Senate approves bill granting Duterte more powers in COVID-19 fight

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 23) — The Senate, voting 12-0, approved a bill declaring the existence of a national emergency and granting President Rodrigo Duterte additional powers to address the COVID-19 crisis.

Among the new powers the bill seeks to give to Duterte is the authority to reshuffle savings within the executive department in the 2020 budget into addressing the crisis brought about by the viral disease, including assistance to the poor who have been adversely affected by the lockdown in Luzon.

It also gives Duterte the power to allocate cash, funds, investments, unused or unreleased subsidies in government corporations or any national government agency to address the COVID-19 emergency.

It also seeks to allow Duterte to direct the stoppage of programs, projects or activities under the executive department, including government corporations, and use the savings from these to fund the government’s response to COVID-19.

Under the Senate’s proposal, the Health Department is prioritized for funding sourced from the halting of certain government programs. It will receive funding for its hospitals, the prevention and control of other infectious diseases, emergency preparedness and response, and a boost in its quick response fund.

The Senate also wants unutilized or unreleased special purpose funds to be rechanneled to be used in the government’s fight against COVID-19.

Senator Pia Cayetano, who sponsored the measure, said funds from these sources will be used to distribute P5,000 to P8,000 a month to some 18 million families, which will amount to roughly P200 billion in two months.

“The cost is clearly significant but we have the cash available. What we do not have is the flexibility to use the available cash to beat this virus. This bill that I sponsor today will precisely do that,” Cayetano said.

All the powers that the Senate seeks to grant Duterte will remain in effect for at least three months or until Congress revokes it.

Absent from the proposal is Malacañang’s bid to allow Duterte to take over businesses, which Cayetano said had never been present in her and Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III’s version of the bill.

Instead, Duterte may direct the operation of privately-owned hospitals, medical facilities, passenger vessels and other establishments to house health workers, serve as quarantine areas, become quarantine centers, medical and aid centers or temporary health facilities, and serve as transportation for health workers.

The management of these businesses and establishments will be retained, and they will be compensated for any damage they may sustain as a result of Duterte taking charge of their operations.

It also allows Duterte to buy goods, including personal protective equipment, thermometers, cleaning agents and medicine, as long as the Health Department prioritizes the distribution of these to public health facilities tagged as COVID-19 referral hospitals, private hospitals that treat patients with the viral disease and public and private labs that test for it.

The measure also grants Duterte the power to require businesses to prioritize and accept contracts for materials and services needed to combat COVID-19.

Under the proposal, Duterte can also regulate public and private transportation, traffic, and the use of power, fuel, energy and water.

Duterte has already placed the entire country under a state of calamity lasting for six months and has placed Luzon on a so-called enhanced community quarantine, severely restricting the movement of people.

Over 400 people in the Philippines have acquired COVID-19, with 33 of them dying because of the disease caused by a virus called SARS CoV-2. Eighteen of those infected have recovered.

Globally, over 339,000 have been infected and 14,705 have died because of the viral disease. Over 98,000 have recovered.

The disease is spread through small droplets from the nose or mouth when people infected with the virus cough or sneeze.

To prevent infection, authorities are urging people to practice regular hand washing, cover their mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, and avoid close contact with those who show respiratory symptoms.

Commonly reported COVID-19 symptoms are fever, dry cough and shortness of breath. Those with severe and critical symptoms should call the Health Department at (02) 8-651-7800 local 1149-1150.

CNN Philippines Correspondent Joyce Ilas and Anjo Alimario contributed to this report.