By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza and Vann Marlo M. Villegas, Reporters

PHILIPPINE President Rodrigo R. Duterte ordered police to arrest anyone wearing a face mask improperly, as his government struggles to contain surging coronavirus infections.

“Arrest them and detain them, investigate them why they are doing it,” he said in a televised speech on Wednesday night. Violators could be detained for nine hours.

He said state efforts to contain the pandemic would fail if he doesn’t tighten the rules.

Thousands have been punished for violating pandemic rules since the capital region and nearby provinces were placed under a strict lockdown after a fresh surge in COVID-19 infections, according to the police.

The Justice department earlier asked law enforcers to just let violators perform community service after a man from the Southern Tagalog region died after police forced him to do 300 squats for breaching health standards.

But Mr. Duterte said police should arrest violators as hospitals get overwhelmed. He added that public funds were running out.

His spokesman Herminio “Harry” L. Roque, Jr. said rule breakers could be detained for as long as 12 hours.

“We need to enforce minimum health standards — that’s the President’s order,” he told a televised news briefing in Filipino on Thursday.

“The president’s directive is part of the government’s strategy of strictly implementing health protocols, such as wearing of face masks, so that the spread of the disease is put under control and the full opening of the economy is accelerated,” Justice Secretary Menardo I. Guevara told reporters in a Viber message.

He said the order takes effect immediately even without guidelines.

The arrest order is “brazenly unscientific and ineffective” and a “disproportionate use of force,” human rights group Karapatan said in a statement.

“The militarist and punitive framework of policing the pandemic in the form of policies resulting in mass arrests and detention of alleged violators runs counter to the purpose of quarantine protocols which is to protect and uphold people’s health,” it said.

The group said detaining hundreds of alleged violators in already cramped facilities where physical distancing is impossible could lead to more infections.

“Congestion and inhumane conditions in the country’s detention facilities already pose risks to the health of prisoners,” it added.

“That these pronouncements came from none other than President Rodrigo Duterte himself only shows that this policy of mass arrests under the quarantine is a state policy — and they should be a cause for alarm,” Karapatan said.

The policy  would lead to more human rights violations, it added.

The Department of Health (DoH) reported 6,637 coronavirus infections on Thursday, bringing the total to 1.08 million.

The death toll rose by 191 to 17,991, while recoveries increased by 6,091 to 999,011, it said in a bulletin.

There were 63,170 active cases, 1.2% of which were critical, 94.3% were mild, 1.9% did not show symptoms, 1.6% were severe and 1.03% were moderate.

The agency traced the low tally to fewer samples processed by laboratories on Tuesday.

DoH said 20 duplicates had been removed from the tally, 13 of which were tagged as recoveries. It added that 109 recoveries were reclassified as deaths. One laboratory failed to submit data on May 4.

About 11.3 million Filipinos have been tested for the coronavirus as of May 4, according to DoH’s tracker website.

The coronavirus has sickened about 155.9 million and killed 3.3 million people worldwide, according to the Worldometers website, citing various sources including data from the World Health Organization.

About 133.3 million people have recovered, it said.

Meanwhile, the Health department said 149 passengers with travel history to India arrived from April, citing data from the Bureau of Quarantine.

It said five of the 149 travelers had tested positive for the coronavirus, one of whom was isolated, while the four were still being verified.

A total of 137 people had tested negative, while the results of seven others were still being verified, the agency said.

Of the 149 travelers, 129 were Filipinos and 20 were foreigners.

The Philippines imposed a 16-day travel ban on India starting on April 29 due to a surge in cases there. 

Meanwhile, Mr. Roque said Mr. Duterte would still receive a second dose of the vaccine developed by China’s Sinopharm Group Co., Ltd, after he asked the Chinese government to take back the vials it donated.

Critics have slammed Mr. Duterte for getting the vaccine that was yet to be approved for emergency use in the Philippines.

Mr. Roque said the dose that the President received was covered by a compassionate use permit for 1,000 doses donated by China to presidential guards.

The local Food and Drug Administration earlier said the Chinese drug maker had not received an emergency use authorization from any stringent regulatory bodies in other countries.

Despite apologizing to health experts for receiving the shot, Mr. Duterte said he received the shot legally. He added that his decision was made upon the advice of his doctors.

Meanwhile, Senator Christopher Lawrence T. Go said the country would take delivery of about 1.5 million doses of the vaccine developed by China’s Sinovac Biotech Ltd. this week. The shipment was paid for by the Philippine government.

Vaccine czar Carlito G. Galvez, Jr. earlier said the country would take delivery of about 1.3 million doses of the vaccine developed by Pfizer, Inc. this month.

Of the total, about 193,000 doses will arrive next week, he said at the same briefing.

Mr. Galvez said as many as two million doses of the vaccine made by AstraZeneca, Plc would arrive this month. — with Bianca Angelica D. Anago