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Duterte gets powers to aid poor, health workers

/ 05:52 AM March 25, 2020

MANILA, Philippines — The new measure approved by Congress to deal with the coronavirus crisis would allow President Rodrigo Duterte to reallocate funds and resources to finance crucial programs during the national emergency and provide more benefits and compensation for health workers, including P1 million for the families of those who died in the line of duty.

Duterte was expected to sign the “Bayanihan to Heal As One Act” on Tuesday.

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Congress approved the bill in a special session that started Monday and ran up to the early hours of Tuesday.

Senate version adopted

The final version of the bill written by the Senate and adopted by the House of Representatives to bypass the need for a bicameral conference declares a national emergency arising the coronavirus pandemic and would provide a P5,000 to P8,000 subsidy to 18 million low-income families in the country for two months.

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The special authority granted to Duterte would last for three months, unless extended by Congress.

Duterte is also required to submit a report to Congress every Monday of all acts performed under the measure. Congress will set up a joint congressional oversight committee.

The measure provides for a special risk allowance for public health workers on top of their hazard pay, as well as P100,000 compensation for all public and private health workers who would contract the coronavirus in the line of duty.

It also provides for P1-million compensation for the families of health workers who would die fighting the coronavirus. This would be retroactive to Feb. 1, 2020.

The measure requires PhilHealth Corp. to shoulder the medical expenses of public and private health workers in case of exposure to the coronavirus or getting any work-related injury or disease during the national emergency.

It also allows the President to engage temporary health workers to complement or supplement the current workforce. It provides for compensation and allowance for the temporary health workers.

False information

People who refuse to follow the President’s directives and spread false information about COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, will be punished.

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The bill provides penalties of two months’ imprisonment or fines of P10,000 to P1 million for individuals or groups creating, perpetuating, or spreading false information regarding the coronavirus crisis on social media and other platforms, with the information geared toward promoting chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion.

The same goes for those participating in cyber incidents that use or take advantage of the crisis to prey on the public through scams, phishing, fraudulent emails or other similar acts.

Also to be penalized are those engaged in hoarding, profiteering, injurious speculations, manipulation of prices, product deceptions, and cartels, monopolies or other combinations in restraint of trade, or other pernicious practices that affect the supply, distribution, and movement of various goods.

Toned down

Lawmakers toned down the special powers they granted to Duterte to deal with the coronavirus crisis, blunting some of the “dangerous” sections that had caused public alarm.

Still, Malacañang thanked both chambers of Congress for passing the bill and gave an assurance that any special power granted to the President to combat the coronavirus would be “enforced strictly” in accordance with the Constitution.

Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo also appealed to the public to be “wary of rumors and false news designed to cause panic and confusion propagated by the enemies of peace and order.”

At the close of the 17-hour marathon session, the House agreed to adopt the Senate’s version of the bill without mention of any takeover of privately run utilities, which had alarmed critics, and putting limits and conditions on the President’s authority to juggle funds.

The lawmakers also fleshed out the specifics of how the response funds were to be spent, including emergency cash subsidies for low-income families and the compensation for health-care workers.

The final version of Senate Bill No. 1418 included safeguards to rectify some of the problems raised by opponents of the bill, particularly the power to realign funds in the 2020 budget, which critics said would violate the ban on transfer of appropriations under the 1987 Constitution.

Preventing challenge

The lawmakers sought to prevent a potential constitutional challenge by limiting the scope of the President’s authority to realign and divert budgetary outlays to only savings generated by the executive department, unlike earlier drafts that gave him blanket authority to tap budget and off-budget outlays as he saw fit.

They further enumerated which should be given priority for augmentation of funds, including the Department of Health, the University of the Philippines- Philippine General Hospital, the national disaster risk reduction fund or the calamity fund, and employment programs under the Department of Labor and Employment.

The two chambers also changed the wording of the bill to empower the President only to direct the “discontinuance” of projects rather than outright “cancellation,” with a proviso that they could still be revived within the next two fiscal years.

The bill retained sections authorizing the President to regulate power, water and other utilities, bypass procurement laws in the purchase of medical supplies, and order hospitals and hotels to serve as quarantines.

A section that would have compelled local executives to follow the President’s directives was toned down so he could only ensure they were “acting within the letter and spirit of all the rules” laid out by the national government.

Instead of allowing the President to “take over” companies, the bill now only permits him to “direct” private medical centers, hotels and similar establishments to house health-care workers, as well as to compel public transportation operators and passenger vessels to ferry them to treatment centers and quarantines.

But if the businesses “unjustifiably refuse or signify that they are no longer capable of operating their enterprises” for such purposes, the President “may take over their operations subject to the limits and safeguards enshrined in the Constitution,” according to the bill.

The bill also empowers the President to allocate funds held by government agencies and government-owned or -controlled corporations to deal with coronavirus problems.

Grace period for payments

He may order the extension of deadlines in the payment of any taxes, fees and charges, as well as direct banks and financial institutions to grant a minimum 30-day grace period in the payment of all types of loans.

A similar 30-day grace period in the payment of residential rents without interest or penalties may also be ordered by the President.

The bill also authorizes the President to implement an expanded and enhanced conditional cash transfer program.

In another major departure from earlier versions, the effectivity of the bill was changed to three months “unless extended by Congress.” The earlier House version said it should be valid for “two months or longer if the calamity will persist, as may be determined by the President.”

The powers granted to the President, however, “may be withdrawn sooner by means of a concurrent resolution of Congress or ended by presidential proclamation.”

With a report from Julie M. Aurelio

For more news about the novel coronavirus click here.
What you need to know about Coronavirus.
For more information on COVID-19, call the DOH Hotline: (02) 86517800 local 1149/1150.

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TAGS: Coronavirus Pandemic, COVID-19, Rodrigo Duterte
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