Philippine govt pilots scheme to lift curbs for the vaccinated, raising human rights concerns

Diners at a restaurant in Metro Manila. This month, the government began experimenting with a scheme to use proof of vaccination as access cards. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA - Mr Melvin Panganiban, 29, a mechanic at a petrol station, has always believed that to stay healthy, one has to let the body heal itself.

He has always eschewed over-the-counter medications, opting instead to eat right and exercise. When he gets sick, he turns to home remedies, like boiling calamansi extract on a tablespoon and taking it straight up.

So, he was sceptical when the government began vaccinating people against Covid-19, and felt slighted when he was forced to get one so he could keep his job.

"I had to choose between my principles and my job. You can't eat your principles," he said.

But Mr Jojo Ramos, 45, a manager at a tech firm, is sticking to his guns.

He is opting to wait till he can see definitive results on the vaccines' side effects, especially for those like him with health issues like hypertension.

Like Mr Panganiban, Mr Ramos was also brought up believing that, if you take good care of it, your body just needs a little push and it will heal itself.

"Whenever we got sick, for instance, my mother would not give us Solmux (an anti-cough medication). Instead, she would make us go through water therapy or swallow ice cubes," he said.

Mr Ramos said he is aware that his choice means he will be denied access to many public places. He would not be able to get a haircut at a barbershop, eat at a restaurant or go to church, for instance.

The Philippines has been battling a wave of infections fuelled by the highly contagious Delta variant with a mix of movement restrictions and targeted hard lockdowns.

The country is the second-worst hit by Covid-19 in South-east Asia, with close to 2.5 million infections and more than 37,000 deaths.

This month, the government began experimenting with a scheme to use proof of vaccination as access cards. Only those fully vaccinated can now visit restaurants and salons as well as churches.

That excludes a large part of the population, creating concerns over discrimination and segregation.

Just 20 per cent out of some 109 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated. The government is aiming to raise that to 80 per cent by Christmas.

The Commission on Human Rights has since been getting queries about whether the restrictions targeting the unvaccinated and those who had received only a single dose infringe on their civil rights.

Just 20 per cent out of some 109 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated. PHOTO: REUTERS

"People have been asking: Does the government have the right to impose mandatory vaccination? Others ask if it's valid for the government to impose restrictions, and whether they can be arrested if they're not vaccinated," Ms Jacqueline Ann de Guia, the commission's spokesman, told The Straits Times.

An anonymous texter asked: "Isn't vaccination voluntary? Where is the right to choose?"

Restrictions on the unvaccinated might be necessary but the government must also ensure that anyone who wants a vaccine can get one, said Mr Chito Gascon, head of the human rights commission.

"It's a balancing act. It's dependent on the universality of access to vaccines. The sooner more people are vaccinated, the easier we can calibrate this," he said.

Once vaccines are freely available, the government can begin regulating those who choose not to get vaccinated because of health, spiritual or cultural concerns, perhaps in the same way it issues drivers' licences.

"No one can say a driver's licence is discriminatory. It is proof that a person can safely drive a vehicle, that he is not a danger to the public," said Mr Gascon.

Mr Ramos said he has long anticipated the limitations he will have to deal with because he chose not to get vaccinated just yet. So, he is not expecting much inconvenience.

"We don't really go out, and we attend church services online," he said.

He said that he, his wife and daughter have learnt how to trim one another's hair. "We don't have to go to a salon. We just give each other a haircut," he said.

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