Philippine Interior Secretary Eduardo Año set off a cascade of concerns on Tuesday when he announced that national police would begin conducting “house-to-house” searches to round up asymptomatic and mild Covid-19 patients and place them in government quarantine facilities.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque Jr. was quick to walk back the announcement the following day, maintaining that there would be no searches, and that the government was merely urging Filipinos under less-than-ideal home quarantine arrangements to avail themselves of a “paid-for vacation” in a government center.
“We are enticing them with the fact that these are air-conditioned centers, free lodging, free meals at three times a day, and with free WiFi, and with a graduation ceremony to prove [their clean bill of health], after the 14-day quarantine period,” he said.
However, Roque noted in the same breath that the government did indeed retain the “inherent police power” to involuntarily confine Filipinos in quarantine, adding that neighbors and family members could inform on those they suspected of carrying the novel coronavirus.
The announcement has since triggered widespread fears that Philippine police—who have killed thousands in their prosecution of President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody drug war—were now applying the same methods to the fight against the coronavirus.
Involuntary isolation is in line with the Philippine government’s “Oplan Kalinga” program, which mandates that patients with inadequate home isolation facilities—for instance, those living with the elderly or pregnant women, and those without a private bedroom and bathroom—must enter a state quarantine center.
However, to many, the news recalled another government program, the notorious “Oplan Tokhang”—literally, “Operation Knock-and-Plead,” the Duterte administration’s tactic of sending police to alleged drug users’ homes to persuade them to turn themselves in, a strategy better known for ending in extrajudicial killings than peaceful surrenders.
The League of Filipino Students in a statement denounced the plans to deploy police officers, while acknowledging that it aligned with the “highly criticized military-centric” response of the administration to the pandemic.
"The last time police forces went on house-to-house search operations, they killed thousands of innocent lives under the war on drugs campaign. We are afraid that this type of Covid-19 response will bring more records of extrajudicial killings and human rights violations. It will be Tokhang in the time of Covid-19," LFS National Spokesperson Kara Taggaoa said in the statement.
The new plan appears to be a response to skyrocketing new infections in recent days. The Philippines now has 61,266 confirmed cases, of which 1,643 resulted in deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. In the last week, five days saw a rise in reported cases over 2,000, according to the Department of Health.
In his original remarks, Año had said that involuntary confinement was in line with Republic Act 11332, or the act on “Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Concern.” Section 2, Article III of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, meanwhile, states that the right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures shall be inviolable.
In response to the original announcement that police would be involved in house-to-house searches, Robertson said that the searches would make residents of impoverished urban communities vulnerable to abuses, adding that police conduct in the Philippines’ coronavirus response “so far does not inspire confidence that this campaign will respect people’s basic rights.”
“By urging residents to report neighbors they suspect of having Covid-19, the government is encouraging further violations,” he added.
He also called out the assignment of former military generals to deal with the virus, and sent Special Forces to contain villages instead of increasing testing.
The International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) on Thursday added its voice to the chorus of concerns, calling for a health-based response to the pandemic, rather than a law-and-order approach.
“The disastrous spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Philippines calls for a massive public health response, not a house-to-house search by police,” ICHRP’s Peter Murphy said in a statement.
“Free mass testing combined with safe quarantine facilities, and free hospital treatment, combined with real income support is the right way to protect life in the pandemic.”
Still, the plan had its defenders. Senate President Vicente Sotto III, an ally of Duterte, said that house-to-house searches for coronavirus patients were fine “as long as it is within due bounds.”
“It appears that they are dead serious in truncating the spread of the virus,” Sotto told reporters, according to the Philippine Inquirer.