By Vanne Terrazola
Senators weighed in on the constitutional issues that may arise from the government’s move to make public the identities of COVID-19 patients.
To boost the national government’s contact tracing efforts, the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on Emerging Infectious Diseases signed a resolution that would mandate the disclosure of the personal information of those who tested positive for COVID-19.
But Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon admitted Monday that such a decision — along with the ban on the deployment of overseas health workers, and strengthened quarantine measures — “are not easy constitutional questions to settle” amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“There are no ready answers. Today, we are confronted with a clash between the rights of the people under the Constitution, and duty and obligation of the state to protect and promote public interest due to COVID-19 pandemic. We have not been confronted with a pandemic as we have today to be able to cite precedents,” said Drilon.
The former justice department secretary said he cannot provide answers “based on theoretical application of the Constitution, given the reality of the pandemic”.
“The Supreme Court may have to decide these questions in the appropriate case that is brought before them,” he said.
Senator Francis Tolentino said President Duterte may have to issue a proclamation that would require the disclosure of information about COVID-19 patients to address legal questions.
“We will need a Presidential Proclamation relative to this, not a mere Interagency Resolution, considering its constitutional significance vis-a-vis policy tradeoffs between data privacy protection and the need to enforce more robust health measures,” Tolentino said in a statement sent to reporters Sunday night.
The administration lawmaker said he supports the IATF’s policy but “subject to certain time bound limitations while respecting the Constitution.”
He noted that the Philippines is a state party in the United Nation’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which recognizes the exercise of civil and political rights of individuals, except when restricted by law or when necessary to protect national security, public order, public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others.
“In times of a public emergency threatening the life of a nation, the need to protect public health is a permissible ground for limiting certain rights including liberty of movement, freedom of expression, and the right to freedom of association,” the senator said.
“It has been said that ‘the people’s well-being is the supreme law’ and to further facilitate contact tracing, the same can be invoked,” he pointed out.
Presidential proclamations refer to “acts of the President fixing a date or declaring a status or condition of public moment or interest, upon the existence of which the operation of a specific law or regulation is made to depend”. They have the same force of an executive order, according to the Administrative Code of 1987.
The Department of Health (DOH) earlier admitted facing challenges in its contact tracing efforts due to the surge of coronavirus infections.