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Uproar as Philippines Plans to Deploy Police in Search for COVID-19 Infectees

Dennis Jay Santos and Jeoffrey Maitem
Davao and Cotabato, Philippines
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Sanitation workers disinfect streets and communities in San Juan City in Metropolitan Manila as preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19, March 20, 2020.
Sanitation workers disinfect streets and communities in San Juan City in Metropolitan Manila as preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19, March 20, 2020.
Basilio Sepe/BenarNews

Human rights groups on Wednesday questioned a plan by the Philippine government to have policemen accompany doctors as they conduct house-to-house searches for COVID-19 patients, saying it could lead to abuses.

On Tuesday, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año announced that police would escort health care personnel to check on coronavirus patients at their homes and then help bring them to COVID-19 isolation facilities, if needed. The government is calling the operation Oplan Kalinga (Care Strategy).

But instead of finding sick people in their homes, the police-backed health workers risk facing a reticent public wary of a government that has been blamed for thousands of deaths under its drug war, Chel Diokno, a well-known Philippine human rights lawyer, told BenarNews.

“If house-to-house visits are really necessary, health officials should be doing them,” said Diokno, who heads the Free Legal Assistance Group. “Police visits will only sow fear and may even cause the virus to spread even more.”

In recent days, the Philippines has seen a new surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases.

On Wednesday, the Department of Health confirmed 1,392 news cases and 11 more deaths from the virus within the previous 24 hours, bringing the nationwide total to 58,850 cases and 1,614 deaths. Nearly 21,000 Filipinos have recovered.

The Philippines ranks second behind Indonesia among Southeast Asian countries hit hardest by the pandemic in terms of total confirmed cases and deaths, according to the latest data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

The College Editors Guild of the Philippines, the oldest alliance of university publications here, hit out at the government for its police approach to the health crisis. The plan, the guild alleged, is actually targeted at dissenters, specifically to those who questioned the Duterte administration’s deadly crackdown on narcotics, a campaign that has lasted four years.

The police is “preying on the poor and arresting whomever they think is worth putting in jail,” the group said. “One of the biggest concerns is if this would turn an Oplan Tokhang 2.0 similar to the events that transpired during the first wave of extrajudicial killings.”

Tokhang is a combination of two Filipino words that mean “knock” and “plead.” Under the plan, policemen were supposed to search for drug users and addicts house-to-house and plead to them to undergo rehabilitation.

This has, however, taken on a different meaning because thousands of drug suspects have been killed instead in alleged shootouts with the police. Tokhang, in street parlance here, now means to be killed or be gunned down without a fight.

Under Oplan Kalinga, the government said that those who could not properly go into quarantine at home because they were living with the vulnerable, or have no rooms of their own and private bathrooms, would be taken to a private facility.

On Wednesday, presidential spokesman Harry Roque played down such fears that house-to-house searches involving police officers could lead to abuses. He emphasized that health workers would be the ones leading the transfer of COVID-19 patients to quarantine sites.

Police, he said, would only be backing them up. He did not explain why health workers needed to be backed up by officers.

“Police presence is merely to provide support or assistance in the transport of patients and the implementation of lockdown in the affected area,” Roque said in a statement.

Stressing that the government was mandated to protect its citizens, Roque said contact tracing was a “valid and lawful exercise.”

“Let us not delve into the unproductive speculation and instead help our communities to be COVID-19 free,” he said.

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