Philippines is battling one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Southeast Asia but many are reluctant to get the jab.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has threatened to send people to prison for refusing to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, as the government placed the country’s border controls on “heightened alert” over new cases of the Delta variant.
“You can choose: you get the vaccine or I will send you to jail,” Duterte said in Tagalog during a pre-recorded address on Monday night.
The Philippines began its vaccination programme in March but there have been reports of low turnouts at several vaccination centres in the country, although people are also reportedly scrambling to get the limited supply of the Pfizer BioNtech jabs.
Admitting that he is growing exasperated by “these fools”, who refused to get vaccinated, Duterte then threatened to inject them “with shots intended for pigs”.
“You are all stubborn.”
Duterte has also previously threatened to shoot Filipinos found violating lockdown restrictions during the pandemic. Since that threat, there have been several cases of alleged violators being killed by authorities, including an elderly man and a former soldier, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Of the country’s estimated 110 million population, only about 1.95 percent were fully vaccinated as of Monday, according to the vaccine tracker, Herd Immunity PH.
According to a separate report by the government on Monday night, 8.4 million doses of vaccine have been administered. At least 6.2 million people have received their first dose, while 2.15 million are fully vaccinated.
As of Monday, the Philippines had reported 1.3 million coronavirus cases, with almost 56,000 still active. Many of the new cases are attributed to the surge of infections in Duterte’s political stronghold of Mindanao. More than 23,700 have died, including 138 on Monday.
Duterte said that those refusing to get inoculated should just “leave the country”, and either go to India or the United States.
The Philippines medical community has been stepping up efforts to encourage citizens to get the coronavirus vaccine, opening inoculation sites at churches, malls and cinemas, in order to give Filipinos easier access to the shots.
The government has resorted to incentives to get the COVID shot, including giving away cattle.
The statement must be in the context of providing positive and clear directions of the vaccination program in the next six months and not issue verbal invectives which might offend the already confused and undecided vaccinees.
— Tony Leachon MD (@DrTonyLeachon) June 22, 2021
But the president’s latest statement drew immediate response from the Philippines’ health practitioners.
Dr Tony Leachon, a former adviser on the government’s Covid response, told Al Jazeera that vaccination is “voluntary and not mandatory”.
“The vaccine hesitancy emanates from the lack of massive awareness campaign on the merits of vaccination, lack of preferred vaccines and perceived adverse events of vaccines.”
“Though I think that the president’s statement is rhetorical rather than a threat, it must be in the context of providing positive and clear directions of the vaccination programme…and not issue verbal invectives, which might offend the already confused and undecided” vaccine recipients.
Mia Magdalena Longid, a teacher and registered nurse, told Al Jazeera that she does not think “punishing people will encourage them to get vaccinated”.
“Incentivising vaccination would, especially in a country full of hungry people.”
Cristina Palabay, who leads the Karapatan rights group, said Duterte’s threat “has no basis in law.”
“The legal basis for such statement is highly questionable, and morally and socially, it is unacceptable,” Palabay said, adding that Duterte’s approach will only scare off people.
“It will have far-reaching implications on how do we promote and enhance a truly comprehensive health care system in this country,” she told Al Jazeera.
The World Health Organisation has said that countries should encourage its citizens to get vaccinate, but cannot coerce people if they refuse.
In a televised press briefing on Tuesday, Myrna Cabotaje, a health undersecretary, clarified that the president’s threat was “borne out of passion”, and that it should be taken in the context of his desire “to protect” Filipinos.
But in his press briefing on Tuesday, Harry Roque, the president’s spokesman, said in a mix of Tagalog and English that there are jurisprudence that could make vaccination compulsory, and that the state “has the right to make vaccination mandatory” as part of its “police powers”.
He said that can be done through legislation.
‘There is a crisis’
“There is a crisis being faced in this country. There is a national emergency,” Duterte said of the pandemic, while warning that he could order all the village chiefs nationwide to make a list of everyone who is unvaccinated.
Dr Gene Nisperos, an assistant professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Medicine, wrote in Tagalog on social media that in fact “many people want to get a jab, but there’s not enough supply.”
The country had previously faced some hurdles in acquiring vaccines. As of June 17, news reports and government data showed that 14.2 million doses of vaccine have been delivered to the country, including nine million doses of Sinovac from China, as well as almost five million doses of Astrazeneca and Pfizer from the WHO’s Covax facility.
The Philippines announced on Monday that it has signed an agreement with Pfizer to deliver 40 million doses of Covid vaccines. But the delivery is not due until August.
Meanwhile, the Philippine health department reported detecting four new cases of the highly infectious Delta variant, prompting the government to raise restrictions to “heightened alert” level.
“We want to prevent further the entry of this Delta variant,” Department of Health spokesman Maria Rosario Vergeire told a media briefing on Monday.
“All are on heightened alert,” Vergeire added, saying all local governments have been told to be “on guard”.
All four new cases are from Filipinos returning abroad, bringing to 17 the total cases officially detected, with one death and one still in the hospital.
The Delta variant was first detected in India, which is facing a health crisis following a surge in cases and tens of thousands of deaths this year.
To help contain the spread of the variant, the Philippines will maintain a ban on arrivals from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Oman and the United Arab Emirates until June 30.
Philippine laboratories also reported 14 more cases of the Alpha variant first detected in the United Kingdom, and 12 more cases of the Beta variant first detected in South Africa.
In the same address on Monday night, Duterte also directed his anger at the International Criminal Court, which is considering evidence before making a decision whether to investigate his administration over allegations of “crimes against humanity” linked to his war on drugs in which thousands of people have died.
“This ICC is b******t. Why would I defend or face an accusation before white people? You must be crazy,” the Philippine president falsely said of the international tribunal, which is composed of 18 judges of different nationalities, ethnicities and gender.
“Our laws are different. Our criminal procedures are different. How are you supposed to get justice there?”