GOVERNANCE MATTERS

Malacañang has clarified a controversial statement from the Interior Secretary that policemen will be conducting a house-to-house search for persons infected with the coronavirus. No, it will not be a police-led search, but one to be led by health authorities accompanied by the police and barangay officials. The intent is to transfer those infected but have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic to government-run quarantine facilities. 

The new approach is a reversal of government’s previous policy encouraging those with mild symptoms to go on home quarantine. This policy, as some public health experts had argued, should have been carefully considered. Most Filipino homes are small and poorly ventilated. They provide shelter for extended families. They are ill-suited for quarantine purposes, and are actually breeding grounds for the coronavirus. That policy, it is now conceded, could be one of the reasons driving the rise in the number of cases. 

Authorities now prefer these individuals to “voluntarily surrender.”  Should they resist, an official said euphemistically that they would exercise the “inherent police power of the State.”

Such a situation, should it arise, would be problematic for the enforcing authorities. How can one  use “police power” to enforce the transfer without violating the requirement of strict physical distancing, or putting at risk the health and safety of government personnel?

More importantly, in the absence of proof – in the form of a positive test result – that the person being transferred is indeed infected with the coronavirus, the transfer would be in the nature of an illegal arrest.

A senior official explained that their new campaign would rely on information provided by the family, neighbors, and local officials on the identities of those infected. This means that anyone could be visited and transferred on the say-so of neighbors or local officials, on mere suspicion of being infected. In short, it’s fighting the virus with “tokhang.” 

“Oplan Tokhang,” as we all know, refers to government’s controversial anti-drug campaign where policemen visit the homes of suspected drug users and pushers and “ask” them to surrender. The said campaign has been heavily criticized for the extra-judicial killings of suspected pushers. For all its blood and bluster, “Oplan Tokhang” has failed to achieve its objective of ridding the country of the drug menace. Would the fight against the virus go the way of “tokhang”? 

For many observers, this new approach highlights once again the absence of compassion – and disregard for basic rights – in government’s efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus. It also extends into the realm of policy the latest narrative, that of blaming the unprecedented rise in the number of cases on the lack of discipline among Filipinos, of us being “pasaway.” Note that of late, senior government officials have been chastising the public as if they were children, threatening them with reverting to stricter lockdown rules if they do not behave. 

However, Filipinos have been complying with the mandated lockdown rules. This has been validated in several surveys by reputable agencies. If citizens did venture out during the early period of the lockdown, it was to buy food and medicine, which was allowed under the rules. 

Rules on wearing face masks and physical distancing were observed, Mass gatherings were avoided, even frowned upon. The few who did commit infractions were treated by authorities harshly as if to prove a point, but eventually the lesson was lost with every reported incident involving a government official or VIP who flouted the rules but was let off with a slap on the wrist.

Hindsight, as the saying goes, is always 20/20. A senior official recently admitted that government should have been more pro-active in the early stages of the pandemic. But in terms of owning up to its lapses and shortcomings, that was as far as government went. Lack of discipline, not government’s failings, are to blame for the continuing increase in cases.

The chief of the Philippine National Police defended the house-to-house campaign by likening it to “locating criminals” and their “accomplices.” An undersecretary at the Department of Interior and Local Government even went as far as proposing a “shame campaign” on those infected with the coronavirus ostensibly to teach people a lesson in discipline. This is plain victim-shaming. If this is the way most government officials think, then the public has every reason to be wary, if not angry, at their leaders. 

joey.salgado@gmail.com