Bad times, indeed, bring out the best—and the worst—in people. These days of self-isolation, some people have allowed fear, anger, contempt, frustration, blame, sadness to fester.
A nurse front-liner, among today’s celebrated heroes, was walking back to her boarding house late one night, tired to the bones after a long shift, when her neighbors began spraying her with water mixed with chlorine. They feared she was a carrier of the COVID-19 (new coronavirus disease) virus, so they conspired to “disinfect” her.
Another front-liner tested positive for COVID-19. When the community learned about it, neighbors barricaded the front-liner’s house with police tape.
Yet another family, whose COVID-19-positive front-liner was coming out of self-isolation after two weeks, was given an order by the barangay to spend an additional two weeks in quarantine.
The pandemic has turned some of us into modern-day Gestapo.
Discrimination is any act or utterance which causes or tends to cause stigma, disgrace, shame, humiliation, harassment or any other differential treatment that is based on a person’s health status or medical history and his or her profession, said lawyer Divina Pedron, founding member of Volunteer Lawyers Against Discrimination (VLAD).
That means any person who discriminates against another based on “health status—whether he or she be infected with COVID-19, a person under investigation, a person under monitoring or newly recovered, or based on employment/profession, whether he or she be a health worker or a front-liner, or an overseas Filipino worker who has returned to the Philippines—shall be dealt with criminally, civilly and/or administratively.”
VLAD was borne out of a need to inform and protect not just front-liners, but also anyone who feels he/she has been discriminated against because of COVID-19. It is composed of 100-plus volunteer lawyers nationwide. It has assisted over the phone more than 100 individuals since its April launch.
Pedron said the concept for VLAD started during a group chat with her University of the Philippines (UP) Law blockmates (Class of 1999), after a classmate told the group about a senior citizen COVID-19 survivor who could not go home because her neighbors feared infection. The neighbors even petitioned to get her evicted—from her own house.
“We were aghast. How can you be evicted from your own house?” Pedron said. “One idea was thrown after another, and a common enemy was identified: discrimination.”
(Pedron said you could not be evicted or denied entry into your residence. The only time anyone can get evicted is when one is unable to pay rent or mortgage.)
Harassed by neighbors
Then they heard of other stories, Pedron said. Health workers, applauded on social media, are avoided like the plague in real life. There are accounts of COVID-19 survivors who cannot find peace in their own homes, harassed by neighbors, and how those suspected of having COVID-19 suffer from rumor-mongering.
“There was a common emotion that floated in that group—something must be done before this gets out of hand,” Pedron said.
The group decided to provide legal assistance, pro bono, through Facebook (VLAD-United in the Time Under COVID-19.)
VLAD started as a group called Isumbong Mo Sa UP Law composed of Block C of the UP Law Class 1999. When the group decided to focus on discrimination, it changed its name to VLAD.
VLAD has volunteer lawyers from different law schools around the country. Since its Facebook page launch, more than 100 lawyers have joined.
“It is amazing how volunteer lawyers, armed with just a phone and knowledge of law, would go out of their way to assist ordinary persons experiencing discrimination,” Pedron said. “The voice of a lawyer is invaluable in these times when self-esteem is low. It can actually save lives.”
“The consciousness against discrimination must be sustained. We are happy that our efforts have somehow influenced local government units to pass their respective antidiscrimination ordinances, helping the lawyers help more people,” Pedron said.