Philippine lawmakers began debates Monday on proposed legislation that would give President Rodrigo Duterte emergency powers to deal with the coronavirus crisis, as rights advocacy groups called on governments to respect human rights during the pandemic.
During a special session congressmen filed a bill that seeks to widen Duterte’s powers to include the ability to take over public utilities, hospitals and businesses. The bill also proposes to realign an estimated 275 billion pesos ($5.4 billion) in funds allocated for state enterprises so as to support the nation’s coronavirus response.
“It is a power which [we] do not consider necessary to be exercised at all times,” Duterte’s executive secretary, Salvador Medialdea, told legislators in a speech pushing for the bill’s adoption. “We only desire such a power to be legislated because the virus we are up against is so unpredictable and can spread rapidly in a community.”
Meanwhile the Philippine death toll from the coronavirus (COVID-19) rose to 33 on Monday, with eight new fatalities recorded during the past 24 hours, according to the Department of Health.
It also confirmed 82 new cases, which brought the nationwide number of infections to 462. Three doctors who had treated COVID patients were among those who died after being infected with the virus, officials said.
As of Monday, more than 370,000 COVID-19 cases were confirmed worldwide with over 16,300 deaths recorded, according to the latest data compiled by disease experts at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
Duterte was the first Southeast Asian leader to impose a lockdown and use security forces to implement his order. Malaysia and Vietnam have also deployed troops to enforce quarantines and curbs on public gatherings.
The bill before congress, if approved, would allow Duterte’s government to temporarily take control of privately-owned hospitals and hotels as quarantine areas or as facilities to house health workers.
House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano said the bill would only give special powers to Duterte “as a last resort.”
“That’s what special power means, for example: the power to direct businesses if they don’t want to obey the government,” Cayetano told reporters. Analysts expect the bill to pass, since Duterte’s supporters control both chambers of the Philippine congress.
Rights groups: Emergency powers can be abused
Local rights groups, however, expressed opposition to giving Duterte special powers in handling the COVID-19 crisis. Among their concerns, they cited how the president could access millions in public funds without accountability.
“With Duterte’s propensity to use and abuse his power as chief executive to violate people’s rights, this move, using the pandemic excuse, is one step closer to, if not already an embodiment of, martial rule,” Cristina Palabay, secretary general of the Philippine rights group Karapatan, said in a statement.
“Duterte seems to be more than eager to use his emergency powers to give himself full, absolute and sole authority and tighten his grip on power,” she said.
Also on Monday, regional lawmakers urged authorities in Southeast Asia to place human rights at the forefront of their responses to the spread of the coronavirus.
“Now is a particularly challenging time for governments around the world to combat the virus, but it is more important than ever to ensure that people’s rights are protected, not hindered,” Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP and chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), said in a statement.
“Emergency responses must not be used as a tool to crush dissent, excessively restrict freedom of expression or target particular groups or minorities,” Santiago added.
Numbers expected to rise further
In Manila, Health Secretary Francisco Duque attributed the sharp rise in Philippine cases to improved capacity for COVID-19 testing at local labs.
“While our testing capacity increases, we will find out the trend of transmission,” Duque said.
Maria Rosario Vergeire, the health department’s spokeswoman, said the number of confirmed infections was expected to increase as the government moved to address a backlog in test results.
“The public might be shocked once we have the results per day because now we are reducing the backlog,” Vergeire told reporters.
As the main Philippine island of Luzon remained under lockdown, restraining the movement of 60 million people, more than 500 health workers and staff members of a hospital in Manila were quarantined over fears that they could have been exposed to patients who had tested positive for COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the Philippine Medical Association mourned the deaths of three doctors “who have died while serving on the front line in the fight against COVID-19.”
“You are a great loss to the medical profession and to our country. We thank you, dear doctors, for finishing the race with a great fight,” the group said.
On Monday, authorities in neighboring Indonesia confirmed that five doctors and at least one nurse who had treated COVID-19 patients had also died after being infected with the disease,while another physician died of a heart attack due to exhaustion.
Homeless in greater danger
With travel restrictions in place during the past week on Luzon island, concerns have been mounting over Manila’s teeming street dwellers. Many among the capital’s homeless population have been left out in the open during the pandemic, and temporary shelters run by NGOs have been shut down.
The Red Cross said that blood donors, while still willing to donate, could not move amid the forced quarantine.
In northern Pangasinan province alone, Red Cross volunteers predicated that blood reserves would only last until the second week of April.
“We have regular patients securing blood, like for dialysis patients, pregnant women about to deliver their babies (and for) emergency cases like accidents,” Raymund Lim, a blood donor recruitment officer at the Philippine Red Cross, told BenarNews.
“Once we run out of blood supplies, they will all be required to bring donors to the blood center. If the enhanced community quarantine does not end soon, many who will be needing this blood will be out at risk,” he said.
Arie Firdaus in Jakarta contributed to this report.