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Keeping the distance

/ 04:03 AM April 06, 2020

Two weeks ago, a group of curfew violators in Santa Cruz, Laguna, were pictured huddled in a large dog cage, where they had been placed by the barangay captain. The violators, who were allegedly drunk and who were walking home late at night despite the curfew, were released soon after. News quickly went viral. The municipal mayor issued a strongly worded warning, not just against the potential violation of human rights but also against the principles of social distancing that were disregarded—principles that are often forgotten in the implementation of quarantine.

In the list of arrests and detentions made since “lockdown,” punishments range from the puzzling to the outright violent. A village official in Naic, Cavite, has been criticized for putting a curfew violator, who was also a minor, inside a coffin as punishment. Quarantine violators in a barangay in Davao City were captured on video as they did exercises—a relatively benign but odd penalty. Then there were the reports of direct physical assault by police and local government officials against curfew or quarantine violators. Public outcry continues against these unjust arrests and unlawful actions, which disproportionately affect poor communities. The Commission on Human Rights has stressed repeatedly that arrests, if they must be made, must be conducted in adherence to human rights. From a science perspective, it must also be remembered that aggressive or poorly thought policing runs the risk of further spreading the contagion.

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Some individuals, as they were arrested, were forced into vehicles along with other detainees. Individuals in detention are not provided with protective equipment that would befit periods of prolonged exposure, such as masks. Some areas have shown detainees sitting in wide-open spaces, with chairs some distance from one another, but few of these meet the one-meter minimum distance stipulated for public gatherings. These spaces might not be as small as the dog cage in Santa Cruz, Laguna, but these are still spaces where individuals run the risk of spreading and contracting the virus.

The observation of physical distance in itself is not an absolute protection against contracting infection. The novel coronavirus can be transmitted through great distances by coughing or sneezing, can remain viable on contaminated surfaces from hours to days, and can linger in droplets in the air. This has led health experts to reiterate that the prescribed distance of at least three feet (one meter) to six feet, depending on the source, is merely a reference point, and beyond which an individual is assured of absolute protection. This is the logic behind an enforced quarantine and individual isolation, and is the reason that any interaction outside the home should be limited only to the most essential. Any prolonged exposure by curfew and quarantine violators therefore defeats the purpose of the measures that it is supposed to implement, and alternatives must be found.

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As the agents in charge of implementing quarantine, police and local officials continue to interact with the public, serving as frontliners along with health care professionals, sanitation workers, and others in basic services. There is a need to maintain a minimum of such interaction, for the protection of the public and of enforcers themselves. As of last week, it was reported that the New York police department had an infection rate of 3.8 percent or more than 1,400 individuals. We do not yet have the benefit of being able to test our entire police force, local officials, and military. An unknowingly infected police force has consequences for public safety, and depletion of law enforcers affects implementation of quarantine measures.

As human rights advocates continue to remind us, measures to implement quarantine need to be strict, but tempered with compassion and a clear vision of what constitutes human rights violations. Most importantly from a public health perspective, they also need to be scientifically sound and to adhere to the spirit of physical distancing, or else they defeat the very purpose they serve.

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For more news about the novel coronavirus click here.
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