Dis-connect to public service
COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - September 21, 2020 - 12:00am

As expected, President Rodrigo Duterte extended the period of the state of calamity throughout the Philippines due to coronavirus disease 2019, or COVID-19 for short. By virtue of Proclamation 1021 signed on Wednesday, President Duterte extended for one more year the state of public health calamity effective Sept. 13 this year to Sept. 12, 2021.

Amid reported improving capability and management of the COVID-19 contagion being done by both the national and local government units (LGUs) all over the country, President Duterte virtually conceded the number of positive cases and deaths “continue to rise despite efforts and interventions to contain the same.”

The state of public health calamity was first declared by President Duterte on March 16 when he started to impose hard lockdowns initially for one month over the entire Luzon provinces, including the national capital region of Metro Manila. This was after the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the COVID-19 to pandemic level.

The extension came on the heels of our country’s sixth month into various calibrated community quarantine involving restrictions on the movement of people, transport and other services. In a bid to prevent the spread of the COVID contagion throughout the Philippines, the President reactivated the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging and Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID) to review and calibrate every two weeks the quarantine guidelines.

In its last meeting, the IATF decided to do a calibration of community quarantine per areas on a monthly basis starting September. Likewise, the LGUs were empowered to do their own localized lockdowns based on their assessment of COVID-19 cases in their respective areas but in consonance with IATF guidelines.

With the national government telling us our country economy needs to gradually re-open to the so-called “new normal,” President Duterte is obviously not convinced we are ready to do these things while we are still under COVID-19 pandemic.

This is why perhaps the President is compelled to extend for one more year the state of public health calamity.

This is not to mention the fact that the Chief Executive has repeatedly declared he will only allow face-to-face classes if our country already has the supply of anti-COVID vaccine. So far, Russia’s Sputnik-V and China’s anti-COVID vaccines are the only ones reportedly ready for human clinical trials this year.

The WHO is not as optimistic as Russia and China on the development of anti-COVID vaccine by this year. All other big pharmaceutical multinational companies have announced their respective anti-COVID vaccines might not be available until early or middle of next year yet.

While he expressed confidence on the official pronouncements of his Russian and Chinese counterparts on the efficacy of their respective vaccines to be ready and available to the Philippines as promised, President Duterte is obviously not taking any chances. So why would he need any extension if he really believes Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping?

This is notwithstanding the measures undertaken by various national government agencies like the “blended learning” for school children and online teaching; digital or electronic-commerce; virtual or Zoom Webinar conferences, and other public wi-fi stations and internet-based activities and transactions.

All of these are contact-less modes of activities and transactions to enable people to live under the “new normal” and the safest way to prevent transmission of COVID-19 infection.

However, the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) – which is supposed to be the national government agency principally tasked to carry the burden of the contact-less modes envisioned under the “new normal” – is not getting the werewithals to do so.

The DICT had proposed a budget of P46.6 billion for 2021. However, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) approved P10.9 billion, or only 23.4 percent in the National Expenditure Program submitted to the 18th Congress under the proposed P4.506-trillion budget for next year.

This we learned during the budget hearing last week by the House committee on appropriations where DICT Secretary Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan made this now infamous testimony that the internet speed in the Philippines “is not that bad.” To justify his department’s proposed budget next year, Honasan told the House hearing that the country’s average mobile connection speed ranges from three to seven megabits per second (Mbps).

“Right now, without going into figures, we are not doing too badly. But this is so hard to explain to the public. Of course compared to other countries, they can reach up to 55 Mbps while ours is still between 3 and 7 Mbps,” Honasan pointed out.

The DICT attributed the slower internet connection in the country to lack of telecommunications infrastructure, citing fixed broadbands of other countries require lots of fiber optic cables and telecommunication towers for fast mobile internet.

The DICT informed Congress they need a budget of P17 billion to “fire up” the country’s “national digital highway” by setting up fiber optic cables in the 81 provinces in the country. But in the agency’s proposed P10.9-billion budget for 2021, only P902 million is allocated for this DICT project.

To modernize and improve the country’s internet quality and speed, Honasan admitted, the government should launch projects with private firms like telecommunications companies, or telcos for short. Hence, we need a third telco.

Is this why the DICT got dismal budget despite bigger needs of the Filipinos for “contact-less” platforms due to COVID pandemic because the government counts upon the private sector to assume the burden of infrastructure costs?

Then we, the Filipino people, will have to brace for the infrastructure costs that these telcos will naturally pass on to us in terms of higher fees and charges to get faster internet speed and better connectivity.

If this is how Honasan intends to do his job at DICT, it is certainly a dis-connect to public service.

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