Duterte approves bill granting him special powers to tackle COVID-19 crisis

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 24) — President Rodrigo Duterte approved Tuesday a bill that grants him additional powers to address the COVID-19 crisis in the country, including the power to reshuffle funds in this year’s budget to provide assistance to the poor.

Among the key points of the new law is a monthly ₱5,000 to ₱8,000 emergency subsidy for 18 million low-income households for up to two months.

It also provides for a ₱100,000 compensation for all health workers who may contract a severe COVID-19 infection while in the line of duty. Families of those who die while fighting the pandemic will be given ₱1 million.

The Philippine Health Insurance Corporation will also shoulder the medical expenses of health workers in case of COVID-19 exposure or any work-related injury.

These and other aid from the government will be funded partly by savings within the executive department in the 2020 budget, which Duterte is now allowed to rechannel towards the government’s response to COVID-19.

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

He can also stop programs, projects or activities under the executive department, including government corporations, and use the savings from these to fund the government’s response to the viral disease.

However, the Free Legal Assistance Group said these provisions which authorize Duterte to reshuffle funds in the budget are unconstitutional as the allocation of public funds is among the powers of Congress which cannot be validly transferred.

“There are no standards provided, leaving it primarily and solely to the President to determine how to allocate, how much to allocate, how to characterize funds, and for what purposes the funds are to be spent. Clearly, this constitutes undue delegation of legislative powers and would be void,” the lawyers group said.

Other powers

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

He may also direct the operation of passenger vessels to serve transportation needs of 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.

However, Duterte may still take over their operations if they “unjustifiably refuse or signify that they are no longer capable of operating their enterprises.”

The new law also allows Duterte to buy goods, including personal protective equipment, thermometers, cleaning agents and medicine, as long as the Department of Health 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.

Duterte may 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.

It also grants Duterte the power to require businesses to prioritize and accept contracts for materials and services needed to combat COVID-19. Those who refuse may face a two-month jail term and a fine ranging from ₱10,000 to ₱100,000.

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

Duterte's powers will be in full force for 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 500 people in the Philippines have contracted COVID-19, and 35 have died of it to date. A total of 20 people have recovered from the disease.