The Philippines has declared a state of emergency, allowing it to comply with stricter COVID-19 measures taken by neighboring countries, but also causing human rights worries, such as the use of dog cages to detain curfew violators.
Lawmakers passed legislation Tuesday granting emergency powers to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, including the power to commandeer private hospitals and ships, order the transport and housing of health workers, and reallocate the state budget to give families financial aid.
The nation was not as fast as others in Southeast Asia to cancel flights, close schools, and restrict movement. With coronavirus infections spiking in mid-March, however, Manila determined past measures were not enough, and it became the first in the region to order a national lockdown.
This week’s legislation also includes measures to expedite the approval of virus test kits, shift private medical expenses to the state budget, and secure supplies of medical goods, food, and water.
“Nothing is more important now than your cooperation. I repeat: ‘Stay at home,’” Duterte told citizens Tuesday. He added, “The outcome of this war depends largely on you as well.”
His choice to take a warlike posture against COVID-19 has come under fire as critics worry about the threat to civil liberties. The president appointed ex-military men to lead the National Action Plan against coronavirus.
Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo defended the appointments as necessary to “the maintenance of peace and order.”
“We need the PNP [Philippine National Police] and the military as they have the discipline, the organization, the manpower and the equipment to implement the measures that the government has established,” he said.
“We are in state of war against an unseen enemy, and we need men and women trained in the art of warfare,” Panelo said.
In a country already known for a violent and controversial drug war, law enforcement’s role now in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic puts basic rights under threat, said Human Rights Watch.
Photos on social media show police holding people in dog cages after arresting them. Human Rights Watch said citizens are being arrested for violating rules on quarantining, curfews, and social distancing. Arrestees also have been forced to sit in the afternoon sun as punishment, the organization said.
“While the Philippines government needs to protect the health and welfare of the people, any interventions must be in line with international human rights standard, including the prohibition against cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of people in custody,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
“Any mistreatment should be immediately investigated, and the authorities responsible held accountable,” he said.
In the Philippines, 707 people have contracted COVID-19 and 45 people have died from it, as of Wednesday, according to the World Health Organization. The Philippines was the first nation outside of China to report a case after the disease first broke out in December.
To mitigate the economic fallout of the disease, the Philippines has cut interest rates and sent out limited cash aid. It also is considering further measures, such as loan delays and more dramatic aid to workers.
Still, analysts are expecting the economy to contract next quarter, as exports, investment, and other indicators decline.
“Consumption, the main driver of the economy, is set to slump,” Alex Holmes, a senior Asia economist at Capital Economics, said. “What’s more, the drag on the tourism sector is set to worsen. Travel across the world is grinding to a halt.”