Special powers bill on COVID-19 now up for Duterte's signature

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 24) — The bill that would grant President Rodrigo Duterte several special powers to act on the COVID-19 pandemic is now up for his signature.

After 17 hours of deliberations, the House of Representatives adopted past 3am Tuesday Senate Bill 1418, declaring the existence of a national emergency and granting Duterte additional powers to address the outbreak.

This paved the way for the speedy passage of the bill, also known as the "Bayanihan to Heal as One Act," as the Senate and House set aside holding a bicameral conference on the measure and officially ended the special session early this morning. The bill was certified as urgent by the President.

Under legislative rules, once the House and Senate have agreed to reconcile their versions of the bill, its enrolled form will be printed and will be submitted to Malacañang in order for Duterte to sign it into law.

Under the approved measure, Duterte will be given the power to reshuffle savings within the executive department in the 2020 General Appropriations Act to address the crisis and deliver aid to the affected communities.

He will also be given authority to provide an emergency subsidy to 18 million low-income households worth between ₱5,000 and ₱8,000 for a month to two months, and provide compensation of ₱100,000 to public and private health workers who may contract severe COVID-19 infection while in their line of duty. Health workers who may die while fighting the pandemic will be compensated ₱1 million. 

Duterte will also have the power to "direct the operation" of any privately-owned hospitals and medical and health facilities including passenger vessels and other establishments to house health workers, assign quarantine areas, and give medical relief, provided that the owners of the enterprise will be retained, and only when the public interest requires. Those who refuse to cooperate according to his directive will be penalized.

However, the measure still states that the President may still "take over" their operations if these enterprises are no longer capable of operating "subject to the limits and safeguards enshrined in the Constitution."

Duterte may now also ensure that local government units are acting in line with the national government's policy and may impose corresponding penalties if they disobey directives on quarantine protocols.

Duterte's powers will be in full force for only three months, unless extended by Congress, or withdrawn sooner via a concurrent resolution.

Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea earlier assured that the President "has no intent" to abuse his special powers to address the crisis once granted full authority by both chambers.

Over 400 people in the Philippines have contracted COVID-19, with 33 fatalities to date. A total of 18 people have already recovered from the disease.