“You choose: vaccine or I will have you jailed,” says President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. After low turnouts at COVID-19 vaccination sites in Manila, Duterte delivered this striking ultimatum to citizens during a televised speech on Monday, June 22nd. Currently, health officials in the Philippines encourage citizens to take the COVID-19 vaccine, but it is not compulsory. Yet, Duterte’s remarks reveal that he intends to mandate the vaccine for all citizens. Feeling “exasperated” with low turnout and low availability of vaccines, it seems as though President Duterte will resort to more aggressive tactics. It is unclear whether or not he will follow through with such threats of imprisonment.
The Philippines is combatting one of Asia’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks, with over 1.3 million cases and deaths surpassing 23,000. The country’s authorities aim to vaccinate up to 70 million of the 110 million population this year. As of June 20th, 2021, 2.1 million Filipinos have been vaccinated – a slow start towards the country’s lofty goal. President Duterte has become known for, and even criticized over, his strict stance on pandemic guidelines, including his decision to keep schools closed.
There is a range of tactics used by world leaders to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in their respective countries. While many strongly urge their citizens to receive the coronavirus vaccine, President Duterte’s approach comes across as particularly threatening and demeaning. Some nations are implementing vaccine mandates but more subtly and respectfully. For example, some American universities are requiring full immunization against COVID-19 before the Fall 2021 semester. Duterte will likely receive negative feedback for threatening jail to unvaccinated citizens. While his scare tactics may drive greater turnout at vaccination sites, the future of the pandemic in the Philippines is still uncertain.
President Rodrigo Duterte has developed a controversial reputation internationally and among human rights groups. Elected in 2016 in a landslide election, Duterte won over the Filipino population through “hardline promises to tackle crime and corruption”. As longtime mayor of Davao, the politician was able to build nationwide support by battling crime and corruption in Davao, thus making the city one of the safest in the Philippines. Duterte then promised to recreate these successes on a national level.
During the early years of his presidency, Duterte proceeded to aggressively crack down on drug dealers and users, and even said he would be “happy to slaughter” the three million addicts in the Philippines. By urging police to commit extra-judicial executions of suspects, thousands of citizens have been killed as a result of Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. Since his 2016 election, Duterte has exhibited unwavering hatred for anyone involved in drug trafficking, sparking the attention of both domestic and international rights organizations. The United Nations, the Roman Catholic church, the European Union, and the United States have also denounced his cruel policies as human rights violations. Nevertheless, despite harsh tactics, Duterte remains popular in the Philippines.
In the same June 22nd address, President Duterte condemned the International Criminal Court and vowed to “jail” unvaccinated Filipinos. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has tried to question Duterte about his violent killings of drug suspects, but the president has been unwilling to cooperate. He calls the ICC a “bullshit” organization, and proceeds to ask: “Why would I defend or face an accusation before white people? You must be crazy”. The ICC and other human rights organizations want to hold Duterte accountable for the thousands of unjust drug suspect killings, but Duterte claims only those who resisted arrest were killed violently. The numerous families of drug war victims have marvelled over the ICC’s plans to crack down on Duterte’s inhumane killings. Normita Lopez, whose son was murdered in 2017 for resisting arrest, expresses relief about the Duterte investigation as “justice never sleeps”.
President Duterte’s grave promise to jail the unvaccinated further demonstrates his lack of regard for human suffering. The international organizations who have criticized his controversial moves in the Filipino anti-drugs campaign will likely also have negative opinions on his recent remarks about the COVID-19 vaccine. Hopefully, human rights groups will continue to step in where needed in the Philippines and mitigate the costly effects of both the war on drugs and the COVID-19 pandemic.