A week after the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act (RA 11469) was signed into law, President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday submitted his first report on government measures being undertaken to respond to the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) health crisis, Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said in an online news conference Tuesday.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III, in a separate statement, also confirmed that Duterte submitted his report to Congress.
The law authorizes the executive to realign the national budget and tap additional funds to address the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Nograles said the executive branch has yet to release a detailed budget breakdown.
In his public address, Duterte assured the public that the two powers granted him by the law would be exercised “only when absolutely necessary.”
These are the power to direct the operation of private establishments and the power to require businesses to prioritize contracts for materials and services necessary for the crisis.
Under the law, the executive department must submit a weekly report to Congress, every Monday, detailing how he used his special powers to address the COVID-19 outbreak.
The report must include the amount and corresponding use of funds used, augmented, reprogrammed, reallocated, and realigned.
Meanwhile, Congress must establish a joint congressional oversight committee composed of four members of each house to be appointed by the Senate President and House Speaker.
The committee will determine whether such acts, orders, rules, and regulations are within the restrictions provided.
Duterte signed the law on March 24. The law will be in full force and effect for three months unless extended by Congress.
Duterte placed the entire of Luzon under enhanced community quarantine from March 17 to April 12 requiring all individuals to stay indoors and limit their movement to accessing basic goods and necessities.
The House of Representatives's oversight committee, headed by Speaker
Alan Peter Cayetano, will start reviewing the President's implementation of the Bayanihan Law following Malacanang's submission of its first weekly report on Monday night.
Cayetano expressed optimism that Duterte will be able to succeed in containing spread of COVID 19 by using the powers given him by the new law.
But Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon on Tuesday asked the government if it had enough funds, given that revenue collections are down during the lockdown.
He also called on the government to hasten the release of the P200 billion aid to poor families, saying many people were going hungry.
He underscored the need to augment funding for the health care system to buy more test kits, personal protective equipment and ventilators.
“Our tight fiscal space seriously affects the government’s capabilty to address COVID-19,” Drilon said, which would mean taking out loans.
For 2019, the Bureau of Internal Revenue collected P2.176 trillion, which is lower than the agency’s revenue target of P2.271 trillion. Similarly, the Bureau of Customs also fell short by P30.7 billion of the P661 billion target for the year.
“The government must brace for the worst: our depleting resources and the economic effects of COVID-19,” Drilon said.
“We regret to see from that the government has not crafted any new interventions or programs that could help the poor and keep the economy afloat while we are on a lockdown,” Drilon said.
Worse, he added, some of the much-needed allotments and programs for the poor may even be realigned and tapped to fund COVID-19 response activities.
“There is no additional funding because they did not request a supplemental budget. That is very clear. The Bayanihan to Heal as One Act utilizes the 2020 General Appropriations Act,” Drilon said.
Drilon emphasized that RA 11469 already authorized the President to reprogram, reallocate and realign funds for the immediate roll-out of measures that will respond to the COVID-19 emergency.
However, he said the President’s first report stated that as of March 27, no special purpose funds (SPFs) have been used for COVID-19 measures except for the P500 million replenishment of the DOH's quick response fund.
“We have to see a comprehensive COVID financial package that will cover both the health and economic aspects . The report does not show us what this looks like,” he said.
“For one, has the governent augmented our health workforce? The 2020 budget has funds for the hiring of nurses and doctors under the Miscellaneous and Personnel Benefit Fund,” he said.
Drilon also said that the national government should enhance its collaboration with the local government units.
Another opposition senator, Senator Risa Hontiveros, said the President’s televised address Monday night offered no sound assessment of the quarantine nor concrete plan to address the COVID-19 crisis and to give cash assistance to at least 18 million poor families.
With all the funds and special powers at his disposal since last week’s signing of the "Bayanihan to Heal as One Act," Hontiveros said, the President failed to assess how the Enhanced Community Quarantine has addressed the fight to contain the spread of COVID-19.
She said the public has the right to know of the government’s progress since the start of the quarantine, a virtual lockdown.
She added that while the quarantine is essential to slowing the spread of the virus, it cannot stand alone.
For the lockdown to be effective, she said it should be backed up by was intensified actions to increase the capacity of the health system, mass testing, and the protection of health workers at the frontlines.
"But the President’s address last night was lacking in all those terms. The usual threats and incoherence do not a report make," she said.
She said the President should act with a sense of urgency.
She said the President should tell the public the steps being taken by the government to enhance the country’s capacity for mass testing.
"How do we ensure that there are enough personal protective equipment [PPE] in every hospital? How do we get the cash assistance to the most vulnerable as soon as possible?" she asked.
So far, she said, the President provided no clear answers to these questions, which is alarming.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III, on the other hand, assured poor families affected by the lockdown that government aid was on its way.
“Relax,” Sotto said in Filipino. “This isn’t instant coffee.”
“Displaced workers have started (receiving) their (P5,000) for the month through DOLE (Department of Labor and Employment) remittance centers,” he said.
But Senator Joel Villanueva said one of the pressing concerns is the distribution of the emergency subsidy worth P5,000 to P8,000, citing the need for a list of legitimate beneficiaries.
He also urged the Department of Agriculture to be more aggressive in engaging small farmers and fishermen by purchasing their produce directly from them.
He said the President's report to Congress outlines the various guidelines issued by different agencies covering their respective sectors, and a snapshot of actual figures of the government response.
"In the succeeding weeks, we hope to see a clearer picture on how the response is actually operationalized," he added.
Senator Nancy Binay expressed disappointment over the apparent lack of urgency and the sluggish distribution of food packs as the nationwide lockdown enters its third week.
Binay said the P46 million worth of family food packs the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) distributed in the regions are not enough to even cover the 17.6 million Filipinos—or over 3 million families–who are living below the poverty line.
"If the DSWD is really serious in providing immediate assistance to those who are affected by the lockdown, then they should speed it up,” she said in a mix of English and Filipino.
“We are on the third week but they’ve only released P46 million for family food packs nationwide. At the rate things are going, the Filipino people will be on the losing end.” – With PNA