Philippine President Takes Hard-Line On COVID-19 Vaccinations

Rodrigo Duterte has taken a strong stance on COVID-19 vaccinations in previous weeks. The Philippine President has threatened to arrest anyone who refuses to be vaccinated.

Duterte’s comments came during a press meeting at the presidential palace in Manila among members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases. Duterte promised that he “will order their arrest…to protect the people, I have to sequester you in jail. Now choose – get vaccinated, or I’ll lock you up in a cell.”

The President also considered the possibility of forced vaccinations: “if you don’t want to be vaccinated, I’ll have you arrested and have the vaccine shot into your [backside].” He has been so far impatient with any anti-vaccine views, suggesting that “if you don’t get vaccinated, leave the Philippines.”

Harry Roque, the presidential spokesman, said the following day that the Philippine Congress could pass a law to ensure everyone must get a vaccine. “We need an ordinance or a law that will impose a penalty on those who don’t want to get vaccinated.” He went on, referring to Duterte’s previous rewriting of state powers, “If we talk about police powers, some rights are really breached – but they’re breached for broader interests, and in this case it’s public health and safety.”

The government has since clarified that refusal to get the vaccine was not currently against the law. In a statement on Tuesday, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said, “I believe that the President merely used strong words to drive home the need for us to get vaccinated and reach herd immunity as soon as possible.”

Duterte’s promise of a hard-line response to anti-vaccination dissent is no surprise, given his record. The populist President, whose term has been characterized by his tough stance on social issues, has seen a no-nonsense response to crises. His drugs crackdown left thousands dead, while his response to the COVID-19 ordered the arrest of quarantine violators and non-mask wearers. The President, however, is struggling to combat what he considers to be violations of social security.

As with most of his government task forces, he is being advised by mostly ex-military figures and army generals. Therefore, he approaches such issues in all-or-nothing terms. While his determination to enforce social-distancing measures and promote vaccination is laudable, his government is struggling to persuade the population of its safety.

Vaccine resistance is a considerable problem within the Philippines, dating back to before the pandemic. A controversy over the administration of the dengue fever vaccine Dengvaxia in 2017, administered to thousands of students, has led to a rise in vaccine skepticism. The pharmaceutical company involved in Dengvaxia’s production, Sanofi Pasteur, later announced that the vaccine could lead to severe dengue cases amongst those who had never had the disease before.

The Public Attorney’s Office later echoed Sanofi Pasteur’s statement. They claimed, with little scientific evidence, that the vaccine was linked to the deaths of children. The collapse of public belief in vaccines led to a subsequent rise in outbreaks of polio and measles and a considerable reluctance surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines. According to a Pulse Asia Research survey, up to six in 10 Filipinos would still choose not to get vaccinated despite high fears of COVID-19 infection.

Duterte’s ability to rewrite – or at the very least ignore – existing laws is hard to read. As Secretary Menardo proffered, it may well be that the President is simply using staunch words to emphasize the need to get vaccinated. However, Duterte’s precedent of hanging rights in the furtherance of his agenda – as was the case during his war on drugs – could mean that this recent statement is a signal of a similar war being waged on vaccine skeptics in the near future.

The situation is a difficult one in terms of rights; does an individual’s right to not be vaccinated supersede the rights of the broader population to life? Of course, the government has the responsibility to protect this right of all its citizens. But, as Duterte is discovering, that becomes difficult when the government cannot inspire confidence in its vaccine programme.

Henry Whitelaw