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The time for action is now.

R.A. No. 11469, otherwise known as “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act”, is not so much as a grant of power required by the executive but a strong message from Congress to push the President to finally do his job. With the enactment of this law, there is no more excuses for this government to make.

Our country has known about the COVID-19 as early as January, but it was only this month when our national government took this matter seriously even as other countries have long imposed measures against the spread of COVID-19.

Due to the rising number of confirmed infection and fatalities, Mr. Duterte was forced to declare our own travel ban and finally do something on the uncontrolled transmission of COVID-19 in the form of the Enhanced Community Quarantine (ECQ). In spite of already having access to billions of pesos in funds, our country is lagging behind in mass testing and in procuring critical equipment for our health professionals. Many of our countrymen lost their means of livelihood because of the ECQ, yet no action was done to alleviate their situation.

Mr. Duterte’s government is faltering against COVID-19 under his tentative leadership at this critical moment. The private sector, led by our country’s top businessmen, and our local government officials had to step in and take the initiative. The best our national government could do, thus far, was to set up checkpoints. While our frontliners are risking their lives to stave off the worst effects of COVID-19, our national government appeared standing still; doing so little to improve the rate of testing, increase bed capacities of our hospitals, and help the families left without any means to provide for themselves.

Then Congress finally took action and pushed for a legislation not only to give the President authorized powers but also to direct the government as to the courses of action to take. In the initial draft of the Bayanihan Act, the administration asked for power to takeover public utility or businesses affected with public interest. The proposed measure likewise gave the President the power to use virtually the whole of the government budget as he sees fit.

Through efforts in the Senate and as a result of strong public backlash, the administration finally relented and limited the takeover power, softened as the power to “direct the operation”, to health facilities, transportation and other venues to be used for COVID-19 related operations.

The Senate also managed to introduce social safety net provisions, which were remarkably absent in the first draft of the bill. The law now includes an expanded Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4P) and the provision of an assistance program to help households purchase basic food and other essential items during the duration of the quarantine. Moreover, a subsidy of ₱5,000 to ₱8,000 a month for two months for 18 million low income households. The law also provides certain non-monetary relief by giving the President the power to extend the deadline on payment of taxes, loans, mortgages and rent.

However, there are also provisions which are still problematic.

Firstly, the law authorizes the President to direct the discontinuance of appropriated programs, projects, or activities (PAPs) of any agency of the Executive Department including government-owned-or-controlled-corporations (GOCCs) supposedly to generate savings which will be used as additional funds in the efforts against COVID-19. This is an invalid delegation of the power of Congress to enact budget as there is no sufficient standards that would guide the President in determining which PAPs to discontinue. Discontinuing projects to force generate savings has been ruled as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Rather than legislating new authorized powers, the proper way to fund the anti-COVID-19 measures would have been to pass a special appropriations law (SAL) that clearly outlines how much is to be allocated to every appropriation item, with the proviso that the President can re-align among these items in the SAL depending on the exigencies of the situation. This is what other countries are doing as they look to fund the anti-COVID-19 measures, extend aid to those affected and prop up their economies. No other countries of note granted emergency powers to their chief executive.

Secondly, a provision was inserted during the period of amendments which penalizes “individuals or groups creating, perpetrating, or spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms, such information having no valid or beneficial effect on the population and are clearly geared to promote chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion …” (Sec. 6 [f])

The thing is, it is often the government who is creating confusion. In many instances, government agencies contradict each other, calling reports on contradicting statements “fake news”. Mr. Duterte himself has been a source of statements that tend to promote confusion not only among ordinary Filipinos, but also among government officials. Under such conditions this law can be easily use to stifle the constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression and persecute dissenters and persons demanding accountability from the government.

Truth be told, an earnest President would be able to perform the tasks provided in the Bayanihan Act and more in fighting COVID-19 without having emergency powers. A competent President will have acted with more dispatch to protect our country and its interests without having to wait for guidance from Congress or from any other country, like China, for example. Vice-President Leni Robredo and the great mayors in Metro Manila had already done so much in our efforts against COVID-19 with extremely limited budgets while our President practically just stood pat waiting for “emergency powers” that he never really needed.

But here we are. And we need to pull together as a country to fight this virus that plagues our nation. The Senate is always prepared to do its part, even if it means goading our President to action. We, in the opposition, vow to do our job to keep our government in check, so that this great trust reposed to them by Congress and our country will not be abused nor wasted by unscrupulous persons in the name of calamity.

It is my sincere hope that we succeed in this endeavor, prevent the loss of more lives, and ease the suffering of our countrymen affected by this contagion.

The Bayanihan Act gives Mr. Duterte the blueprint with which to attack COVID-19 and access to hundreds of billions in funding. The LGUs and the private sector have already paved the way and all that is needed is the sincere effort of a true leader to tip the scales in our favor and save our country.

Pinakita na ng Kongreso sa batas kung ano ang kailangang gawin at paggastusan ng Pangulo para labanan ang COVID-19. Binigay na rin sa kanya ang kapangyarihan kung papaano ito popondohan, pati na nga sobrang kapangyarihan na hindi naman kailangan at hindi na naaayon sa Saligang Batas at maari pa niyang abusuhin.

Dahil sa batas na ito, wala na sigurong dahilan pa para patuloy na pumalpak si G. Duterte at ang kanyang administrasyon sa pagsugpo sa pandemyang ito, katulad ng pagkapalpak nila sa huling tatlong buwan simula noong pausbong na ang banta ng COVID-19 sa buong mundo.

Patuloy kong ipinagdarasal na iligtas tayo ng Maykapal sa delubyong ating kinakaharap. Kahabagan nawa tayong lahat ng Dakilang Ama. ###

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