Philippine President Threatens to Arrest Unvaccinated Filipinos – One of the World’s Most Extreme Vaccine Mandates
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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte addresses the nation

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has threatened to order the arrest of Filipinos who refuse to receive COVID-19 vaccinations – in one of the most extreme vaccine mandate edicts to be made by any government worldwide.  

“Because it is a national emergency, it is my position that we can restrain [unvaccinated people],” said Duterte in a televised Thursday address last week to the nation, in reference to a recent surge in infections.  

“I’m now giving orders to barangay captains (village leaders) to look for those persons who are not vaccinated and request them to stay put [in their house].”

If these individuals refuse to vaccinate, or continue to leave their home, the barangay captain, being a person of authority, is empowered now to arrest the recalcitrant persons, he added. 

The Philippines has administered at least 111,908,830 doses of COVID vaccines as of 10 January, with about 51.8% of the country’s population vaccinated with at least one dose. However, according to the World Bank Vaccine Deployment Tracker, only 34% of the population is fully vaccinated. 

The Philippines lags behind in vaccines in comparison to its neighbors in the WHO Western Pacific region, which have high vaccine coverage even in lower- and middle income countries like China, Malaysia and Thailand, along with high income Singapore, Taiwan and Australia, which Duterte has lamented. 

“Those who are not vaccinated, they will put everybody in jeopardy,” he said.

While other Wester Pacific region countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and Japan have become famous for their crackdowns on COVID-19 – with Australia most recently barring men’s tennis star Novak Djokovic from entering the country despite his vaccination exemption, the Philippines has gotten less attention globally, despite Duterte’s stringent policies.

Duterte brushes away legal concerns  

While Duterte acknowledged that some lawyers “are saying that we cannot restrain” unvaccinated people, he argued against this.

“I said that the ministrant function of the government is to come up with measures to protect public health, public interest, public order, and public safety.” 

“In the absence of a law, a President is called upon to act,” Duterte said, adding that those who disagree with this order “can file cases.”

“I already have a case at the International Criminal Court (ICC). File it on top of that, so I’ll just answer them simultaneously when the time comes,” Duterte said in Tagalog.  

The ICC had called for a formal investigation into Duterte’s so-called “war on drugs”, in which thousands of people have been killed. However, the Philippines has filed a deferral request in November, with the prosecution temporarily suspending its investigation for the time being.

Duterte has previously threatened people who refused to get vaccinated with jail time or an injection of Ivermectin, an anti-parasite drug widely used to treat animals. 

Arresting unvaccinated people violates Constitution 

The Commission of Human Rights (CHR) has also said that the President’s directive “violates” the Philippine 1987 constitution and human rights. 

“Presently, there is no law that makes being unvaccinated a crime, nor is there any law that would satisfy the Constitutional provision on curtailing freedom of movement. Any arrest made on these grounds may be illegal; thus, violative of the Constitution and our guaranteed human rights,” said CHR spokesperson Jacqueline Ann de Guia. 

While the 1987 Constitution does state that liberty of movement can be restricted in the interest of national security, public safety, or public health, there needs to be a law to make such restrictions legal. 

Vice President suggests incentives to encourage vaccinations

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Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo

Countering the president’s punitive measures, Vice President Leni Robredo took a different route, considering “positive reinforcement” as a method to address the low vaccination rates. 

“I hope the encouragement for vaccination can be more of positive reinforcement, not the fear of getting arrested for not getting vaccinated,” Robredo said in Tagalog during her weekly radio program BISErbisyong Leni over dzXL, on Monday

She added that refusing to get vaccinated is not a crime, and that there is no law criminalizing being unvaccinated, but COVID-19 vaccinations save lives, protect people, and prevent the spread of the virus. 

“There’s no such law, because I’ve heard there’s an order to arrest. But I will go back to my previous belief that we should be giving incentives to encourage a person to get vaccinated.”

“It should be thought of, and not be easily punitive – if you’re not vaccinated, you will be arrested or this or that. It’s more positive if it’s like this: if you get vaccinated, here are the privileges you will enjoy,” she said.

Omicron strain may soon overtake Delta as dominant strain 

The Delta strain remains the dominant variant in the Philippines, although Omicron may take over in the next three to four weeks, Philippine Department of Health (DOH) Undersecretary and country’s treatment czar Leopoldo Vega said in an interview with ABS-CBN News Channel last week.

“I think we still have the Delta around, but since we reported our first Omicron case way back 5 December, and there has been a continuously increase in the sequencing of this Omicron virus, it looks like we will presume that the Omicron is here, but it’s still not dominant.” 

As of 9 January, 28,707 new cases of COVID have been reported, nine times the number of cases reported on 1 January (3,617)

Restrictive measures ramped up once more to stop COVID spread 

The Philippines has increased its restrictive measures once more following the rise in cases.

While the government had relaxed lockdown conditions last October in an effort to revive the battered economy, the increase in cases has forced the government to tighten its restrictions once more.

Restaurants, parks, churches and beauty salons will operate at lower capacity, while in-person classes and contact sports have been suspended.

Unvaccinated residents have to stay at home unless buying essentials or exercising, and are  barred from using public transportation. These rules have also been applied to individuals who have only a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine.

Some bus stations have imposed a “no vaccine card, no ride policy” and have also barred individuals with only their first dose from entering. These measures can encourage people to get vaccinated, but they do not address the lack of accessibility to vaccines, said James Patrick Cruz, speaking with Health Policy Watch

“It’s a nice safety measure and a great way to encourage people to be vaccinated but the inaccessibility of vaccines is something the government should also think about.”

Slowdown in vaccinations

While the surge of COVID-19 cases has impacted the Philippine government’s vaccination drive, many have attributed the slowdown in vaccinations to other reasons, including lack of access, anti-poor proposals, and an overwhelmed healthcare system.

The government’s attempts to ramp up vaccinations have been previously criticised as being anti-poor. In November, the Duterte administration proposed to exclude the unvaccinated poor from the cash assistance program, essentially “disincentivisizing” them for being unvaccinated.

“Easy access” to vaccination sites have also been primarily found in urban regions such as Metro Manila, as opposed to other parts of the country.

In addition, healthcare workers administering the jabs have been recalled to hospitals to handle the influx of COVID admissions.

Regi Pamugas, representative of the group Health Action for Human Rights, said that Duterte’s threats will not convince people to get vaccinated.

“We’re almost two years into the COVID-19 crisis and he did not yet learn,” he told, saying Duterte should do more to convince people to take the vaccine.

Image Credits: GMA News/Youtube, Leni Robredo/Twitter, ILO/Minette Rimando.

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