Philippine President Duterte granted special powers to address Covid-19 crisis

MANILA — The House of Representatives on Monday night approved on third and final reading a bill declaring a national emergency and granting President Rodrigo Duterte additional powers to address the coronavirus pandemic in the country.

The chamber approved House Bill 6616, otherwise known as “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act”, with 284 affirmative votes, 9 negative votes, and no abstention.

With President Duterte’s urgent certification, the measure was approved on second and third readings within the same day without undergoing the normal three-day rule in-between approvals.

HB 6616 was authored by Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano, Deputy Speakers Paolo Duterte and Luis Raymund Villafuerte, Majority Leader Martin Romualdez, Minority Leader Bienvenido Abante Jr., and House appropriations committee chair Eric Go Yap.

The bill seeks to adopt a national policy to address the public health emergency situation by mitigating Covid-19 transmission; mobilizing assistance in the provision of basic necessities to affected individuals; providing healthcare such as medical tests and treatments; and undertaking a program for recovery and rehabilitation, including a social amelioration program and provision of safety nets to all affected sectors.

“In view of the continuing rise of confirmed cases of COVID-19, the serious threat to the health, safety, security, and lives of our countrymen, the long-term adverse effects on their means of livelihood, and the severe disruption of economic activities, a state of national emergency is hereby declared over the entire country,” the bill reads.

The bill shall authorize the President to exercise powers necessary to carry out the proposed national policy “for a limited period and subject to restrictions”, therefore allowing him to adopt and implement measures to minimize further COVID-19 transmission.

ANTI-COVID-19 MEASURES. Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea hold up a sign reading “Together with doctors and front liners, we went to work for you so please stay at home for us” during a special session at the House of Representatives on Monday (March 23, 2020). The House approved on final reading House Bill 6616, declaring a national emergency and granting President Rodrigo Duterte additional powers to address the Covid-19 crisis in the country. (Photo courtesy: Office of the House Majority Leader)

“Such authority is needed not only to control the COVID-19 pandemic now gripping the country, but also to immediately mobilize resources for the provision of basic necessities to families and individuals affected by the imposition of Community Quarantine, especially indigents and their families,” Romualdez said in his sponsorship speech.

“The measure, once approved, will immediately and amply provide healthcare, including medical tests and treatments, to COVID-19 patients, persons under investigation, and persons under monitoring. It also mandates formulation of a program for recovery and rehabilitation, including social amelioration program and provision of safety nets to all affected sectors,” he added.

Direct operation of private hospitals

When the public interest so requires, it grants the President the power to direct the operation of any privately-owned hospitals and medical and health facilities, hotels and other similar establishments to house health workers or serve as quarantine areas or temporary medical facilities;

Similarly, public transportation can also be directed to ferry health workers to hospitals.

Realignment, reallocation of budgets

It shall allow the President to reprogram, reallocate, and realign any appropriation in the 2020 national budget to fund measures to address and respond to the COVID-19 emergency, including social amelioration for affected communities, as well as recovery and rehabilitation of affected areas.

Government programs, projects, and activities in the 2019 and 2020 budgets can be discontinued to generate savings and augment allocations for the COVID-19 response.

The following items in the budget shall be prioritized for augmentation: the operational budgets of government hospitals (primarily those identified for treatment of COVID-19), emergency preparedness and response, quick response fund under the Department of Health; the operational budget of the Philippine General Hospital under the University of the Philippines; the National Disaster Risk Reduction Fund or the Calamity Fund; and allocations to local government units.

Other priorities include programs of the Department of Labor and Employment such as the livelihood assistance for disadvantaged and displaced workers and COVID-19 Adjustment Measures Program (CAMP); livelihood seeding program under the Department of Trade and Industry; the financial assistance program for rice farmers under the Department of Agriculture; and the Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situations (AICS), distribution of food and non-food items; and livelihood assistance grants under the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

The Chief Executive can also allocate cash, funds, and investments held by any government-owned or controlled corporation (GOCC) or any national government agency for whatever purpose deemed necessary and desirable to address the COVID-19 crisis.

Villafuerte said of the PHP275 billion available funds for COVID-19 response, PHP200 billion will be allotted for the emergency subsidy program to be given to around 18 million households, while the remaining PHP75 billion will be used to fund health and other services.

Expediting procurement, testing

Accreditation of testing kits shall be expedited and streamlined. Prompt testing of patients under investigation and persons under monitoring shall be facilitated, as well as the compulsory and immediate isolation and treatment of patients.

It shall authorize the President to procure, in the most expeditious manner, essential goods and services such as medical supplies, rented venues for quarantine centers, temporary medical facilities, and other services needed by the public healthcare system during the health emergency as exceptions to the Procurement Law.

It shall ensure that the donation, acceptance, and distribution of health products intended to address the Covid-19 public health emergency are not unnecessarily delayed.

Extended deadlines, grace periods

The President can move statutory deadlines and timelines for the filing and submission of any document, the payment of taxes, fees, and other charges required by law, and the grant of any benefit, in order to ease the burden on individuals under community quarantine.

He can direct all banks and other financial institutions, including the Government Service Insurance System, Social Security System, and Pag-ibig Fund, to implement a minimum of a 30-day grace period for the payment of all loans falling due within the period from March 16 to April 15 without incurring interests, penalties, fees, or other charges.

A 30-day grace period can also be provided on residential rents falling due within the same period.

Other authorized powers

The President can adopt measures to protect the people from hoarding, profiteering, injurious speculations, manipulation of prices, product deceptions, and cartels, monopolies, and other unscrupulous business practices.

Other additional powers proposed in the bill include: extending credit to productive sectors of the economy; liberalizing the grant of incentives for the manufacture and importation of necessary goods and equipment; requiring businesses to prioritize and accept contracts for goods and services necessary to deal with the health emergency; and authorizing working alternative working arrangements for employees in the executive branch and in the private sector.

In terms of regulatory powers, the President can regulate the operation of public and private transportation; traffic on all roads and thoroughfares; the use of the country’s energy supply.

The President can ensure that local governments adhere to the declared national policy and strategy, while allowing them to continue exercising their autonomy in matters undefined by the National Government.

An expanded and enhanced Pantawid Pamilya Program responsive to the needs posed by the crisis, and provision of commodity assistance program for members of the informal and marginalized sector may be implemented during the duration of the quarantine.

As a safeguard, the bill proposes the creation of a joint congressional oversight committee to closely monitor the actions of the executive branch.

The proposed powers will be in “effect only for three months unless extended by Congress” or may be withdrawn “sooner by means of a concurrent resolution of Congress or ended by Presidential Proclamation.” (PNA)

By Filane Mikee Cervantes, PNA