MANILA - Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said Wednesday he was not consulted in the government's house-to-house search policy for COVID-19 patients, and neither was it brought up in the Inter-Agency Task Force handling the pandemic.
"I am not aware of any 'house-to-house' search for COVID-afflicted persons. We have not discussed this matter in the IATF, nor have I been consulted about it," Guevarra said in a text message to reporters.
Interior Secretary Eduardo Año said all mild and asymptomatic virus patients in areas under localized lockdowns would be transferred to government to stem community transmission, unless they have their own rooms and bathrooms in their homes, and none of their family members are sick, vulnerable, pregnant, or elderly.
Año, also the vice chair of the National Task Force against COVID-19, said local officials and health officers will be accompanied by policemen in inspecting every house and bringing in patients.
"Should the IATF agree there is need for house-to-house search of COVID-infected persons, it should be the barangay health workers, and not police officers, who should do that. Health workers are in a better position to determine if transfer to a govt quarantine facility is appropriate," Guevarra said.
CRITICISMS TO AÑO'S PROPOSAL
The National Union of Peoples' Lawyers warned against possible violations to rights to privacy, as well as targeting of those who have been vocal about their grievances and criticisms of the government, saying this is not the "kalinga" (care) that the Filipino people need to address the pandemic.
The house-to-house search is called "Oplan Kalinga."
Rights group Karapatan also voiced concern that the searches could lead to more "tokhang-style human rights violations" such as arbitrary and violent arrests, illegal searches, fronts for the surveillance, profiling and harassment of activists and ordinary folks days before Anti-Terrorism Act takes effect, or more killings.
Thousands have been killed under the Philippine government's war against drugs that employed house-to-house visits. Some critics say the implementation of the campaign disregarded human rights.
"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?," Karapatan Secretary-General Cristina Palabay said.
"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,” she added.
The group warned that Año's call for the public to report suspected COVID-19 patients could lead to stigma, discrimination and 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?,” it asked.
The Communist Party of the Philippines hit the "military mindset" behind the proposal which it said violated people's basic civil rights, particularly the need for a court-issued warrant, as well as the right to privacy.
The Commission on Human Rights, for its part, advised against forcible entry and transfer of an individual to an isolation facility under the guise of health and safety.
"[T]he Constitutional right of people to be secure in their houses, papers, and effects is inviolable and makes illegal the forcible entry, search, arrest, and seizure of individuals inside the safety of their homes without a determined probable cause," it said.
It added that RA 11332, the law on reporting on communicable diseases, guarantees right to privacy, and personal data gathered should only be used for public health concerns.
Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque early Wednesday denied the government has any provision for house-to-house search, saying that it prefers that asymptomatic patients and mild cases voluntarily surrender and isolate themselves in isolation centers.
Guevarra insisted though that there is ample legal basis for the transfer of COVID-19 patients to government quarantine facilities.
"Under the law on mandatory reporting of notifiable diseases, it is the duty of the person afflicted or his family to report or give notice of his communicable disease to prevent any contagion. On the other hand, it is the duty of the government, for public health reasons, to place the afflicted persons in a quarantine facility if there is no adequate isolation area in such person's home," he explained.
RA 11332 punishes non-cooperation among persons and entities identified as having the notifiable disease as well as those who should report or respond.
DOJ spokesperson Usec. Markk Perete said RA 11332 could only be used as basis for warrantless arrest in cases where the offender is caught in the act of committing a crime, in hot pursuit, or if he escaped from prison.
But when asked if refusing to be transferred to a quarantine facility can be considered caught in the act of committing a crime, he said: "That is an interesting question and one that is best decided when an actual case presents itself before the appropriate forum."
The DOJ earlier said stepping out of the house for a non-essential purpose could lead to immediate arrest. But a Bulacan court in June declared going outside the residence without travel permit or quarantine pass is not prohibited under RA 11332, as it junked a case against former lawmaker Ariel Casilao and 8 others.
GUEVARRA: NOT COMPARABLE TO DRUG WAR
Guevarra, meanwhile, rejected comparisons of the COVID-19 house-to-house search to the drug war.
"'Yung sa case ng search for drug offenders, the objective is the suppression of the crime, that's why police officers are logically involved. In the case of COVID-19, the objective is the suppression of an infectious disease, which is not a crime. So health workers and medical personnel should be at the forefront of any government action," he said when pressed about how, in the anti-drug campaign, barangay officials were supposed to lead the campaign but the police got involved anyway.
The CHR and rights groups urged government to focus on addressing health issues first.
"[P]rotecting public health must not come at expense or the diminution of other rights," the CHR said.
Karapatan added: "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."