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Rodrigo Duterte’s Coronavirus Tyranny in the Philippines

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte arrives to greet the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at Colonel Jesus Villamor Air Base in Manila, Philippines, Thursday, February 28, 2019. (Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS)

Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte’s ambitious goal of having 70 million people fully vaccinated by the end of 2021, in a lower-middle-income nation of over 100 million people, was rather optimistic. “Exasperated” by Filipinos’ slow rate of inoculation — as of June 20, barely 2 million Filipinos have been fully vaccinated — Duterte demanded his people make a choice: “Get yourselves vaccinated or I will put you behind bars.”

Immediately, his cabinet members engaged in damage control. Justice secretary Menardo Guevarra waved off Duterte’s comments as having been “strong words to drive home the need for us to get vaccinated.” Duterte, one of the most popular leaders in the history of the Philippines, gained widespread approval for his drug war, sitting with an impressive 91 percent trust rating in October. Yet his bungling response to the pandemic has resulted in an ongoing, precipitous decline of public confidence in his administration, with trust now sitting at around 55 percent. Daily cases are increasing, and the death toll continues to rise rapidly.

Duterte has resorted to blaming his citizens for his mishandling of the coronavirus outbreak. His anger bears a striking resemblance to Andrew Cuomo’s tirades against simple questions from reporters. Cuomo thought his public recommendations infallible, eventually resulting in the preventable deaths of thousands in adult-care facilities. And just as Cuomo forced nursing homes into admitting infected patients, Duterte has also taken to unscientific, authoritarian measures, saying that those who resist vaccination must choose to either go to jail (where he’ll “inject the vaccine in your butt”) or receive an Ivermectin injection. Ivermectin is an anti-parasite drug that some have presented as an alternative medication for coronavirus victims. U.S., European, and WHO officials and regulators have all cautioned against its use. Such health bodies have been wrong before, but Duterte seems to care less about the drug’s efficacy than about the power-trip involved in forcibly administering it, or about using the prospect thereof as a threat, derisively saying that he will “have Ivermectin meant for pigs injected into” anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated.

Throughout the pandemic, people all over the world have relinquished their freedom to democratically elected but power-hungry politicians. Unfortunately, our electoral system incentivizes these heavy-handed responses from our leaders. The prospect of losing reelection because of inaction during a crisis drives governors and presidents to become tunnel-visioned. They must stop COVID-19, not only for their citizens but for the sake of their political futures. Governors such as Phil Murphy have admitted to ignoring the Bill of Rights when imposing restrictions on constitutionally protected activity, namely religious worship. It is unlikely that they will be held accountable.

Thankfully, no major political figure in this country is proposing the kind of punishments Duterte is driving for. Though for that, I suspect we owe more thanks to what remains of America’s individualist ethos than to the supposed restraint of many of our leaders. COVID has caused a collectivist, moralizing ideology to take hold over most of the American Left. Unvaccinated people haven’t been arrested, sure, but the concepts of individual and religious rights have been flung out the window. It’s not hard to imagine that many on the left might privately look to Duterte with a bit of envy. After all, a fully vaccinated public would almost certainly be for the ‘greater good of the most people,’ so why shouldn’t he do whatever it takes to achieve it? No one should care that it requires the trampling of people’s freedom if it’s for the good of the whole.

So why hasn’t the move garnered praise? Because intuitively, everyone knows that such a gross overstep violates the realm of acceptable political advocacy, even those who might fantasize about a world where this is not the case. Yet we did nothing throughout this past year, as our elected representatives slowly chipped away at our freedom and our humanity. Americans should not have taken all of the past year’s government overreach as calmly as they did, and the people of the Philippines should be indignant. The objective of vaccination is to protect people. A leader who threatens to use his citizens as test subjects, who wages war against his people for mistrusting him, is just as dangerous as a population that is slow to attain herd immunity, if not more. You don’t have to be an anti-vaxxer — which I am not — to be leery of such oppressive methods. Indeed, when it comes to something as personal and fundamental as someone’s health, it is always better to persuade than to force; even if you want more vaccination, such tyranny is likely to engender counterproductive backlash that keeps vaccine hesitancy up anyway. So it’s clear that the ends don’t justify the means here.

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