"Thermal scanners have been replaced with high-powered firearms meant to intimidate people into staying at home."
What did President Rodrigo Duterte tell authorities in the aftermath of a protest rally by a handful of urban poor residents in Quezon City in the early days of the Enhanced Community Quarantine in Metro Manila that was promptly dispersed by the police and those arrested were charged in court for illegal assembly?
Here's what he said: "If they make trouble, shoot them dead!"
We were told by his mouthpiece then that this statement should not be taken literally, as it was, presumably, nothing more than a figure of speech.
It appears now that the police on the ground have taken the President's words quite literally.
News reports say police manning a checkpoint in Fairview, Quezon City accosted a former army corporal named Winston Ragos for violating quarantine restrictions. They asked him to put his hands up, which he did for around two minutes, even as passersby asked them to spare him as he had mental problems. When they asked him to kneel on the sidewalk, he turned around and that's when he seemed to be getting something out of his sling bag. That was the moment when a cop shot him twice, and he died later on the way to hospital. It appears that Ragos suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, after his tour of duty in the Marawi siege in 2017. Witnesses said he did not have a firearm at all, just ID cards and quarantine passes in his sling bag, but the police claim they recovered a .38 caliber pistol from the retired soldier.
Then there's another news report that a motorcycle rider ignored three COVID-19 checkpoints in a separate incident somewhere. While the details are sketchy since no mention was made that he engaged the lawmen in a firefight, it is fair to assume that he met the same fate that befell Ragos simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
What's ironic in these instances is that checkpoints intended to keep people off the streets to prevent the spread of a highly infectious disease should spell the end of life of those out in the streets precisely wanting to continue to survive harsh times—and live.
We distinctly recall that in the first days of the lockdown, cops were checking the temperatures with thermal scanners. That was the proper approach, we think, to a public health crisis.
Now, it seems, the thermal scanners have been replaced with high-powered firearms meant to intimidate people into staying at home.
The newspaper front page photo of a SWAT member holding what looked like a 50-caliber machine gun atop an armored personnel carrier deployed in the vicinity of a public market in Manila is likely to be carried by newspapers in other parts of the world.
It's not going to be a flattering reflection at all of how this country is managing a public health emergency where the primordial goal should be to save lives.
We really doubt if Duterte's directive to the police and the military to shoot dead the troublemakers in checkpoints is what's needed to stop COVID-19. It's not what the doctor ordered, so to speak, and goes against the constitutional injunction that the State should uphold the right to life of the citizenry.
We can learn from Taiwan's experience vs. COVID-19
Just how far is Taiwan from mainland China? The broad outlines of the outermost island in the South China Sea that's part of Taiwan can be seen from the coast of Xiamen city in Fujian province. In fact, those in Xiamen can discern the Taiwanese flag fluttering in the wind from a high point in nearby Kinmen island.
Despite Taiwan's proximity to China, the original epicenter of COVID-19 that has since ravaged the rest of the world, it did not waste a second longer when they became aware of the emergence of the coronavirus in Wuhan city in the mainland.
Dr. Chen Shih-chung, Minister of Health and Welfare, said in a recent article, "Global Health Security—A Call for Taiwan’s Inclusion," that since Taiwan successfully dealt with the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003, it has been "in a state of constant readiness to the threat of emerging infectious disease."
Dr. Chen shared that when information on the pneumonia outbreak was first confirmed on Dec. 31, 2019, Taiwan began implementing onboard quarantine of direct flights from Wuhan that same day. Two days later, the government established a response team for the disease and activated the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC), which was able to effectively integrate resources from various ministries and involve itself fully in the containment of the epidemic.
As of April 9, Taiwan had tested a total of 42,315 persons showing 380 confirmed cases, of which 54 have been indigenous, 326 imported and five deaths; 80 people had been released from hospital after testing negative.
Despite its proximity to China, Taiwan now ranks 123rd among 183 countries in terms of confirmed cases per million people. "This reflects Taiwan's aggressive efforts to control the epidemic are working," Dr. Chen said.
Cognizant that disease knows no borders, Taiwan implemented plans concerning border quarantine measures, including board quarantine, fever screening, health declarations, and a 14-day home quarantine for passengers arriving from certain countries.
Moreover, Taiwan established an electronic system for entry quarantine, which allows passengers with a local mobile phone number to fill in health information via mobile phone. A health declaration pass would then be sent to them via a text message. This is connected to the community care support management system, which allows government agencies to provide care services and medical assistance.
For those undergoing home quarantine or isolation, the government worked with telecom operators to allow GPS tracking of their locations. Quarantine offenders are subject to fines or mandatory placement according to relevant laws and regulations, to prevent transmission.
Taiwan has also increased laboratory testing capacity, expanded the scope of its surveillance and inspections based on trends of the COVID-19 epidemic, and retested people with higher risk who had already tested negative, including patients with symptoms of severe influenza, community cases with upper respiratory tract infections who were already being monitored, and cluster cases of upper respiratory tract infections, to identify suspected cases and perform treatment in isolation wards.
Meanwhile, Taiwan has designated 50 regional hospitals and medical centers and 167 community hospitals and clinics to create a tiered system for testing. These hospitals and clinics are required to set up special wards or areas; in principle, COVID-19 patients are isolated and treated individually in these wards and areas to prevent more infections. All this holds lessons for other countries, including ours, on how to deal with the pandemic.
Chief of these, our leaders should understand, is that a public health crisis should be fought with adequate and timely health interventions, first and foremost.
From what we've read, Taiwan's success in containing the coronavirus did not entail the deployment of its 290,000-strong armed forces or even an infinitesimal part of it to wield guns in the war against COVID-19.