Playing catch-up
Philippine Daily Inquirer
March 26, 2020 at 5:07 am

In a departure from his previous two addresses to the nation on the COVID-19 crisis, a calm and steady President Duterte appeared on TV Tuesday night and sought to reassure Filipinos increasingly anxious about the government’s plan to contain the coronavirus threat: “Huwag kayong matakot (fear not),” he said. “Your entire government is working hand-in-hand to safeguard your health, safety and well-being.”

Mr. Duterte was undoubtedly boosted by the extra dose of powers he got with the newly minted “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act,” which allows him, among others, to reallocate massive funds and resources within the Executive department to finance crucial programs during the national public health emergency, including a P5,000-P8,000 subsidy to 18 million low-income families for two months, compensation for health workers at the frontlines, and an expanded, enhanced conditional cash transfer program.

Malacañang’s original draft of the measure included provisions seeking sweeping “emergency powers” for the President to reallocate any appropriation in the 2020 General Appropriations Act, and “take over” companies, including utilities and private medical centers deemed necessary in the fight against COVID-19. Thanks to immediate public pushback, Congress was forced to remove the problematic sections. Mr. Duterte can now only reprogram, reallocate, and realign savings in the Executive department and temporarily “direct the operations” of privately owned hospitals, medical and health facilities, and passenger vessels.

But even with the possibly unconstitutional portions removed, the President retains considerable powers, particularly in the realignment of budget items. The law opens up an estimated P275 billion in funds to be used by Mr. Duterte in the fight against COVID-19.

That funding is unprecedented and perhaps altogether necessary given the magnitude of the health crisis and its socioeconomic impact. But the critical action plan that should accompany the measure remains frustratingly vague. No specific spending program was mentioned by Mr. Duterte on Tuesday evening, only the disconcerting announcement that the newly announced “National Action Plan” against COVID-19 would henceforth be led not by a health expert, but by military men: the secretary of National Defense with the secretary of the Interior and Local Government (also a former military official) as vice-chair, who would then “reinforce the efforts” of the Department of Health (DOH). It appears that the health crisis that has so far infected 552 Filipinos as of this writing and claimed 35 lives, including valiant doctors at the frontlines, is still being seen by the Duterte administration as primarily a national security issue centered on the enforcement of the Luzon-wide enhanced community quarantine, rather than as a public health emergency first and foremost.

That “war” stance may prove useful—if Mr. Duterte has learned lessons by now from the inaction and complacency of his administration in the early days of the crisis, when precious weeks were wasted without an urgent and coherent policy on closing the national borders, procuring the required medical essentials, and shoring up the country’s rickety healthcare system for the daunting battle ahead.

Would the government move more quickly and strategically now, having been equipped with the huge war chest it demanded? The war footing, if that is how Mr. Duterte wants it, should immediately translate to government working double-time on the health threat. Already, it is playing desperate catch-up and falling short on many fronts. The country’s medical community, for one, is crying out for immediate relief, not only in terms of badly needed personal protective equipment and testing kits but also in the form of a clear strategy to lessen the pressure on the hospital system that is threatening to come apart at the seams. Many frontliners have been relying mostly on donated food and equipment from private individuals and organizations; more ominously, a number of the country’s largest private hospitals have said they have reached their maximum capacity and are no longer able to accept COVID-19 patients, opening another crisis situation as more patients are expected to enter the system with the ramped-up testing that would come with the arrival of more test kits.

That’s only on the medical front; the poorest sectors also need to be fed and protected during the entirety of the quarantine, and trade and business somehow kept afloat even as the economy is at a standstill. The administration has serious overtime to put in to inspire public confidence in the fight against COVID-19; those expanded powers would be another monumentally wasted opportunity—worse, a cover for abuse—without a clear, coherent, far-reaching game plan from hereon.

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