Public outcry has somewhat clipped the super powers President Rodrigo Duterte wanted to usurp amid the country’s fight against the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-2019).
As soon as the Palace’s draft version of the emergency powers bill was out, many Filipinos showed their anger using the hashtag #NoToEmergencyPowers in their social media posts. While the special session was being held at the House of Representatives last March 23, netizens continued to vent their frustration, disappointment and rage.
The gimmick staged by House Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano and his ilk only fueled more hate posts. Holding a streamer claiming that they are on the same level as the valiant health workers was not only insensitive but also opportunistic, especially in the light of recent deaths of health workers, particularly doctors.
Human rights lawyers were quick to point out unconstitutional provisions in the Malacanang draft, particularly those that provide the President authority to realign the budget of almost all branches of government. House Deputy Speaker Rep. Luis Raymund Villafuerte Jr., during the special session, said that P275 billion would be used for COVID-19 response.
The Senate removed some of the most contentious provisions and provided some safeguards. Senate Bill 1418 limits the power of the President to realigning the budget of the executive departments. He has no authority to tinker with the budget of legislative and judicial branches of government.
The bill, which has been adopted by the House of Representatives, also did grant Palace’s wish for the President to temporarily take over any privately-owned public utility or business to be used for COVID-19 response. Instead, SB 1418 grants the President the power to direct the operations of privately-owned hospitals, medical and health facilities, passenger vessels, and other establishments. The bill also states, however, that the President may still take over establishments should the owners refuse or signify they are no longer capable of operating their enterprises.
Senate Bill 1418 also struck down Malacañang’s proposal for the law to be effective “for two months or longer if the calamity will persist.” The Senate version extended the period to three months but gave Congress the sole authority to extend it. The original draft provides that power to the President.
Another safeguard in the Senate version is the requirement for Duterte to submit a weekly report with details of the funds used for the emergency.
Still, such powers can be abused by the President. Given his track record of incompetence, corruption and disdain for human rights, the Filipino people need to be ever vigilant.
After all the deliberations, the public demands more concrete answers. Immediate actions to combat COVID-19 do not require emergency powers. The problem is that from day 1, the Duterte administration does not have a comprehensive plan to deal with COVID-19. The formation of a committee composed of retired military generals to implement the National Action Plan against COVID-19 further exposes Duterte’s wrong approach to the crisis. Instead of providing medical, social and economic solutions, Duterte is once again resorting to militarist measures.
Emergency powers are not needed to conduct mass testing for persons under investigation, frontline health workers and individuals in infected clusters; ensure personal protective equipment for frontline health personnel and workers; purchase enough supply of medical equipment; provide additional hospital beds; and create temporary quarantine areas, among others.
Emergency powers are not needed to mobilize national departments for the provision of much-needed social assistance for the most vulnerable sectors.
Emergency powers are not needed for the President to let go of his P4.5-billion confidential and intelligence funds , or utilize the national government’s over P6-billion quick response funds (QRF), the P36.4-billion National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) budget, and the P546-million Oplan Tokhang funds for medical and social solutions to the crisis.
It only takes political will, efficiency, and genuine malasakit, which unfortunately, the President does not have.
While this pandemic has exposed the heartlessness of the powers-that-be, it has also highlighted the need for continuous social solidarity and collective action. Let us protest from our homes and use social media to demand action. Hope is with the people’s struggle for better governance. We will get through this.
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