The spread of COVID-19 has given Philippines law enforcement broad discretion to enforce public health measures. When discrimination is added to the mix, that unfettered power can be particularly demeaning and dehumanizing for vulnerable groups.
On April 5, volunteers in the village of Pandacaqui, in Pampanga province stopped and detained three LGBT people outside after curfew, two of whom explained they were running an errand for their grandmother. A village official accused them of looking for illicit sex and, as punishment, publicly humiliated them by ordering them to kiss, dance, and do push-ups on live video broadcast on social media. They were identified by name and the videos of their punishment went viral, adding to their embarrassment.
The incident illustrates the danger of unrestrained law enforcement power under the guise of public health. Other individuals who violated curfew in Pandacaqui were also subject to a range of punishments broadcast on social media. Where curfews exist as a means of slowing the spread of the virus, they should be enforced in a professional, measured manner that does not jeopardize people’s rights and dignity.
Respect for human rights is crucial as measures to contain COVID-19 continue in the coming weeks. The Philippines has recorded over 3,700 cases of COVID-19, and President Rodrigo Duterte has extended the country’s lockdown to April 30. A COVID-19 law that went into effect on March 24 grants the administration broad powers to address the coronavirus, which has contributed to violations of human rights, including the right to life, freedom of expression, access to information, and children’s rights.
The Department of the Interior and Local Government, which has administrative control over officials in villages like Pandacaqui, should investigate incidents in which village officials and police mistreat violators of curfew and quarantine regulations. It should hold to account those responsible for these abuses.
Efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 are essential, but should not be used as an excuse to demean vulnerable groups. The humiliation of LGBT people and others in the Philippines demonstrates the need for oversight and accountability to ensure that officials across the country respect people’s rights and dignity during the current crisis.