The Philippine government has defended a controversial ban that prevents unvaccinated people from using public transport in the capital of Manila, denying that the policy is “anti-poor”.
The “no vaccination, no ride” policy is designed to curb a recent wave of Covid infections and applies to all modes of transport to and from Metro Manila, including public buses, jeepneys, rail, boats and planes. The policy will be fully implemented from Monday, according to local media, when passengers will be required to show proof of vaccination.
Less than half of Filipinos are fully vaccinated, though vaccination rates are higher in the capital, at more than 90% of the eligible population.
Rights groups, including the Philippine Commission on Human Rights and Amnesty International, have criticised the transport ban for unvaccinated people, warning that it penalises the poorest, who are less likely to have the option of working from home or of travelling in a private vehicle.
“The reality is that ordinary Filipinos continue to rely on public transportation in attaining basic needs, such as for food, work and accessing health services,” the Philippine Commission on Human Rights said in a statement. It fears that even those who should be exempt from the rules could still struggle to access essential goods or services because they do not have a private vehicle.
The Philippine Commission on Human Rights said the government should find less punitive ways to promote vaccination. “We continue to urge the government to address vaccine hesitancy and the low vaccination rate in the country with education that addresses common misconceptions and positive encouragement,” it said.
The Department of Transportation, however, said the policy was not “anti-poor, draconian or punitive”, adding: “We believe that it is more anti-poor and anti-life if we do not impose interventions that will prevent loss of life due to non-vaccinations.”
It said exemptions would be made for people who were unable to receive a vaccination for medical reasons, as well as those who needed to buy essential goods or travel to a vaccination site.
The Philippines has experienced a recent surge in infections, which health experts have blamed on the more transmissible Omicron variant. The country reported a record 34,021 cases on Thursday, the highest since the start of the pandemic, half of which were reported in the national capital region. A further 82 deaths were confirmed.
The rise in cases has placed a strain on public services, including hospitals and schools, as well as private businesses. Schools in the capital have announced they will close for a week, with no online or in-person classes, while the government has placed limits on the amount of paracetamol and other over-the-counter medicines that can be bought by one individual or household, due to shortages in shops.
Last week, unvaccinated people in Manila and several other provinces and cities were told to stay home, with president Rodrigo Duterte ordering the arrest of those who violate the orders. Under the rules, unvaccinated residents may leave home only for essential reasons such as work or to buy essentials or access medical care.
Businesses such as restaurants and beauty salons are also operating at a lower capacity, as are churches and parks.