Solidarity
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - March 26, 2020 - 12:00am

Like many other citizens, I waited to listen to President Rodrigo Duterte’s address to the nation Tuesday night. We were all rewarded for doing so.

It was a refreshing speech in that the President exercised discipline sticking to the prepared text.  He resisted the temptation to jab at nitpickers and naysayers, although some of them fully deserve a healthy round of verbal abuse.

The President had two messages and he tightly focused on them.

First, he thanked all those manning the frontlines in this battle and mourned the loss of some of our best doctors. He promised our health workers adequate compensation forthcoming. He thanked the private sector for their generosity in these trying times.

Second, he assured all citizens that government would do everything to support the most vulnerable in this season of difficulty. Government will stay up so that the rest of us may sleep better. Every means will be exercised to ensure our collective survival.

Unlike Donald Trump, who regularly substitutes his wishful thinking for expert opinion, Duterte heeds professional advice. He designated Karlo Nograles, constantly cool and collected, to speak for the Inter-Agency Task Force that coordinates our efforts against the epidemic.  Dr. Maria Rosario Vergeire, who speaks for the Department of Health and who always abides by the facts, exudes the soothing professional air of medical professionals.  Between them, so much unnecessary panic is dissipated.

The President thanked Congress for passing the Bayanihan: Heal as One Act. That is now signed into law.

The Bayanihan Act enables the executive branch to better respond to the crisis. It improves the fiscal flexibility of government to deliver what our communities desperately need.

For instance, the Act lifts the 30 percent limit on the Quick Response Fund that can be used to meet the challenges of feeding poor families and strengthening our health response. It allows government to meet statutory deadlines for the filing of any legal document, including tax filings. For instance, existing laws prescribe an April 15 deadline for tax filing.

The Act allows our agencies to realign special purpose funds to help the antivirus effort. This will support additional funds for the Department of Health, the UP-PGH, the DOLE for funding displaced workers, the DTI Livelihood Seeding Program, the DA Rice Farmers Assistance Program and the DepEd School Based Feeding Program. All these are pro-poor measures, including the delivery of emergency subsidies of between P5,000 and P8,000 to about 18 million low income households.

In addition, the new law enables government to provide incentives for manufacturers making vital medical equipment, deliver direct subsidies to poor families, penalize hoarding, provide hazard pay for all health workers and compensation for those who might get infected and engage volunteer health workers by providing compensation and hazard pay. In addition, our health workers will now receive Risk Allowances depending on the nature of their duties.

The Act authorizes alternative work arrangements, such as working from home. These arrangements are already in place. The new law simply makes them legal.

The new law cuts red tape for the procurement of urgently needed medical equipment and approvals for health products. This will help us avert the bottleneck at the FDA and the impoundment of international donations at the Bureau of Customs.

The Act empowers the national government to enforce compliance of emergency regulations on local governments and keep the channels for transporting vital necessities open. It also allows emergency procurement of medical equipment such as ventilating machines and personal protective gear for hospitals. From hereon, all the costs for COVID-19 testing and treatment will be borne by PhilHealth.

On the economic side, the Act now allows government agencies to make credit available at lower interest rates for enterprises that ensure an adequate supply of food and medicine. It makes possible for government to officially declare a moratorium on all loans falling due during the quarantine period. It also imposes a 30-day rent freeze.

With this new law, government may now relax fiscal restraints on acquiring new debt and extending the deficit level. We need more robust public financing not only to fight this virus but also to revive the domestic economy when this crisis is over.

The Act enables government to more freely respond to the crisis with less of the usual fiscal restrictions. Much of the added things government may do relate to the delivery of direct support and subsidies to the nation’s poor. This will help us consolidate the social solidarity we need to weather the challenges of this time.

The social order is a lot more fragile than we imagine. It may easily be weakened if social dislocation happens and governments find themselves unable to support society’s most vulnerable sectors during crises. If the social order crumbles, we will not have the means to collectively combat this deadly virus.

The Bayanihan Act goes a long way in enabling government to provide direct subsidies to poor families – something that existing spending rules prevent. It will enable rapid procurement of urgently needed medical supplies.

There was no reason (except blind partisanship) why those clowns from the Left voted against this Act. Ironically, they advance the impossible demand of mass testing without appreciating the technical, fiscal and resource constraints of doing this. At the same time, they opposed emergency legislation that frees government from certain fiscal constraints to buy the tools we need to combat COVID-19.

When this is over, let us not forget to celebrate our frontline heroes and condemn those who tried to deny them vital resources.

RODRIGO ROA DUTERTE
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