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Here's Why the COVID-19 Tokhang Could Be Unconstitutional

People who refuse to cooperate will face imprisonment.
IMAGE JEROME ASCAÑO
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Instead of contact tracing for COVID-19, the Philippine government will deploy its police force to conduct house-to-house searches for COVID-19 cases. 

The move has been dubbed by some Filipinos as “COVID Tokhang,” which is derived from the government’s Oplan Tokhang. It is a portmanteau for knock (katok) and plead (hangyo) and describes police operations that involve the Philippine National Police (PNP) going door to door to root out drug-related offenders. Oplan Tokhang has been blamed for the thousands of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines in the name of the government’s war on drugs.

Imprisonment for People Who Do Not Cooperate in ‘COVID Tokhang’

The PNP will conduct house-to-house searches for COVID-19 cases and bring positive cases to isolation facilities. It is unclear how the PNP will conduct the searches and how they will determine if a person is positive for COVID-19, and whether they will be testing people at their homes for COVID-19. 

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The government previously recommended home quarantine for suspected cases of COVID-19. It now wants people to leave their homes and stay at quarantine centers. 

“We don't want positive patients to stay at home in quarantine especially if their homes don't have the capacity,” said interior secretary Eduardo Año in a press conference. 

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According to Año, anyone who refuses to cooperate with the PNP’s house-to-house searches for COVID-19 cases will face imprisonment. 

Why ‘COVID Tokhang’ Could Be Unconstitutional

The PNP’s house-to-house campaign in search of COVID-19 cases could be a violation of Section 2, Article III of the 1987 Constitution:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures of whatever nature and for any purpose shall be inviolable, and no search warrant or warrant of arrest shall issue except upon probable cause to be determined personally by the judge after examination under oath or affirmation of the complainant and the witnesses he may produce, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized.”

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The operating keyword here is the inviolability of people’s right to be secure at home against unreasonable searches. 

Unless there is probable cause, which can only be determined by a COVID-19 test, the police should not have the right to arrest or force anyone to leave their home under the mere suspicion of being positive for COVID-19. 

The house-to-house search may expose the PNP to COVID-19, especially if they were to go to areas with a high density of people. 

The government should instead concentrate its efforts on enhancing its testing capabilities and contact tracing, which has been proven effective in a number of countries that have successfully managed the spread of the pandemic. 

Harry Roque: No Provision for House-to-House Search

In an interview with ANC, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque dismissed the house-to-house search because there are no provisions for such. 

“We don’t have a provision for house-to-house. Only the political critics of the government, again, weaponizing this very important task of tracing. They will not go house-to-house,” Roque said.

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Nevertheless, Roque encouraged people with mild symptoms to voluntarily "surrender" to authorities for their transfer to isolation facilities. 

Sentido komun. It’s a very communicable disease. And if they refuse to be isolated, the state, of course, can isolate them,” he said.

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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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