Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened on Tuesday to arrest anyone not wearing a mask, as the government vowed to step up testing for the coronavirus amid a sharp rise in infections and deaths since a lockdown was eased in June.
“We do not have any qualms in arresting people,” Duterte said in a recorded address aired on Tuesday. It was a “serious crime” to spread the respiratory disease, also known as COVID-19, he added.
“If you are brought to the police station and detained there, that would give you a lesson for all time,” he said of anyone caught not wearing a mask.
Duterte’s statement follows an earlier warning from an interior department senior official that the government should consider a “shame campaign” against violators of the coronavirus restrictions, as well as people with possible infections quarantined in their homes.
In April, Duterte also received condemnation after he said violators of lockdown rules could be shot for causing trouble.
A recent study conducted by the Asian Development Bank, however, showed that the Philippines already ranks second in Asia-Pacific in the stringency of its coronavirus curbs, while an Imperial College London and YouGov survey showed that 91 percent of Filipinos were already compliant with the rules on wearing masks.
Rights groups and the opposition have been warning of abuses during the pandemic lockdown, during which allies of the president have also passed an anti-terror law, which critics say could be used to target dissent.
According to the police, more than 61,000 people have already been arrested for breaking lockdown rules.
Critics say Duterte has increasingly militarised efforts to curb the spread of the disease without addressing the more immediate need to implement contact tracing and other health protocols.
During the televised meeting aired on Tuesday, Duterte’s Health Secretary Francisco Duque also announced that the government is aiming to test as many as 40,000 people a day compared with the current number of between 20,000 and 23,000.
It is unclear how the government will reach that target since it has not met an earlier target of 30,000 daily tests that was announced in May.
So far, the Philippines has tested nearly 1.1 million people, and Duque said the aim was for 10 million people – or nearly a tenth of the population – to be tested by the second quarter of next year.
“We cannot test every citizen as no country has done it, even the richest, the United States,” Duque said.
In Southeast Asia, the Philippines ranks second to Indonesia in terms of the number of cases and deaths, with cases jumping nearly four-fold and deaths nearly doubling to 1,835 since the government relaxed lockdown measures in June.
Restrictions have been reimposed in some of the hardest-hit areas.
Of 30 countries most affected by the pandemic, the Philippines ranked 24th in terms of testing rate, data from statistics aggregator Statista showed.
Last week, officials also said health workers and police would take patients with mild or no symptoms from their homes and place them in isolation centres.
The proposal was quickly withdrawn and denied by several officials after concerns were raised about possible human rights violations and angry reactions on social media.