Karapatan: Tokhang-style house-to-house searches to spread pandemic, rights violations in communities

Human rights watchdog Karapatan strongly warned that the proposal to conduct house-to-house searches led by the Philippine National Police, with local government units, to track and transfer COVID-19 patients in hiding or those without or with mild symptoms to isolation facilities would “further facilitate State terror and police brutality in communities.” Karapatan Secretary General Cristina Palabay stated that these searches “could possibly lead to more tokhang-style human rights violations such as arbitrary and violent arrests as well as illegal searches, fronts for the surveillance, profiling, and harassment of activists and ordinary folks mere days before the Anti-Terrorism Act takes effect, or worse, more killings.”

“House-to-house police searches have led to thousands of gruesome killings in the government’s sham drug war. The past months under lockdown have shown the kind of brazen violence the police could commit even in broad daylight. These searches would only intimidate patients and their families — and what are the police going to do when patients refuse to come with them, shoot them dead and peddle the ‘nanlaban’ narrative? The trigger-happy Philippine police are not trained for the kind of contact tracing needed for this pandemic. Health professionals themselves undergo rigorous training for effective contact tracing efforts, while harnessing cooperation among affected communities and local government authorities is equally needed,” Palabay averred.

Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Eduardo Año announced these house-to-house police searches as part of Oplan Kalinga in an online press briefing yesterday, July 14. Año further called on the public to “report to authorities if they know someone showing coronavirus-like symptoms,” invoking Republic Act No. 11332 or the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act, which requires the “reporting of a condition to local or state health authorities, as required for notifiable diseases, epidemics or public health events of public health concern.”

The Karapatan officer said that “Año’s call for neighbors to report suspected COVID-19 patients is alarming. It could expose a suspected patient to stigma and discrimination as well as to illegal searches. Why would the DILG rely on chismis for these police searches and where are the Department of Health’s own records? How can the public be assured that these searches would not be abused and infringe on our rights and civil liberties, that they would not be used as a cover to further target or arrest government critics and to conduct Gestapo-like raids on their homes, especially with the Anti-Terrorism Act in place?”

“These pronouncements are emblematic of the government’s militarist and policing-based approach — embodied no less by a retired general like Año and his fascistic policies — which has all but failed in containing the disease. The government has instead stubbornly wasted and continues to waste time and resources for the past months in poor planning and glaring criminal neglect while exploiting lockdown measures to unleash an epidemic of State repression. What we need is for the government to heed the people’s demands for free mass testing, hiring and training of contact tracers and health workers, and more funds for public hospitals, health centers, and medical services. What the people need is a strong, community-based response that values public trust and puts people’s rights and welfare front and center in its implementation — not militarization and human rights violations, not de facto martial law,” she asserted.