MANILA — The Department of Transportation's (DOTr) decision to bar people unvaccinated against COVID-19 in public transportation in Metro Manila is meant to protect them from the respiratory disease, and prevent the economy from shutting down, it said Thursday.
In a statement, the agency said the move is "for the benefit of the majority and the common good" as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the capital region and the country amid the local presence of the more transmissible omicron variant.
Critics of the policy said a more organized and more systemic approach are needed to stop the spread of the virus, as the 'no vax, no ride' rule supposedly discriminated against public transport users.
The Commission on Human Rights (CHR) expressed fears that the move could "restrict the exercise and enjoyment of fundamental rights" which include the procurement of necessities.
But the DOTr emphasized that the policy seeks to prevent transport and business shutdowns, explaining that high COVID-19 cases may lead to retrenchment of employees to minimize losses.
"We want to prevent another public transport shutdown. We are doing everything we can to maintain and keep our public transport operations safe and running," the agency said.
"We also do not want businesses to shut down due to the surge in COVID-19 cases. If we do not act now, all industries and business sectors will be severely affected," it added.
"Either the businesses will minimize workers, cut down on some parts of their business, retrench employees, or shut down to cut down on losses or pay off debts."
The shift to Alert Level 3 from Alert Level 2 in Metro Manila, Bulacan, Cavite, Laguna, and Rizal will result in a gross value added (GVA) losses of P3 billion a week, the Development Budget Coordination Committee earlier said.
On Thursday, the number of newly reported COVID-19 cases breached 34,000 — the highest ever.
Nonetheless, the DOTr apologized for the inconvenience some may experience, noting that the policy would only be in effect in areas Alert Level 3 or higher.
The transportation department dismissed claims that the new measure is "anti-poor, draconian or punitive."
The real anti-poor and "anti-life" policy, they said, is "if we will not impose interventions that will prevent loss of life due to non-vaccinations."
"We do not discriminate against the unvaccinated, but we are protecting them. We would also wish to ensure the public that the implementation of the said policy will be both tolerant and firm," the DOTr said.
On those questioning the legality of the policy, the agency pointed out that they only based it on the resolution of Metro Manila mayors on the guidelines for unvaccinated people.
"We are supporting those local legal directives. To be clear, there is NO directive to prohibit travel. Unvaccinated individuals are allowed to travel by using other means aside from public transport," the agency said.
Last week, President Rodrigo Duterte urged village officials to restrain or arrest unvaccinated residents who continue to roam around their areas for non-essential purposes.
The Philippines' vaccination drive is fueled by misinformation in social media, according to Malacañang, which is why the CHR called on the government to correct this by addressing vaccine hesitancy and the low vaccination rate by responding to "common misconceptions."
'WELFARE OF COMMUTERS'
In a statement, Sen. Joel Villanueva said the DOTr should think of the "welfare" of the riding public, noting that the restrictions could only cause "animosity."
"An all-out ban on unvaccinated individuals in public transportation---with little to no viable alternative options---will only create resentment and animosity, and will further discourage them to get jabbed," the lawmaker said.
Villanueva added that the government should prioritize educating the public of the benefits they could get from COVID-19 shots.
Instead of imposing restrictions against the unvaccinated, presidential candidate Sen. Manny Pacquiao suggested that the government should provide free and accessible rapid antigen and RT-PCR tests.
The PROMDI standard bearer also questioned the lack of a uniform and reliable contact tracing mobile application, pointing out that the country can manage the pandemic better through mass testing and effective contact tracing.
"Imbes na pagbawalan natin ang mga unvaccinated na lumabas at maghanapbuhay, mas maganda na gawin nating libre at accessible ang antigen test. At kapag positive ang isang na-test, libre din ang isasagawang confirmatory RT-PCR test. Kailangan natin palakasin ang mass testing natin sa halip na i-discriminate ang mga hindi pa bakunado," Pacquiao said.
(Instead of prohibiting the unvaccinated to go out and work, it's better to give free and accessible antigen tests. If a person tests positive, a free confirmatory RT PCR test should subsequently be given. We need to strengthen our mass testing program instead of discriminating against the unvaccinated.)
Pacquiao said this would allow health authorities to properly segregate and isolate those who are sick without the need to curtail the basic rights of those who are unvaccinated.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III also questioned the DOTr's policy.
Sotto said government should "explore alternatives" that would entice the public to subscribe to its vaccination rollout.
“There should be no discrimination among the riding public. Instead of barring them from riding public transports, DOTr should come up with brighter ideas on how to protect the unvaxxed from the deadly virus," said Sotto.
"Our government should also serve the people who still don't want to get their vaccines.”
— with a report from Dennis Gasgonia, ABS-CBN News