Travel in the Time of 2019-nCoV

Emiko Antonette T. Escovilla

Following the World Health Organization’s declaration of the 2019 novel coronavirus (renamed COVID-19) outbreak as a public health emergency, the Philippine government on Feb. 2 deemed it prudent to implement a temporary travel ban against all foreign nationals coming from China, Hong Kong and Macau; all foreign nationals who have been to China, Hong Kong, and Macau in the last 14 days prior to the arrival to the Philippines; and transiting passengers from China, Hong Kong, and Macau. Recently, the ban was clarified to include Taiwan, which, according to the WHO, is considered a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. (This was subsequently dropped after Taiwan complained. — Ed.)

The ban however does not cover Filipino citizens and holders of permanent resident visas issued by the Philippine government. Filipino citizens and permanent resident visa-holders coming from China or any of its special administrative regions are merely required to undergo a 14-day quarantine upon entry to the Philippines.

The right to travel is enshrined in the 1987 Constitution, under Section 6 of Article III of the Bill of Rights, which states that “(t)he liberty of abode and of changing the same within the limits prescribed by law shall not be impaired except upon lawful order of the court. Neither shall the right to travel be impaired except in the interest of national security, public safety, or public health, as may be provided by law.”

From the wording of the law alone, it is clear that the right to travel, like most rights, is not absolute and may be restricted in the interest of national security, public safety, or public health.

Notably, this would not be the first instance under the 1987 Constitution that the government has issued a travel ban. One of the most distinctive instances where a travel ban was issued was during the time of former President Cory Aquino, when the government prevented former President Ferdinand Marcos and his family from returning to the country. By affirming President Aquino’s decision to ban President Marcos from returning, the Supreme Court made a distinction by saying that the right to travel guaranteed in the Constitution involves the right to travel within the country, the right to leave the country, but not the right to return to the country.

In 1988, the Supreme Court likewise upheld the deployment ban issued by the Department of Labor and Employment against domestic workers and females with similar skills, despite its limiting impact on a class of workers’ right to travel. The Supreme Court stated that the deployment ban was a valid limitation on the right to travel, on the ground of “public safety.”

In comparison however, it appears that the travel ban issued in relation to the COVID-19 outbreak has affected a bigger class of people, particularly travelers who intended to fly to and from China and its special administrative regions. Due to the blanket ban, most, if not all airlines, have cancelled their routes which fly from the Philippines to China and any of its special administrative regions, and vice-versa, some tentatively until the end of March, and some indefinitely. While the travelers are entitled to either rebook their flights or obtain a refund, the mass cancellation of flights has left a certain group of individuals perplexed: what about the Filipino citizens or permanent resident visa-holders who have been allowed to travel to China and its special administrative regions, but can no longer return to the Philippines because of the travel ban and the consequent decision of airlines to cancel all fights covered by the travel ban? Should they be expected to wait abroad where they are, until the travel ban is lifted? And, whose responsibility would they be: the airlines’ or the government’s?

The restriction on the right to travel in the case of the COVID-19 outbreak is hardly arguable considering that it falls squarely within the government’s mandate to protect “public health.” Its real-time consequences however, require a quick demarcation of rights and responsibilities, especially for the group of people who are constrained to remain in China and its special administrative regions due to the travel ban.

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