Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is threatening to jail any citizen who refuses to get a COVID-19 vaccine as the country grapples with low vaccination rates and one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Asia.
“You choose,” he said during a televised address on Monday. “Vaccine, or I will have you jailed.”
Duterte issued the threat amid reports of low turnouts at vaccination sites in the capital city of Manila. The country has seen more than 1.3 million cases and 23,000 coronavirus infections to date. Officials say about 2.1 million of the nation’s 110 million people have been fully vaccinated.
“Don’t get me wrong, there is a crisis in this country,” Duterte said during his address. “I’m just exasperated by Filipinos not heeding the government.”
Duterte also urged anyone who doesn’t want to get the vaccine to leave the country or face arrest.
“Don’t force my hand into it,” he said. “Nobody wants that.”
Health officials in the country have said that the vaccine is voluntary, though they have strongly encouraged people to get it.
Vaccine hesitancy has surged in the Philippines in recent years after a botched dengue vaccination program led to the deaths of several children in 2017.
Duterte got the vaccine in May in a moment later posted on social media.
Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers, says it would be illegal to jail citizens for refusing a coronavirus vaccine.
“There is no law that specifically empowers the president to order such arrests for said reasons, even if this is a health emergency,” Olalia told the New York Times.
A spokesperson for Duterte insisted that the president can make vaccinations compulsory.
Duterte has a long history of threatening — and following through on — extreme punishments for people whom he sees as threatening to society. For example, more than 6,100 people have been killed since he was elected on a promise to kill drug dealers in 2016. He has continued to pursue that agenda throughout his presidency, including last year when he told his customs chief to shoot drug smugglers.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) recently launched an inquiry into Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, despite his move to pull out of the organization in 2018.
Duterte also lashed out at the ICC during his address on Monday, when he dismissed the inquiry as “bulls—.”
“Why would I defend or face an accusation before white people?” he said. “You must be crazy.”
The Philippines continues to struggle with sourcing vaccines for its population. The country recently signed a deal for 40 million doses of Pfizer-BioNTech, which will add to its existing supply of about 12.7 million doses.
— With files from Reuters
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