippines, shows six games children played before the digital age. A nine-episode second season is reportedly in the works following its huge success.
In the series, more than 400 cash-strapped players, including a North Korean defector and a fund manager charged with embezzlement, must compete for a cash prize of 45 billion won.
In the first episode, the contestants play stop and go at a tagger’s command. But the “Red Light, Green Light ” episode turns gory when the players are shot for failing to stand still at the red light call.
In today’s digital world, street games are rare as most are glued to mobile phones, iPads and laptops playing “Mobile Legend” and other online arcade games.
Filipinos are still amused at childhood games as they remember playing on the streets variations of the games shown in “Squid Game,” like “patintero,” “step, no,” “piko” and “open the basket.”
Honestly, the series is very violent. Players are eliminated by shooting them dead, whether at a distance or at point-blank range.
It is not amusing to see people getting killed in a children’s game. But, perhaps, Filipinos have become callous because of the extrajudicial killings (EJK) around them since Rodrigo Duterte came to power in June 2016.
Official government records showed that more than 6,000 people, most of them poor, street-level drug users and peddlers, have died from police anti-illegal drug operations nationwide.
The police have stopped counting those killed by “vigilantes,” the bodies dumped in isolated and dark grassy lots with cardboard signs “pusher ako, wag tularan.” (I’m a drug pusher, don’t be like me.)
Human rights advocates have estimated the total number of people killed in Duterte’s war on drugs to be from 12,000 to 30,000, the same figure cited in the report made by the International Criminal Court (ICC) top prosecutor Fatou Bensauda before her term ended in June.
There appears to be a parallel between the killings in the “Squid Games” series and Duterte’s war on drugs, especially when it was carried out in the first six months after he was elected as president in 2016.
The attrition was horrendous. More than 100 drug users and peddlers, including innocent bystanders, were killed every week in the capital and adjacent provinces, like Bulacan, Cavite, Rizal and Laguna.
The number of people who died from the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in the first six months of the pandemic paled in comparison to Duterte’s brutal and bloody campaign to eradicate illegal drugs.
Duterte’s meteoric rise to the presidency was fueled by his campaign promise to end corruption and crime, driven by the drug problem, in only six months.
More than five years into office, he has failed to end corruption and the drug menace. Corruption has even worsened as senators have uncovered billions of pesos in medical supply contracts awarded to an undercapitalized company, which was set up only less than a year before the coronavirus outbreak.
The government agency that awarded the deals to Pharmally Pharmaceuticals Corp., the Procurement Service of the Department of Budget and Management (PS-DBM), ignored all red flags and hastily accepted deliveries of face masks even before a purchase order was issued.
Apart from a capitalization of less than a million pesos, the company controlled by Davao City-based Chinese businessmen had no track record of doing business with the government. It turned out Pharmally was only a sales agent because it had no factory producing face masks, face shields, personal protective equipment and test kits. It had no logistics network.
It made profit by marking up the cost of the medical products it had bought from another dealer, which inflated the price of the supplies by more than 100 percent.
Filipino manufacturers sold the same face masks at P13 a piece but Pharmally’s Chinese dealers sold it at more than P27 a piece.
Instead of ordering an investigation into the supply contract, Duterte defended the deal, attempting to stop the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee inquiry and enlisting the rubber stamp House of Representatives’ support to discredit the senators.
The corruption in the medical supplies deal was worse than the extrajudicial killings, which first targeted drug users and peddlers but later moved on to murder lawyers, community organizers, political activists and suspected Maoist-led guerrillas.
The corruption in the medical supplies deal at a time of the pandemic is worse than the drug-related killings because it affects 110 million Filipinos.
Public funds that should go to provide financial assistance to poor families and to people who had lost jobs and livelihoods due to the quarantine restrictions, the longest and strictest in the world, were wasted because of the sweetheart deals.
Public funds that could have gone to healthcare workers’ benefits went to the pockets of young Chinese businessmen who spent the money on expensive Lamborghinis and Porsches.
If the PS-DBM were more prudent in spending public funds, the number of face masks, face shields, PPEs and test kits bought could have more than doubled.
Since the outbreak in late January 2020, more than 37,000 people have died and about 2.5 million have been infected. The virus has been spreading fast outside the capital where vaccines are limited.
The Philippines’ vaccination effort of less than 20 percent of the total adult population has fallen behind the global average of about 33 percent.
Most businesses remained closed and unemployment rose to 8.1 percent in August, but the government has no more cash to give to displaced workers and poor families.
As a result, the Philippines was ranked 53rd out 53 countries in a list by international data and news agency Bloomberg.
There is only one reason for the very poor pandemic response management: corruption.
While millions of Filipinos suffer due to unemployment, hunger and restrictions in movements, only a few bask and enjoy huge profits from public funds.
The death toll in the pandemic has exceeded the number of dead bodies in the war on drugs.
It seems Duterte’s “Squid Game” version has progressed from the first episode, “extrajudicial killings,” which killed drug users, to the end game’s winner-take-all deaths due to the coronavirus, which is killing everyone.