By MARLO MADRIGAL
MANILA — The Philippines must spend more for health and economy-stimulating activities to climb out of recession, according to policy experts and advocates.
In Wednesday’s virtual discussion on the upcoming national budget and the government’s spending for pandemic response, Alliance of Health Workers (AHW) wants a P2.06 trillion (US$42.54 billion) budget for the health department so it can address the pandemic and provide public health services.
AHW said the proposed health budget does not reflect the dire need for an effective COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) pandemic response.
The Department of Health’s (DOH) budget for next year is expected to be reduced by 14 percent to P131.72 billion (US$2.72 billion), affecting funds for building more health facilities, down 63 percent to P4.78 billion, and for the surveillance of infectious diseases and hiring more health workers (both receiving cuts of three percent).
The budget department-proposed DOH budget of P127.77 billion (US$2.64 billion) is only 0.6 percent of the GDP, far from the World Health Organization’s recommendation of allotting at least five percent of a country’s GDP to its health sector, AHW President Robert Mendoza said.
The group claimed the budget, which is currently being deliberated in Congress, is only worth P3.16 (US$0.07) for every Filipino.
There are 23 public hospitals under DOH that could possibly receive reduced budgets for 2021, especially for procurement of medicines and equipment and salaries for personnel, Mendoza noted.
Jose Enrique Africa, executive director of independent think-tank Ibon Foundation, agreed, saying a stimulus program for health recovery and reform, worth as much as P1.6 trillion (US$33.04 billion) is needed.
Slashing the department’s budget will wear out the public health system with a net effect of being inadequate to address the ongoing pandemic, Africa pointed out.
In the second quarter, the country posted its deepest economic contraction in almost three decades by 16.5 percent.
Ibon Foundation found that the government is spending less to stimulate the economy. It claimed that the present stimulus package worth around P165 billion ($3.4 billion)would not plug the estimated loss in gross domestic product (GDP) of more than P2 trillion ($41.3 billion) this year.
For Marikina 2nd District Representative Stella Quimbo, the country needs to spend about P1.5 trillion ($30.97 billion) to reverse the economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic.
In an in-house evaluation, Quimbo estimated about P33.6 billion ($694 million), or 17 percent of the P203.1 billion ($4.19 billion) proposed budget of the DOH, is reserved for pandemic response. Add that with some P93.9 billion ($1.94 billion) COVID-19 response-related items in the proposed budgets of other departments, the amount is worth P120 billion ($2.48 billion).
“If we will compare that to the P1.5 trillion, the budget alloted for COVID is very small,” said the former department chairperson of the University of the Philippines School of Economics.
“If we don’t spend enough, ordinary citizens would continue to suffer…If we don’t reverse the business closures, how could we generate jobs? The government would then have to provide aid, which is obviously not sustainable,”she further explained in a mix of English and Filipino.
The government has not allotted monetary aid for poor citizens in the next year’s budget, while it will provide P6 billion in cash subsidies under the newly-enacted Republic Act No. 11494 or the “Bayanihan to Recover as One Act”, known as Bayanihan 2.
In July, the trade department said around 26 percent of businesses in the country have either temporarily or permanently shuttered.
As of late, the number of jobless Filipinos and those with poor quality of work is estimated at 14.2 million, including those unaccounted unemployed individuals.
So far, 3.3 million workers in the formal sector were displaced due to the pandemic, while between 200,000 to 400,000 jeepney and transport network vehicle services (TNVS) drivers are affected.
Higher budgets for infra, militarism, debt payments
The government maintains its grave obsession with infrastructure, militarism, and debt payments that eat up the country’s scant resources, Ibon Foundation claimed.
About a 12-percent increase in the budget for infrastructure-related items to P1.11 trillion is expected for 2021. What is striking though, Africa notes, is the slash in infrastructure projects under the National Irrigation Administration (NIA) and DOH by 12 percent and 37 percent, respectively.
The defense department is slated for an 8.2 percent budget growth to P205.31 billion, the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ budget up by nine percent to P203.47 billion, and the budget for the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC) will climb by 3,000 percent to P19.10 billion.
Moreover, funds for interest payments is expected to jump by 26.3 percent to P531.55 billion, while those for principal payments will grow twice to P1.26 trillion ($26.2 billion).
The poor continues to carry the burden of policy adjustments during the crisis, reflected in the lack of sources of income and quality jobs, expensive healthcare, education expenses, and huge increase in debt services, the independent think-tank said.
“The poor would be the ones to shoulder the payment of such debts, which would result in further inequality, and would lead to social conflicts,” Africa said.