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COVID-19 Emergency Powers: Too much, Not enough

by Xandra Lisa C Bisenio in the Philippines

Congress has approved sweeping emergency powers for the Duterte administration supposedly to help it battle the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Only a handful of lawmakers especially from the Makabayan bloc opposed this – not because there is no need to stop the virus but because they saw no need for emergency powers to do this.


There is reason to be skeptical about more powers for the president. It is nearly two months since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the Philippines and what the government has done with the powers it already has is not encouraging.


On the one hand, it has not acted enough with the powers it has to bolster the medical frontlines to battle the virus. On the other hand, it declared a drastic Luzon-wide lockdown without sufficient measures to protect the poorest and most vulnerable families.


The national government arguably already has enough powers to deal with the problem at hand. At the same time, giving it more powers will not be enough without a clearer plan for what needs to be done.


Alone at the front


Many of our health workers and other frontliners can be forgiven for feeling neglected. They work hard to arrest the spread of the virus and treat the infected. Government health workers are doing the best they can with what they have within the long underfunded and undersupplied public health system. Given the government’s Php 4.1 trillion budget for 2020, it does not make sense for them to not have even basic personal protective equipment (PPE) and even just soap to be able to perform their duties.


But ordinary Filipinos also feel neglected. They wrestle to ensure their basic needs on a daily basis under the lockdown. The national government has already given so many press conferences about how their needs will be met but many still feel that they have to fend for themselves in the face of the pandemic and the drastic measures to contain this.


Farmers, farmworkers, fisherfolk, tricycle and jeepney drivers, vendors, and small store owners, have to go on with their daily grind to bring food to the table by day’s end. But they are held at checkpoints. Tricycle and jeepney drivers are arrested and their vehicles impounded. Farmers have been stopped from tending to their farms and transport and sell their goods at the market. Farmworkers are prevented from going to the plantations where they work.


Meanwhile, those who continue to go to work – in essential or exempted government, health, business and services – risk exposure from the general lack of protective gear and facilities. Except in places where local government units (LGUs) provide rides, many have to walk or bike to work, as in the case of some Cavite and Bicol workers, with mass transportation suspended.


Some big companies have pledged to give their workforce relief during the lockdown. But the situation is unclear for the vast majority of wage and salary workers. As it is, more and more companies are temporarily shutting down, and not all workers are promised compensation. According to the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA), 703 companies in Luzon have suspended their operations due to the lockdown, affecting thousands of workers. Some of these companies are giving financial help to their employees but others have cut work hours or put their workers on leave without pay.


The lockdown is also hindering access to basic needs as well as social services, which were already wanting to begin with. Shanty and tenement dwellers worry over how they can possibly practice ‘social distancing’ in their cramped makeshift spaces. Some sick and elderly meanwhile reportedly have to walk long distances to find themselves food and medical care.


The latest 2015 official count showed 13.1 Filipino families in Luzon. Of these, 2.5 million families live on Php10,000 or less per month (around Php83 per person per day); 2.7 million on Php10,000-15,000 (at most Php125 per person per day); and 2.2 million on Php15,000-Php20,000 (at most Php167 per person per day).


These 7.4 million families with 37 million Filipinos earn very little and can hardly save. The consequences of the lockdown on them will be grave, and whether giving the administration emergency powers is the answer to addressing their plight is very much in question. At worst, the proposed cure might in some ways even be worse than the disease.


Where’s the plan?


The Duterte administration and its sycophants in Congress gave the impression that lack of funds and indeed lack of emergency powers are to blame for the sorry plight of frontliners and the poorest and most vulnerable. They argue that emergency powers are needed to: mobilize assistance for affected citizens; provide health services including COVID-19 tests and treatment; undertake a program for recovery and rehabilitation including social amelioration and safety nets.


Yet having already put the entire country under a State of Calamity, has already given access to calamity funds and other government resources. Even without emergency powers, it can immediately frontload spending for programs; these already have budgets such as Php145.3 billion for conditional cash transfers (CCT) and unconditional cash transfers (UCT). It also reportedly has up to Php1.2 trillion in unused unobligated funds from the 2019 budget, at least part of which can be tapped.


The severe public health crisis demands a re-orienting of government spending to more important emerging public health and socioeconomic relief priorities. Budgets for debt servicing, confidential and intelligence funds, as well as militarism and counterinsurgency should be revisited.


The Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and Department of Transportation (DOTr) also has a combined budget of Php680 billion including for big-ticket infrastructure projects. The administration should revisit its Build, Build, Build (BBB) program to see which of the projects remain socially and economically feasible, in the now vastly changed domestic and global economic circumstances with the onset of the pandemic.


The government can also mobilize private sector funds more systematically. Beyond unilateral corporate efforts or voluntary donations, it can consider issuing COVID-19 emergency bonds and oblige the country’s biggest firms to invest in these. It can also accept corporate tax payments in advance and creditable against their future obligations.


None of these require emergency powers. If the government had a clearer idea of what needs to be done to respond to the pandemic, it could have submitted a detailed supplementary budget request to Congress and had that approved. Instead, it asked for emergency powers and tells the public to blindly trust that it will realign the budget responsibly.


The plan is everything. The country definitely needs a response package that is much bigger than what has been announced so far.


But giving the President emergency powers without detailing proposals of who will spend what, and when, is problematic. Not only that, but any response should not have to invoke ambiguous, special powers to the President. It can expediently carry out its duty to secure funds responding to the public health crisis and the needs of the most vulnerable without emergency powers.


Other measures so far also show that emergency powers are unnecessary. The drastic lockdown is arguably needed, especially after the administration’s dismissiveness at the start of the crisis - that resulted in the virus spreading much more than it should have. It has already issued guidelines for the “enhanced community quarantine” (ECQ) which admittedly can still be much improved, in order to be less muddled and clearer.


The social welfare and labor departments were already mandated to implement measures to ease the burden of the lockdown on the working people. These easing measures include a moratorium on lease rentals, advancing a pro-rated 13th month pay, reprieve in utility bills, and assistance to micro, small, and medium-scale enterprises (MSMEs). The agencies responded with some programs.


The administration, however, has not clearly accounted for the large number of Filipinos who will need help, nor allocated enough to cushion the impact of the crisis on them. Official responses during the first days of the lockdown have tended to be myopic. A large proportion of the entire workforce stands to be dislocated by the lockdown. IBON estimates some 14.4 million workers and informal earners in Luzon risk being affected, most of whom are vendors, shopkeepers, salespersons, construction workers, public and private transport drivers and mechanics, manufacturing workers, and hotel and restaurant employees.


Doables


Progressive lawmakers argue that the President already has more than enough powers to ensure the health of the most vulnerable population and to secure their economic well-being to remain healthy. They worry that emergency powers open a window to possible corruption or abuse of power.


The public health emergency demands government to give primary attention to boosting the public health system and protecting the working people in this time of severe economic dislocation. (See IBON’s position paper). Civil society groups especially from the health, peasant and labor sectors, have already called for the wide range of measures needed. The immediate priority is for poor and vulnerable families in Luzon but eventually extending to the Visayas and Mindanao as the virus and containment measures spread. These include:


(1) To boost the public health system


  • Equip the country’s doctors, nurses, and health workers with personal protective equipment;

  • Strengthen the Philippine public health system with the needed personnel, supplies and logistics;

  • Immediately conduct mass testing for all persons under investigation, persons under monitoring, and frontline health workers;

  • Immediately isolate confirmed cases and ensure the basic needs of quarantined individuals;


(2) To ensure relief for poor and vulnerable families


  • Immediately provide emergency packs containing food, vitamins and medicines, face masks, soap and disinfectants.

  • Provide unconditional cash transfers (UCT) to the 10 million poorest families.

  • Provide a Php5,000 wage subsidy to each of the 10.7 million affected workers in private establishments, whether directly or as support to employers.

  • Provide Php5,000 financial assistance for some 5.2 million informal earners – including the self-employed, own-account, and unpaid family workers, but excluding farmers and fisherfolk.

  • To support their vital and continued production, provide Php10,000 each for 9.7 million farmers and fisherfolk.

  • Give Php1,000 emergency support to 3.8 million indigent senior citizens, and Php500 to 1.8 million Social Security System (SSS) and Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) pensioners, the elderly being among the most vulnerable to the COVID-19.

  • Order companies to consider lockdown working days as paid leaves; prohibit layoffs and retrenchments during the lockdown.


(3) To aim for food security


  • Ensure the availability and affordability of food supply, keeping 90-day buffer stocks of locally-sourced rice, livestock and poultry, fish, fruits and vegetables.

  • Price controls should strictly be in place. Enforce Joint Memorandum Circular (JMC) No. 2020-01 implementing a nationwide price freeze on all agricultural and manufactured basic goods, essential medicines, and other medical supplies following the declaration of a state of calamity.


(4) To ensure people’s access to public utilities and social services


  • Ensure continued water, electricity and telecommunications services.

  • Moratorium on payments for water, electricity and telecommunications. Give particular attention to the poor consuming 30 cubic meters or less of water per day and consuming 100 kilowatts per hour or less of electricity.

  • Ensure people’s mobility to go to the market and for other basic needs by providing free and reliable community transport system.

  • Stop demolitions, shelter the homeless, and suspend home rental payments. Take measures to make social distancing possible in congested urban poor communities.


(5) A broader and more sustained health information campaign to educate the public on the COVID-19 and ways to combat it is urgent, especially amid the virulent spread of disinformation on old and new media.


Xandra Liza C. Bisenio heads IBON's Media and Communications Department. This article first appeared on the IBON Website. Reproduced with permission.