Not a trivial matter
The Department of Tourism (DOT) fired off a stern warning this week to reckless violators of travel protocols, and it had good reason to: Six Metro Manila-based tourists submitted fake negative COVID-19 test results to enter Boracay Island in January. For that act of dangerous deception, they were deservedly slapped with charges of falsification of public documents.
The errant tourists were charged under Republic Act No. 11332 or the Mandatory Reporting of Notifiable Diseases and Health Events of Public Health Concern Act, which imposes penalties of as much as P50,000 or imprisonment of up to six months, or both. RA 11332 provides that “tampering of records relating to notifiable diseases or health events of public health concern, which includes official medical test results or medical certificates, or such other documents and records issued by public health authorities” is punishable by law.
Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo Puyat lauded parallel actions by the Department of the Interior and Local Government, and the Aklan and Malay local government units that have jurisdiction over the world-famous tourist destination, to reinforce regulations and health and safety protocols to protect guests, workers, and host communities and prosecute those who insist on forging their RT-PCR tests, which are required before going to Boracay. Warned Puyat: “We will continue to be vigilant and ensure that these collaborative interventions will deter entry of such delinquent and unwanted visitors.”
The quick court action is welcome, considering the real danger that the arrival of possibly COVID-19 infected individuals poses on the people they interact with and the communities they visit. Indeed, of the six individuals charged, three were found earlier this month to be positive for the contagious disease, requiring the local authorities to do extensive contact tracing and isolation of exposed individuals, all because some quarantine-weary visitors decided to flout the rules just so they could have a good time.
They were not the only ones guilty of faking their way into Boracay Island. In December last year, local police filed complaints against six tourists who likewise submitted falsified negative test results. Then just this week, yet another group of tourists was found to have entered Boracay using fake RT-PCR negative test results. Since the island’s reopening to tourists on Oct. 1 last year, it has received an average of 300-400 tourists a day, and some 100 tourists with fake negative RT-PCR tests have been identified.
With the gradual reopening of more tourism sites to inject badly needed revenues to the country’s hospitality sector, which has been bludgeoned by the movement restrictions imposed to stem the spread of COVID-19, strict enforcement of health and safety protocols has become even more crucial.
To address the high cost of testing that some have cited as a reason for resorting to bogus papers, the DOT has made arrangements with the Philippine General Hospital and the Philippine Children’s Medical Center for subsidized RT-PCR tests, to bring down the test cost to just under P1,000 each. Even then, there remain irresponsible travelers. In December last year, 23 individuals were charged for trying to enter Baguio City using fake travel documents. And last month, 22 air passengers at the Davao International Airport were caught submitting fake RT-PCR test results.
The rising number of such incidents has prompted Deputy Speaker and Valenzuela City Rep. Wes Gatchalian to file a bill increasing the sanctions on fakers of swab tests. House Bill No. 8643 seeks to amend RA 11332 by raising the fine to a hefty P1 million and imprisonment to as long as 12 years against those who will falsify any kind of COVID-19 test result, including rapid antigen, RT-PCR, and saliva tests.
“Given how contagious and deadly the novel coronavirus is, it is only appropriate that stiffer punishments be imposed on anyone who knowingly fakes COVID-19 test results,” said Gatchalian. The faking of COVID-19 test results may seem like “a trivial procedural matter” to some, but allowing visitors to readily get away with it “recklessly endangers the lives of the people these offenders may interact or come into contact with,” he pointed out. “The desire of individuals to proceed with their lives in the new normal should not be at the expense of other people. Falsification per se is not the only issue here, but the corresponding risks it poses for public safety.”
Heedless travelers may think they are helping local communities with their visit, but the potentially grave consequences of their fraudulent act will only put a damper on efforts to shore up local tourism. Instead of gaining confidence, fellow travelers may end up just staying put, prolonging the agony of the already bruised and battered hospitality sector crying out for help.