"An authoritarian approach to the coronavirus pandemic is not only counter-productive and misplaced. It will open the floodgates to human rights abuse."
This is the first of a series of columns I dedicate to the challenge that the coronavirus pandemic is posing to human rights and to the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights of the 1987 Constitution. Some people argue that these rights have to be subordinated to the need to secure public health during this time.
I disagree. This is the time, more than ever, for our human and citizen rights to be respected and protected. I do not mean that our freedoms are absolute and we can do anything we want regardless of its consequences to other people and to public health. But restrictions., if justified must be limited to what is needed to fight the COVID-19 – nothing less, but also nothing more.
Everybody was caught flatfooted by the coronavirus. Nobody was expecting that a public health crisis of historic proportions would emerge in our lifetime. The last generational pandemic was the 1918 Spanish influenza which infected 500 million people – about a third of the world's population at the time and a death toll of anywhere from 17 million to 50 million, and possibly as high as 100 million.
We did have the SARS and MERS-CoV crisis a decade ago, but their spread was thankfully limited. Understandably, the word pandemic is something from a horror playbook; it has the potential of wiping out a considerable portion of humanity much like the Spanish flu and the Black Death before it, not to mention that the human race typically has no immunity from it, being a novel public health phenomenon.
The default reaction of governments to the pandemic was to declare a national health emergency in their respective territories, put in place public health measures such as lockdowns/quarantines, impose travel restrictions and follow the guidelines of health experts, particularly the World Health Organization, on social distancing, cough etiquette, frequent hand washing and a host of other protective measures.
The Philippines has had its first case on 30 January 2020 when the Department of Health reported a 38-year-old female Chinese national as the first confirmed Covid-19 case in the country. In a span of one month, the government has initiated a flurry of measures in response to the pandemic. On March 8, Proclamation 922 placing the entire Philippines under state of public health emergency, then placed the entire Luzon under "enhanced community quarantine" (ECQ), restricted the movement of people with exceptions, the temporarily closed non-essential shops and businesses, suspended flights, and other mass transport systems.
Local governments throughout the country followed suit with their own lockdowns. On March 25, Congress passed the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act” giving the President emergency powers and authority to reallocate funds. However, as is now characteristic of him, the President’s heavy-handed approach to the crisis is ringing alarm bells among rights groups and the poorer sectors of society. His order to shoot down lockdown violators and warning of martial law-style enforcement was a cause for more concern, underscoring his priority for a militarist response to the public health crisis rather than through a humanitarian approach that ensures peace while protecting public health.
Duterte’s statements, particularly on penalizing protest actions and demonstrations and threats of penalties for violating quarantines, are being echoed by his subordinates. These words create a chilling effect, and stoke people’s anxieties. Under the lockdown, the social conditions of the poor have worsened dramatically. Despite the government’s social amelioration programs, many families are at a loss on where to find food for their next meal.
Measures for protecting public health, while allowing some derogation of these rights and freedoms, should be proportionate to the attainment of the clear objectives, must be in accordance with the mandates of the law, and respectful of human dignity among others. This public health crisis does not dispense of legal standards. Thus, degrading and undignified punishments, and violations of rights protected by the Constitution and by international conventions, must be proscribed. Warrantless arrests should be within legal ambit.
Military and police personnel must have clear guidelines on how to enforce measures that must be strictly motivated by public health reasons, and not utilized to target any group or to repress dissent or critics. Martial law, while devoid of constitutional foothold under the circumstances, is not an effective tool to fight a serious public health crisis such as this. It will only exacerbate the dire flight of the poor, now reeling from the economic impact of the crisis. An authoritarian approach to the coronavirus pandemic is not only counter-productive and misplaced. It will open the floodgates to human rights abuse.
As enforced, different barangays and localities employ varying treatments of quarantine violators. There is no uniform approach to enforcement. Often, punishments descend into measures that violate human dignity and infringe on human rights. It goes without saying that fundamental rights remain in place and the Constitution is not suspended even as some necessary measures need to be taken. A holistic approach that promotes public health while upholding human rights and dignity is the only way the country, or the world community for that matter, can emerge from this crisis of unprecedented scale, with our humanity intact.
In the next few columns, I will discuss the pandemic and due process, the pandemic and freedom of expression, the pandemic and freedom of association/assembly, the pandemic and freedom of religion, the pandemic and the rights of the accused, and finally the pandemic and the rights of prisoners.
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