By JONAS ALPASAN
MANILA – Health advocates expressed disappointment over the Supreme Court decision denying their petition for a proactive mass testing and effective contact tracing as the Philippine government continues to grapple with COVID-19.
In a resolution dated Sept. 1, the Supreme Court denied the plea of health advocates to compel government institutions to conduct proactive mass testing, efficient contact tracing and isolation, and effective treatment of positive cases. The petition was filed over a month ago, amid what petitioners described as “glaring shortcomings and failures of the Duterte government’s Covid-19 response.”
“We cannot accept the Court’s reasoning that it is barred from compelling the executive to protect the people’s right to health ‘in a certain way or to a certain degree’ and ‘no matter how dire the emergency’ when it is obvious that the current response is a huge failure and places our people’s health and safety in peril. Resorting to such technicalities to avoid the Court’s duty to uphold the people’s rights is a great disservice,” said Citizens Urgent Response to End Covid-19 Spokesperson Judy Taguiwalo.
Taguiwalo, also former social welfare secretary and staunch women’s rights advocate, is among the petitioners.
As it stands, the country is nearly at a 300,000-mark of confirmed COVID-19 cases. For the past days, the country’s health department reported new cases between 3,000 to 4,000 daily.
The Philippine government, too, six months into the lockdwon, has only started to systematize contact tracing. This despite the World Health Organization and many local and international health groups that have stressed the importance of contact tracing in breaking the chains of community transmission.
Health workers, meanwhile, continue to bear the brunt of combatting the deadly virus, enduring long working hours without adequate and enough protective gear and no hazard pay. At least 58 health workers have already died due to coronavirus.
Not the High Court’s job?
In its decision, the Supreme Court said the job of the court is to “say what the law is, not dictate how another branch of government should do its ob.”
“Without a demonstration that an official in the executive branch failed to perform a mandatory, nondiscretionary duty, courts have no authority to issue a writ of mandamus, no matter how dire the emergency,” the en banc decision read.
In his dissenting opinion, Justice Marvic Leonen said the petition warrants a comment from respondents as the ruling on these issues will have “a significant impact on the social, political, and economic life of the nation.”
While there is a doctrine of hierarchy of courts that serve as a filtering mechanism for petitions being sought before the high court, Leonen also stressed that this has relaxed when issues involved “are of transcendental importance, a case of first impression, with a time element that cannot be ignored, and that questions are dictated by public welfare.”
He also underscored that the information being prayed by petitioners are matters of public concern and are not exempted under the Philippine laws.
“Ultimately, then, petitioners assert a valid right – their right to information – that they say is being breached by respondents. This assertion, as with that of their right to health, only serves to bolster the grounds of their petition. At the very least, it merits a comment from respondents,” Leonen said in his dissenting opinion.
Dismissed on a technicality
Lawyers from the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers – National Capital Region, who assisted the petitioners, said this decision will leave the people’s right to health and to information up in the air.
“The Resolution dashes hopes that our inept and negligent government will be compelled to do its constitutional duty to protect and respect the people’s rights to health and information. For the half year that we have been placed under quarantine, we have not seen significant improvements in mass testing, contract tracing and isolation,” the human rights lawyers group said.
While the decision, the lawyers group said, is regrettably based on a technicality, this “will not dispirit our clients and the communities and sectors they represent.”
They said, “We take inspiring consolation though in the erudite, extensive and compelling dissent that prudently recognized the transcendental import and implication of this case on the people, the nation and the justice system.”