All hands on deck
FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - March 27, 2020 - 12:00am

Coping with the COVID-19 pandemic and dealing with its aftermath on society and the economy requires a whole-of-society effort because this is unprecedented in terms of its scale and virulence. That means ordinary citizens staying home and practicing proper hygiene and social distancing. While the disease does not discriminate its victims based on their social and economic status, we know that it disproportionately impacts the low-income segment of our society. They are more vulnerable to community spread, they do not have the same access to health care, and their livelihood depends on their being out and about rendering service either as wage earners or providing service like operating public transportation.

So it is troublesome to say the least when we see government officials and politicians getting preferential treatment for diagnostic testing – even without symptoms – and for access to hospital care. Adding insult to injury, they move around recklessly without regard for the possibility of them infecting others or getting infected themselves. We know about one senator, a Bar top notcher, who did just that. My friends in the legal profession says he is liable for violation of provisions under at least nine different statutes – including murder under Art 248 (4) of the Revised Penal Code should someone die as a result of his recklessness.

As the infection spreads and testing capability expands, the public health care system is in grave danger of collapsing. Not only do we not have enough beds to treat COVID-19 patients, they also lack the necessary equipment like ventilators. Soon doctors will have to make the heartbreaking decision as to which patient will be given use of a ventilator as is happening now in Italy and possibly could happen even in the US. That is, if there are enough doctors and nurses and healthcare people healthy enough to treat patients. As it is, doctors are making do with makeshift PPEs and aerosol boxes and leaves them even more vulnerable. I think it is unconscionable to let them administer care without proper protection.

Hopefully, the health component of the budget provided for under the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, which President Duterte signed into law recently, is sufficient to address these critical actions. The Bayanihan Act l did not mention a specific amount to fund its implementation. According to Deputy Speaker Luis Raymund Villafuerte, there are P275 billion off-budget funds that can be used to address COVID-19 on top of the funds from the 2020 General Appropriations Act that can also be used. Of the P275 billion budget, P200 billion will be set aside for an emergency subsidy program for around 18 million affected families for two months. The remaining P75 billion will be used for health expenditures and other services. This amount is intended to procure supplies and equipment for public hospitals, enhance the ability to conduct more tests and get results faster, and ensure health workers do not fall sick and are adequately compensated. To me, the critical provision is to quickly add new hospital bed capacities for COVID-19 patients by expanding existing facilities or building new ones. Our current total hospital capacity is already overloaded and we have not yet reached the peak of the infection. Many major private hospitals have begun to close their doors to new COVID-19 patients because they have reached their full capacity and would need also to accommodate the urgent hospital needs of non-COVID-19 cases.

This is why it is important that this law is turned quickly into actual equipment and hospital beds or it will be too little too late. There are many potential bureaucratic chokepoints in the process from budget requests to actual delivery. These may range from budget releasing, to procurement, to certification, to delivery (and importation in many cases) and payment. In any given stage political influence and corruption lurks. Every minute any of these health needs are delayed can translate into lives lost. That message has apparently not sunk in to one high ranking official of Customs who seemed more concerned about the possibility of smuggling than in getting these tools to fight the pandemic expeditiously to our frontline health warriors.

To augment an increasingly overburdened public health care system, businesses are making outright donations of food, critical medical supplies like PPEs, face masks and alcohol to public hospitals. Previously, other companies like the Gokongwei Group, SM and Udenna said they will be providing diagnostic test kits.

But these are just a drop in the bucket to make a significant difference. Business needs to step up more. I gather that there is willingness on their part. One possible area where the private sector can make a difference is in the conversion of existing health facilities like the Quezon Institute or unused property owned by government like the Philippine Village Hotel into COVID-19 centers. The Bayanihan Act gives the President the mandate to supersede any legal impediments that may be pending on these properties. Our construction companies and property developers have the capability to undertake these projects and complete them in the shortest time possible.

Business representation in IATF

However, business needs direction and be recognized as part of the solution since after all they are the ones on the ground and therefore can validate whether any measures taken are implementable and effective. That participation should therefore be done through a formal mechanism like the IATF which is the key coordinating body in the government’s effort to combat the pandemic. Some business groups have endorsed Joey Concepcion who already serves as an adviser of the President. He would be a good choice. There are also business organizations like PCCI, MBC and of course the Philippine Medical Association.

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