By now it should be apparent to us that the things President Duterte says in his late-night speeches must not be taken at face value, and that they are at best only indicative of what preoccupies him at the moment and of how his mind works.
His very own spokesman has time and again warned us against taking the President literally.
We need this knowledge to save us from distraction and unnecessary time wondering if Mr. Duterte really meant -- much less knew -- what he was saying.
His latest pronouncement Monday night, for instance, was that individuals who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19 should be arrested.
“Magpabakuna kayo or ipakulong ko kayo sa selda (Get vaccinated or I will lock you up in jail),” he threatened.
As is customary, top officials immediately scrambled to explain what the President really meant.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said Mr. Duterte “merely used strong words to drive home the need for us to get vaccinated and reach herd immunity as soon as possible.”
The Department of Health said the President’s words were just “born out of passion,” as it reiterated that free, prior, and informed consent is a requirement for vaccination.
Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said Duterte made the statement “to emphasize what the State can do.” Roque also acknowledged that at the very least Congress has to pass a law to support such arrests.
Even so, Roque felt the need to say that the state has inherent police power to implement policies which could violate human rights in the name of a greater interest, in this case public health and safety.
Anyone in his right mind would acknowledge that the choice not to get vaccinated is a personal decision exercised out of free will and informed consent. Survey after survey has shown many Filipinos’ reluctance, if not outright refusal, to get jabbed with the COVID-19 vaccine -- but this is because of fear and uncertainty, not a mad desire to deliberately inflict harm upon others.
In the face of overwhelming scientific and practical evidence that vaccines are crucial to beating COVID-19, the task ahead is clear: Address the fear and uncertainty that cripple the people and prevent them from making the enlightened next move. If done correctly and effectively, continued education and information campaigns, cascaded to communities, will change people’s hearts and minds and impress upon them the importance of getting vaccinated, for their own -- and their families’ and their communities’ -- immense benefit. This is where our officials should spend precious hours, resources and thought.
The prospect of throwing more people in jail, when it’s precisely in congested areas where the virus thrives, should, like many of the President’s ramblings, not be taken seriously -- especially since the COVID-19 situation remains seriously real and deadly.