By Jojo Riñoza and Luis Liwanag
A lawyers group and opposition politicians slammed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday for threatening to arrest Filipinos who refused to be inoculated against COVID-19, with one attorney saying there was no legal basis for the leader’s warning.
Critics described Duterte’s remarks during a nationally televised rant the night before as the wrong response to the pandemic, which has killed nearly 24,000 people in the Philippine and infected more than 1 million Filipinos, according to the health department.
The president’s threat is patently illegal, and the “autonomy of one’s anatomy” should be respected, said Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers.
“Even as we highly encourage and strongly support mass vaccination, no one should be arrested or penalized and even forcibly subjected to an involuntary act contrary to his or her preference and option,” Olalia said.
“It is clearly … without a valid constitutional or legal basis,” he said of Duterte’s order.
As he was closing his weekly televised “talk to the nation” address late Monday, Duterte launched into an expletive-laden barrage against those who chose not to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Earlier in the broadcast, chief legal counsel Salvador Panelo said many Filipinos had expressed reluctance about getting vaccine shots. Panelo echoed a Pulse Asia poll, which found that 61 percent of Filipinos surveyed between February and March had expressed “disinclination to get vaccinated.”
Duterte expressed exasperation for “Filipinos not heeding the government” and ordered all village officials to identify constituents who refused to be vaccinated.
“There is a crisis being faced in this country. There is a national emergency,” Duterte said. “If you do not want to get vaccinated, I will have you arrested.”
“Don’t force my hand … nobody wants that,” he said. “But if you don’t agree to get vaccinated, leave the Philippines. Go to India or if you want to go somewhere, to America.”
On Tuesday, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra played down Duterte’s statement, saying the president used “strong words” to push people to get vaccinated even though he knew he had no legal basis, the state-run Philippine News Agency (PNA) reported.
“[H]e 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 told reporters via a text message.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque, a former lawyer, said people could be compelled to get vaccinated.
“That is clear. In Philippine and American jurisprudence, we can compel compulsory vaccinations, but there should be a legal basis for it,” Roque told reporters. “We need either an ordinance or law that would mete out penalties to those who refuse to be vaccinated.”
Opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros, meanwhile, challenged Duterte for not reassuring Filipinos about vaccine safety.
“Instead of appeasing the public’s fears, he has threatened Filipinos,” Hontiveros said. “We have been in a state of national emergency for a year, and the government should have used its resources to provide safe and effective vaccines. This was not done.”
Fellow Sen. Nancy Binay, meanwhile, noted long lines at limited vaccination sites.
“Vaccine hesitancy is not the problem, vaccine supply is the problem,” she said. “We need to address that.”
The Philippines is one of Southeast Asia’s COVID-19 hotspots. The health department on Tuesday reported that it had recorded 3,666 new infections overnight, pushing the nationwide total to more than 1.36 million.
On Monday, the government announced that it secured a contract for 40 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, jointly developed by U.S. and German companies, to add to 12.7 million doses in hand from various manufacturers.