CEBU

Seares: No crime involved in Labangon dispute. Barangay just got City Hall order wrong.

News Sense

THE incident involving a female nurse who was initially refused entry last April 23 to a locked-down sitio in Labangon, Cebu City expectedly drew public interest and the debate still goes on in some forum somewhere.

At City Hall, there is supposed to be an ongoing inquiry ordered by the mayor to determine if indeed she was "discriminated" against.

'Frontliners'

"Discriminated" -- that's a popular word these days, as applied to the "Frontliners," mostly health workers who handle the care and treatment of confirmed and suspected Covid-19 cases. They get the hero's billing in this time of crisis. For a good reason: the risk their life every time they are in the hospital, clinic or quarantine station, an exposure to danger that can't be equaled in most other "essential" services during lockdown. (In another comparison, news reporters are way down in the list, maybe next to grocery baggers.)

Yet one must put the confrontation between the checkpoint guards and the nurse in the right context. It was most probably caused by each side trying to protect its interest. The guards were just enforcing the rule of the checkpoint. Callejon was being sealed in the wake of rising number of Covid-positive cases (22 patients were confirmed positive in the sitio on that day). The nurse had just ended her shift and wanted to rest at home.

The guards must have no conscious effort to harass the nurse in guarding the neighborhood's border. The nurse must have no wish to create trouble by asserting the importance of her employment.

'Miscommunication'

It was all probably a case of "miscommunication," as Labangon Victor Buendia put it. The guards might have misunderstood the instruction, as reportedly happened in many other checkpoints.

Or they got it wrong, from top barangay officials down to the guards: they thought that when they declared a lockdown in Sitio Callejon in their barangay, that included the right to stop ingress and egress of everyone, including the "essential workers" whom the city government, through the ECQ pass of the mayor's office, allowed to commute between home and place of work. The nurse enjoys a privilege granted to all health workers, in clear and explicit guidelines from the national government.

Under penal ordinance

Was it a case of discrimination within the meaning of the "The Frontliners Protection Ordinance of Cebu City" of April 1, 2020? The criminal measure carries the penalty of fine of P1,000 to P5,000 or one day to 30 days jail sentence, depending on frequency of the offense and discretion of the court.

Check out the list of prohibitions under the ordinance. The closest one to which the guards' "offense" can be hooked is #3: "refusing entry or ejection from usual accommodation in any lodging house, apartment, motel, hotel, inn, dormitory and any other place of dwelling being rented out or offered to the public for a fee... by reason of his work as frontliner."

But the Labangon incident was not exactly that. The guards didn't represent the lodging owner and they were not refusing the nurse entry to, or evicting her from, a place of dwelling. The guards were keeping a checkpoint watch. A penal ordinance must be interpreted strictly for the accused.

Maybe under #8, the umbrella clause: "any other act of discrimination which demeans, impairs, mars, reduces or nullifies the enjoyment of a frontliner's human and legal rights and basic freedoms in the social sphere and other spheres."

Pesquera's defense

But then the guards could raise the defense that they applied the rule to everyone else, a rule they were entrusted to enforce during a period of emergency, a matter of life and death. Former Cebu City councilor Joy Pesquera, rushing to the volunteers' defense, argued there cannot be a discrimination since the guards treated all in the same manner: they also barred others from entering the sitio.

Another defense, raised by Joy to broadcaster-columnist Bobby Nalzaro. was that the guards were even protecting the nurse. How? By not allowing her to enter "Ground Zero," where the mother lode of coronavirus infection in Labangon lurked, ready to pounce on anyone. Ha ha. How would the City Hall prosecutors foil that argument?

Fix it

But here's the thing. More important than determining whether the guards committed any crime is fixing the cause of the friction.

Apparently, the barangay officials believed that in the total lockdown in their territory, the exemptions laid down by the IATF and the office of the president -- and repeated in the mayor's executive order -- are removed, gone.

It shouldn't take long for the mayor to find out what went wrong. The people down there didn't get the rules correctly from the top.


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