Armed with wide-ranging special powers and a declaration of national emergency, President Rodrigo Duterte swiftly ordered the implementation of a National Action Plan that will ensure a whole-of-government approach in battling the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
Duterte signed into law Republic Act No. 11469 or the Bayanihan To Heal As One Act at dawn Wednesday, and had it uploaded on the Official Gazette to trigger its immediate implementation.
Before the signing, the President called for unity as he assured the Filipino people of government protection during the crisis.
“I now call on every Filipino to participate in this war by following the guidelines set by the national government and your local officials. Nothing is more important [now] than your cooperation. I repeat: Stay at home. Huwag matigas ang ulo. (Don’t be hardheaded.) The outcome of this war depends largely on you as well,” he said.
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“To the Filipino people, rest assured that your entire government is working hand-in-hand to safeguard your health, safety and well-being in the face of the threat posed by COVID-19. Supplies of food, water and other essentials will be provided to you throughout this ordeal. Financial assistance will also be extended especially to those in the margins and the vulnerable groups. Gagawin namin ang lahat. Hindi namin kayo pababayaan (We will do everything. We won’t abandon you),” Duterte added.
The law authorizes the President to:
• Provide assistance to frontliners and health workers, such as giving them financial allowance, hazard pay and compensation or shouldering their medical expenses, and direct public transportation to ferry them to and from their workplaces;
• Expedite the procurement of personal protective equipment and other medical equipment, exempt the importation of equipment needed to combat the spread of COVID-19 from duties, taxes and other fees, ensure that there will be no delays in the donation, acceptance and distribution of health items, and liberalize the grant of incentives for the manufacture and importation of critical and needed equipment;
• Authorize alternative working arrangements for workers, and regulate and limit the operation of transportation and traffic, including ensuring that local government units are acting in accordance with the Act;
• Provide subsidies to low-income households, implement an expanded and enhanced Pantawid Pamilya Pilipino Program to respond to the needs affected by the community quarantine, ensure availability of credit to productive sectors, reschedule deadlines for the filing of government requirements, and order a grace period on paying residential rents or loans; and
• Enforce measures against hoarding, price manipulation, combinations in restraint of trade or other pernicious practices, and ensure the availability of essential goods, such as food and medicine, and adequate supply of power, fuel, energy and water.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana will serve as chairman of the NAP and will give regular reports on the progress of the continuing fight against COVID 19, after the country recorded 552 confirmed COVID cases, and 35 deaths.
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Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said that the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) will serve as the policy-making body of the operations, while National Task Force (NTF) COVID-19 will serve as the operational command to be headed by the Defense secretary.
Under this setup, the National Incident Command (NIC) will take charge of the day to day concerns and operations in the fight against COVID-19, Nograles added.
Congress granted the President special temporary powers on Tuesday to manage the COVID-19 outbreak, which continues despite the imposition of a Luzon-wide lockdown.
The law is effective only for two months but can be extended if the calamity persists.
The new law may also be withdrawn earlier through a congressional resolution or a presidential proclamation.
During a speech, Duterte thanked Congress for granting him the special powers to combat COVID-19.
“Finally, the executive department can move, decide, and act freely for the best interest of the Filipino people during this health crisis,” he said.
“First, let me reiterate my sincerest gratitude to all our courageous frontliners in this war, especially our healthcare workers—our doctors, nurses, medical technologists, and other allied health professionals. Maraming, maraming salamat. Asahan niyo ang suporta ng inyong gobyerno, (Many thanks. You can count on your government’s support,)” Duterte said.
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After receiving reports that many doctors had sacrificed themselves to save the country, Duterte expressed his sadness but thanked them for their love of country and the Filipino people.
“The virus has claimed the lives of our doctors along the way. They are all heroes,” he said in a mix of Filipino and English. “I rarely salute anyone, but when our doctors and health workers get sick or die, I salute them. You may no longer be in this world, but that’s how highly I regard you.”
Nograles said the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) has been directed by the IATF to transfer P420.58 million to the Philippine Health Insurance Corp., which will be used to cover COVID-19-related packages.
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Aside from this, the IATF also endorsed the proposal of the Department of Labor for the immediate release of the amount of P1.5 billion for financial assistance for overseas workers and repatriated overseas workers to be submitted to the Department of Budget.
Another recommended proposal involves directing the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) to allocate P25,000 burial assistance for indigent confirmed COVID-19 cases and PUIs, regardless of whether the patients were treated in a private or government hospital. It will also be given to those undergoing home quarantine.
Senator Grace Poe said tenants struggling financially because of the Luzon-wide lockdown can soon find relief due to the law signed by the President.
One provision that she pushed to include was a freeze on all hoome rents during the period of the enhanced community quarantine, Poe said.
The provision also states that interests, penalties, fees and other charges will not be imposed on tenants following the 30-day moratorium on their rental payments.
“Many renters live paycheck to paycheck but during these extraordinary times… they might not have enough to pay for their rent and may even face the possibility of eviction,” Poe said.
She said the rent freeze will ensure that tenants, especially low-wage earners, will be in the safety and comfort of their homes for the duration of the public health crisis. She acknowledged that some homeowners and landlords have already done so of their own accord.
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In related developments:
* A House leader warned that the new law granting the President powers also imposes a two-month sentence or a maximum fine of P1 million for those found guilty of sharing fake news and unverified reports on social media about COVID-19 that may cause fear, chaos, panic, and anarchy. Herrera warned that the full force of the emergency bill would be meted on those found spreading fake news reports.
* Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano assured poor families forced to stay home by the government-imposed lockdown that they will receive financial assistance for three months under the Bayanihan to Heal As One law. “It is important for our people to know why we have this law. We have the law because we have to defeat COVID-19, and to be able to defeat it, our people have to stay at home so that our health workers can isolate those who are sick and treat them,” Cayetano said. He added that the administration’s economic team has identified at least P275 billion in off-budget funds the Bayanihan law allows President Duterte to use to help the poor during the public health emergency.
“Up to 18 million families will receive a monthly subsidy of P5,000 to P8,000 depending on the amount of minimum wage in their regions,” he added.
* The rights group Karapatan Alliance Philippines expressed alarm over the “fake news” provision of the recently signed law. “We assert that this amendment is dangerously unconstitutional, as it allows for powers that abridge the freedom of speech and expression. The lack of laws criminalizing ‘fake news’ makes this provision void,” the group said. Moreover, the provision offers no definition of fake news, and only the President has the power to define it, the group added. With Willie Casas, Francisco Tuyay