The Philippines this week said it will send police to search houses for COVID-19 patients to slow rising infection and death numbers, drawing a rebuke from rights groups worried the measure amounts to “drug war” tactics in the wake of a controversial new anti-terrorism law.
The country has reported over 63,000 cases and 1,660 deaths as of Friday and saw Southeast Asia’s biggest daily rise in COVID-19 deaths earlier this week after easing some lockdown measures, prompting calls for a reimagined approach to combating the outbreak.
President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday said the metro Manila area would stay in a general community quarantine through July 31, after which his spokesperson said the area could return to a stricter lockdown should cases continue to rise.
The house-to-house searches were presented by Interior Minister Eduardo Año as a means to avert harder lockdowns and to encourage patients to report to government quarantine facilities despite earlier advice for mildly symptomatic patients to self-isolate.
“We don’t want positive patients to stay home in quarantine, especially if their homes don’t have the capacity,” Año said at a Tuesday news conference. “So what we will do… is to go house-to-house and we will bring the positive cases to our COVID-19 isolation facilities.”
Año also urged the public to report any nearby cases and warned that infected patients who do not cooperate will face imprisonment.
The plan drew a rebuke from local and international rights groups who saw parallels with tactics in Duterte’s deadly “drug war,” in which police have gone door-to-door searching for drug suspects. The Philippines human rights commission alleges that the drug war has taken around 27,000 lives.
“Instead of expanding testing and adopting other public health measures, the administration seems intent on deploying the state security forces and ‘drug war’ tactics that have already proven so catastrophic to Filipinos,” Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson said in a dispatch.
Philippine police actions during the COVID-19 outbreak have drawn heavy scrutiny from rights groups and the general public due to numerous reports of police abuse and rights violations against those allegedly violating curfews and quarantine regulations.
Since first announcing lockdown measures in Manila in March, Duterte has been criticized for a militaristic response to the pandemic, sending police and military to patrol communities, enforce quarantines and arrest violators.
“House-to-house searches will make residents of impoverished urban communities even more vulnerable to police abuses,” Robertson said. “By urging residents to report neighbors they suspect of having COVID-19, the government is encouraging further violations.”
Philip Jamilla of the Manila-based rights alliance Karapatan said on Twitter the plan is reminiscent of “tokhang-style” anti-drug operations, using a term for drug war surveillance meaning “knock and plead.”
“House-to-house searches by the police resulted to thousands of killings in the drug war, tokhang-style barangay-level surveillance was incorporated into counterinsurgency campaigns – now, the police will be deployed for this mere days before the Anti-Terrorism act takes effect,” he said.
Critics allege the country’s new anti-terror law, which Duterte signed last week, is designed to target dissent rather than terrorism. A group of bipartisan U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday urged the Philippines to immediately repeal the law as it “risks further undermining human rights in the Philippines,” U.S. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky said.
The timing of the anti-terrorism law and the door-to-door searches has been perceived by many Filipinos as especially pernicious, given the potential for the Duterte administration to use a combination of broad new powers and limited public mobility to crack down on dissent.
Duterte has long toyed with the idea of placing the Philippines under martial law, especially ahead of the country’s 2022 election, which he is currently barred from contesting as Philippine presidents are limited to a single six-year term.
Duterte said Tuesday he had “dismantled” oligarchy in the country despite not declaring martial law (outside of Mindanao), which was widely interpreted as a reference to the recent vote to reject the franchise application of ABS-CBN, the country’s largest broadcaster.
Rights groups, however, have referred to the new anti-terror law as being equivalent to, if not worse than, martial law, leaving them with little confidence the house-to-house searches will decrease new infections without leading to further rights violations.