âLet us not despairâ
Together we shall overcome: President Duterte delivers his fifth State of the Nation Address at the Batasang Pambansa in Quezon City yesterday.

‘Let us not despair’

Alexis Romero (The Philippine Star) - July 28, 2020 - 12:00am

Duterte admits ‘our actions have been far from perfect’

MANILA, Philippines — Reassuring a nation in anguish amid a raging pandemic, President Duterte yesterday said, “Let us not despair,” as a vaccine for coronavirus disease 2019 is just “around the corner.”

In his fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA), Duterte urged Filipinos not to lose hope as he expressed optimism that the country would be able to overcome COVID-19, which he declared would soon be “laid to rest.”

The SONA was held at the Batasang Pambansa building with only a limited number of lawmakers and officials in attendance.

In his speech, which lasted for one hour and 45 minutes, the Chief Executive admitted that Filipinos are living in a “troubled time” as the COVID-19 contagion, which has infected more than 82,000 people in the Philippines, suddenly snuffed out their dream of prosperity. Nearly 2,000 Filipinos have succumbed to the disease.

Duterte also appealed to lawmakers for the passage of key measures, including the restoration of the death penalty for drug offenses.

“No nation was spared. Neither rich nor poor were exempt from the onslaught of this deadly disease,” the President said.

“Sooner and not later, the virus that gobbled up thousands of lives will itself be laid to rest,” he said.

Duterte claimed the Philippines is in a better position to win its battle against the contagion. He noted that the Philippines got a BBB+ credit rating “despite a sea of credit rating downgrades and negative outlook revisions worldwide.”

The Japan Credit Rating Agency upgraded the Philippines from BBB+ to A minus last month while Moody’s has affirmed and maintained the country’s ratings at Baa2, he added.

“Our fiscal position is strong, our economic and fiscal management prudent and our banking system robust. We are in a better position to weather the crisis caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic,” he said.

Duterte revealed that he has urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to prioritize the Philippines if China develops a vaccine for the virus.

“About four days ago, I made a plea to President Xi Jinping that if they have the vaccine, can they allow us to be one of the first or if needed, if we have to buy, that we will be granted credit so we can normalize as fast as possible,” the President said.

Despite rising cases – including deaths – officials insist the administration is winning the battle against the pandemic.

Some experts have criticized the government’s handling of the health crisis, citing the surge in infections, its alleged failure to meet testing targets, failure to respect human rights, confusing statements by some officials and the supposed lack of transparency in the use of COVID-19 funds, among other issues.

Not perfect

Duterte admitted that the government still has to improve on its response against COVID-19.

He said all sectors should work together to address the impact of the pandemic, which has resulted in an economic contraction, business closures and job losses.

“Our actions are not perfect and I admit it. But all of us in government assure you we will not stop until we get things right and better for you,” Duterte said.

“From the rubbles of adversity, a more resilient and stronger nation built on Bayanihan and pagkakaisa shall rise. Together, we shall overcome... This is the time to bring out the best in us,” he added.

Duterte admitted that the implementation of the P205-billion social amelioration program was “not perfect” and that some opportunists “turned crisis into opportunity.”

He vowed to look into complaints that some drivers did not receive emergency subsidies for sectors displaced by the pandemic.

“We will catch up with you (opportunists) sooner than you think,” the President said.

“I know exactly the difficulties you are undergoing. I pray that the officials of each LGU in our country – from the barangay to the autonomous regions – would set aside partisan politics and selfish interests to do what is right and good for all,” he added.

Despite the shortcomings, Duterte claimed millions of Filipinos benefited from the government’s aid programs. He said over 4.3 million poor families got assistance from the Pantawid Pamilya Pilipino cash transfer program while more than 9.2 million beneficiaries received subsidies under the unconditional cash transfer program.

‘Haste makes waste’

While the government has promised to step up measures to spur business activity, Duterte is in no rush to reopen the economy to pre-COVID-19 levels.

“To open up the economy to pre-COVID-19 levels at this time is not an option because whatever good it can produce, will only be gobbled up or be outweighed by the bad it will generate sometimes. Haste makes waste,” the President said.

“The recent upsurge in infections when we opened little windows of resumption of business is proof of that,” he added.

Duterte said countries like the United States “opened up too early, too soon” and are now suffering because of their failure to comply with health protocols.

“Nagkukulang silang lahat (They had shortcomings). No nation on earth was really prepared for COVID. No amount of preparation because that kind of microbes visits about once every 100 years. Our fathers did not experience this. What they suffered was Second World War,” he said.

“We are not ready and therefore we will not gamble with the lives and health of the people. Certainly no one would want to end up in the negative side of the equation. Not me, not us. All I ask is that you continue to put your faith in your government and work with us in achieving what is best for the country and our people,” he added.

Officials have vowed to intensify localized lockdowns as placing entire regions under quarantine could undo economic gains.

Duterte called on Congress to pass the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act, which aims to spur economic development and assist industries affected by lockdowns.

“I hope that we can get some or the same treatment of clarity, purpose and the fastness to support the passage of the Bayanihan (to Recover as One Act), which will supplement funds for recovery and response against the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

Silent on Anti-terror bill

There was no mention of the recent enactment of the Anti-Terror Law and the renewed initiatives among local officials to introduce amendments to the Constitution – two developments that have sparked controversy and for which he has drawn flak.

To hasten recovery efforts, Duterte also pushed for the approval by Congress of the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises Act and the Bayanihan 2 Act.

“We must facilitate the country’s economic recovery. I call on Congress to fast-track the passage of proposed measures such as the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises or CREATE Act,” the President said.

“This immediately cuts the corporate income levy from the current 30 to 25 percent and give the government flexibility to grant a combination of fiscal and non-fiscal incentives, among others,” he said.

The President also pushed for the passage of the Financial Institutions Strategic Transfer or FIST Act, which will set up mechanisms allowing banks and other financial institutions to dispose of and transfer non-performing assets and loans to asset management companies similar to Special Purpose Vehicles.

Duterte also asked lawmakers to pass the second part of the Bayanihan Act or the “We Recover as One” Law to facilitate the country’s recovery from the impact of COVID-19 contagion.

“Our economic managers have seen infrastructure investment as an effective tool to help spur high growth, attract investments, create jobs and achieve financial inclusion for all Filipinos,” he said.

Duterte also lauded the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) for resuming work on the North Luzon Expressway Harbor Link, the NLEX-SLEX Connector, Cavite-Laguna Expressway, Metro Manila Skyway Stage 3, R-1 Bridge Project, Tarlac-Pangasinan-La Union Expressway Project and the Subic Freeport Expressway Project.

“To realize the maximum benefit from the country’s investments, the infrastructure projects under the Build, Build, Build program, which are labor and capital intensive, are not mere springboards for the country’s swift recovery [post]-pandemic,” he said.

“They are economic benefits – economic benefits to be distributed to all corners of the country and push sustainability in urban centers, particularly [Metro] Manila,” Duterte added.

In his SONA, Duterte also called on the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA) to help in livelihood training of Filipinos rendered jobless by the health crisis. He said overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) may consider tapping online learning to retool their skills.

“I ask the TESDA to come up with special training programs to retool our OFWs so they can find employment opportunities here at home. I am also calling on the CHED (Commission on Higher Education) for scholarship programs for the qualified dependents of our OFWs,” he said.

Duterte also directed the Department of Agriculture and Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to come up with agribusiness and entrepreneurship projects to help displaced OFWs build their livelihood.

He urged Land Bank of the Philippines and other government financial institutions to continue providing low-interest loans to OFWs.  – Christina Mendez

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