"Criminalization is inconsistent with a public health crisis."
Republic Act No. 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal As One Act, was enacted by Congress on March 24, 2020 and signed by the President on the same day. Will this law help the country respond to the COVID-19 pandemic or will it have the perverse effect of making the response even weaker than it already is?
With colleagues Joy Reyes and Jayvy Gamboa, I have analyzed the law and have concluded that it has both positive and dangerous aspects.
First, the constitutional provision on emergency powers is invoked by the law. Therefore, it should be treated as a grant of emergency powers and it is imperative that the constitutional provisions should apply, including that on the temporary nature of the grant of power, and that unless this grant is sooner withdrawn by resolution of the Congress, such emergency powers “shall cease upon the next adjournment thereof.”
One must observe though that many of the powers given to the President in the Act are already within his current powers as executive. Thus, even when this Act expires, he can continue to exercise them.
The good aspects of the law are those that deal directly with the pandemic.
First, it authorizes the President to issue rules, regulations, and directives as may be necessary to carry out the following powers, including, but not limited to, adopting and implementing measures to prevent or suppress further transmission and spread of COVID-19; expediting and streamlining accreditation of testing kits and facilitating prompt testing; ensuring that all local government units (LGUs) are acting in line with the directives issued by the National Government pursuant to the Act; directing the operation of any privately-owned hospitals and medical health facilities, including passenger vessels and other establishments; and continuing to adopt measures to protect people from hoarding.
Thankfully, the government backed out of the original proposal to take over privately owned utilities and facilities like hospitals and hotels to house COVID-19 patients.
Second, the law also gave the President the power to procure hospital equipment, goods and services for social amelioration measures in favor of affected communities, utilities, telecommunications, and other critical services in relation to operation of quarantine centers, and other such necessary items in the most expeditious manner, as exemptions from the provisions of Republic Act No. 9184 or the “Government Procurement Reform Act.”
The most salient parts of the law are its health and economic provisions. It specifies the support and aid that could be delivered to the Filipino public and health workers during the COVID-19 crisis and community quarantine.
For the Filipino public: (1) Emergency subsidy to low income households, ranging from 5,000-8,000 Pesos per month for two months; (2) PhilHealth coverage for cost of treatment for COVID-19 patients; (3) Expanded and enhanced 4Ps in the form of cash, cash voucher, or goods for households who have no incomes, those working in the informal economy (e.g.), and those not existing recipients of the current 4Ps program; (4) Moving deadline of payment of taxes; (5) Minimum of 30-day grace period for payment of all loans in public and private banks, financing and lending companies, including GSIS, SSS, and Pag-ibig Fund; and (6) Minimum of 30-day grace period for payment of residential rents
For the health workers: (1) Special risk allowance, in addition to hazard pay granted by existing law; (2) PhilHealth coverage for medical expenses for work-related injury or disease; (3) Compensation of 100,000 Pesos to those who may have severe COVID-19 infection while in duty, starting February 1, 2020; and (4) Compensation of 1,000,000 Pesos to those who may die from COVID-19 infection while in duty, starting February 1, 2020.
These are good provisions and will help sectors as well as the country as a whole in responding to the pandemic.
The dangerous provisions are on the budget and on criminalization of certain acts.
On the budget, there are concerns regarding giving the President the power to reprogram, reallocate, and realign savings. This is subject to abuse. The safeguard is the President must give a weekly report on how he has implemented the Act.
The law also provides for penalties, and enumerates some of the offenses that would warrant such. Some of these acts include disobedience of LGU officials; unjustifiable refusal to operate hospitals by their owners; engaging in hoarding, profiteering, and other market-related transactions; refusal to accept contracts by private entities necessary for the Act; refusal to provide 30-day grace periods; deceiving the public through scams; failure to comply with limitations on transportation; and impeding access to roads.
Criminalization is inconsistent with a public health crisis. What is at stake here is the public health emergency, provision of medical and healthcare, and prevention of transmission of the virus. It is not a fitting response to the crisis we now have. It distracts us from what has to be done.
Notably, creating, perpetuating, or spreading of false information or “fake news” regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms is also criminalized by said law with vague and insufficient standards. This will have a chilling effect on freedom of information and the press—which are essential rights during pandemics.
As this law is implemented, we must be vigilant. Otherwise, the cure becomes worse than the problem.
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