MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has threatened to use police power on anyone who refuses to get vaccinated against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the latest controversial move deployed by his administration to curb the outbreak.
“This country is facing a crisis. There is a national emergency,” he said during a televised address late on Monday night.
He offered Filipinos a choice: “Get vaccinated, or I will have you locked up in a cell,” he said, expressing exasperation over the public’s disregard of government pleas to get inoculated.
Duterte was joined by Cabinet members and health experts during the address as he explained that unvaccinated people were potential carriers of the disease and, therefore, he may “opt to use the strong-arm method to compel vaccination.”
“If you do not want to get vaccinated, leave the Philippines … But as long as you are here…get vaccinated,” he added.
For this purpose, Duterte said he would assign officials to provide a tally of unvaccinated people and “order their arrest.”
In May, Duterte ordered all health protocol violators to be arrested, saying it was “criminal” to risk spreading the disease to other people.
At that time, he spoke of being “fed up” with public gatherings taking place despite the pandemic and permitted police to use “reasonable force” to arrest individuals defying the restrictions.
Duterte’s latest warning received mixed reactions on Tuesday, with many experts questioning the move’s constitutional viability.
Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of People’s Lawyers, told Arab News on Tuesday that Duterte’s threat is “clearly without valid or constitutional basis.”
“There is no law that specifically empowers the president to order such arrests, even in this health emergency,” Olalia said.
He explained that while measures were in place to encourage and support a mass vaccination drive, “no one should be arrested, penalized or forcibly subjected to an involuntary act.”
“The autonomy of one’s anatomy in this specific situation must be respected, and no ruler can validly impose or force it.”
Instead, he added, what may be more “effective and acceptable” is for the government to educate the masses with “simple and convincing information, attractive incentives and reasonable privileges for compliance, and to popularize good examples as role models for emulation and persuasion.”
Political analyst Ramon Casiple agreed, adding that Duterte’s move “violates human rights.”
“You can have restrictions or conditions, but punishment, unless there are legal violations, cannot be effective,” Casiple told Arab News.
Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said he believes that the president was “merely using strong words to drive home the message and reach herd immunity as soon as possible.”
“As a lawyer, he knows that not getting vaccinated is a legal choice. There is no law as yet that compels vaccination against COVID-19, much less criminalizes it, as presently available vaccines are still in their trial phases,” Guevarra said in a statement.
Defending the president during a press briefing on Tuesday, Malacañang Spokesman Harry Roque said that the move is “part and parcel of the inherent police power [of the state] to protect public health.”
When asked if the government would make the COVID-19 vaccination mandatory for all Filipinos, Roque cited a Philippine Supreme Court decision in a case that questioned a provision making it compulsory for all children to be vaccinated against smallpox.
The court, he explained, ruled that it is within “the right of the state to compel compulsory vaccination” if a motive is well-established.
“The rights of the individual in respect to his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations, as the safety of the general public may demand,” Roque added.
So clearly, he said, there is jurisprudence that could make vaccination compulsory. He acknowledged, though, that a law or an ordinance is required for such measures.
On the use of police power, Roque said: “There may be rights that would be violated. But you violate those rights for a bigger interest, which is public health and safety…We hope we don’t have to reach that point.”
In the same press briefing, Health Undersecretary Myrna Cabotaje said that Duterte’s threat was “borne out of a passion and need for [Filipinos] to get vaccinated to help the country move on.”
The Philippines rolled out its COVID-19 inoculation program on March 1, with over 32 million registered for the vaccine so far.
As of June 18, the government had administered over 8 million doses of vaccines, with more than 2 million persons receiving both doses.