The COVID-19 pandemic has to a considerable degree exposed the Philippines to several vulnerabilities, which include the knock-on effect of the pandemic on the country’s economy, weakness of the country’s existing health care system and infrastructures, and threats to food security because of the fragile agriculture and food systems of the country.
The Philippine government has recognised that if these limitations are not addressed and given attention, they could aggravate the already challenging situation of the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The government has responded and taken steps and interventions to mitigate the situation and the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak in the country.
Some of the most important and recent initiatives by the Philippine government as part of its mitigation response to the pandemic include: (a) the establishment of the One Command Hospital Center (OCHC) launched last month (August 2020) as a referral system between private and public hospital, (b) the ramping-up of the country’s testing capacity (c) the augmentation in the numbers of contract-tracers and intensified contract tracing efforts; (d) the scaling-up of local health care system capacity and infrastructure; (e) the recent passage into law of the Bayanihan Act 2; and (f) the latest directive of President Rodrigo Duterte to extend the “state of calamity” in the Philippines until 12 September 2021 to give the national and local governments time to marshal their resources to better address and defeat the pandemic.
All these are part and parcel of the National Action Plan Phase 2 of the Philippine government’s response and mitigation efforts against the coronavirus pandemic.
Bayanihan Act 2
The enactment into law of the Republic Act. No. 11494 or the “Bayanihan to Recover as One Act” or “Bayanihan Act 2” on 11 September, 2020 is not only a huge boost to the COVID-19 response of the Philippines, but more than anything, it is a piece of legislation that provides large funding to fortify the economic recovery efforts of the Philippines from the devastation caused by the pandemic.
The new law prioritises the financing of some of the most important government programs amid the pandemic that include: (a) the further improvement of the healthcare system and infrastructure of the country to better respond to the COVID-19 crisis, (b) further extension of benefits to healthcare workers; (c) funding cash work program to address the surge of unemployment in the country, (d) financing support and assistance to the agricultural sector and industries that were much affected by the pandemic; and (e) the procurement of coronavirus vaccines once readily available.
Hence, the law has the twin objective of reviving the economy, and further addressing the health care needs of Filipinos.
Benefits For Healthcare Workers
Among the provisions of the law that prioritise the welfare of health workers in the country include: (a) the allocation of a COVID-19 Special Risk Allowance (SRA) for private and public healthcare workers who have had direct contact with COVID-19 patients. The SRA will be given every month as long as they are on active duty and as long as the state of national emergency is in effect; (b) the law also provides life insurance, temporary housing, transportation, and food to all public and private health workers during the state of national emergency regardless of quarantine status; (c) the law also extends compensation amounting to PHP 100,000 (US$2,062) for health workers who become severely or critically ill with COVID-19, while PHP 1,000,000 (US$20,626) will be given to the family/relatives of a health worker who dies in-line of duty because of the COVID-19 disease, and PHP 15,000 (US$309) to health workers who have mild or moderate COVID-19 disease.
These reparations and benefits being extended to health workers are retroactive from 1 February 2020 until the state of national emergency is lifted, and will be received not later than three months from the date of hospitalisation or death due to COVID-19, and is tax-exempt.
Funds For Virus Mitigation Efforts
In as far as the augmentation of the various operations of Department of Health (DOH) hospitals in the country are concerned, the Bayanihan Act 2 has allotted PHP 13.5 billion (US$278.4 million) for the continuous emergency hiring of more health workers to boost the number of health workers and personnel more specifically designated to the palliative care of COVID-19 patients.
Likewise, the law has also allocated around PHP 3 billion (US$61.8 million) for the procurement and distribution of personal protective equipment (PPEs) like protective suits, face masks, shoe covers, face shields, and goggles for public and private COVID-19 referral hospitals, both national and local, for barangays, and indigent persons.
It also apportioned around PHP 4.5 billion (US$92.8 million) for the construction of temporary medical isolation and quarantine facilities, field hospitals, dormitories for front liners, as part of the efforts in enhancing the capacity of government hospitals across the country.
On the other hand, a total of PHP 5 billion (US$103 million) has been allocated to the hiring of around 50,000 additional contact tracers to further heighten the contact tracing efforts of the country, while the law apportioned PHP 10 billion (US$206 million) for COVID-19 testing and the procurement of COVID-19 medication and vaccines.
The Bayanihan Act 2 has allotted PHP 6 billion (US$123.7 million) to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) to augment its fund for COVID-19 related programs, including its emergency fund subsidy to localities that will be under granular lockdowns. Filipinos who might be affected by the imposition of granular lockdowns in certain areas as declared by their respective local government units (LGUs) are eligible for financial assistance ranging from PHP 5,000 (US$103) to PHP 8,000 (US$165) depending on the area.
The law also provides PHP 13 billion (US$268 million) for the cash for work program of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE). The funds will be used to extend financial assistance to workers displaced because of the pandemic. Part of the funds will be used to fund DOLE efforts to stage capacity building (i.e. training) initiatives for Filipinos who are interested in re-tooling themselves for new job opportunities available in the country and overseas.
The law also extended PHP 4.5 billion (US$92.8 million) to the Department of National Defense (DND) to cover expenses in isolating and treating returning overseas Filipino workers who test positive for COVID-19, and PHP 820 million (US$16.9 million) for repatriation-related expenses, including the shipment of remains and cremation of Overseas Filipinos who died of COVID-19.
Support For Blended Learning & Education
The law has also extended financial support to students, and further financing to the various educational programs of several educational institutions, more particularly the “Blended Learning” program of the Department of Education (DepEd). The law apportioned PHP four billion (US$82.5 million) to the “blended learning” program implementation across the country. It also earmarked PHP 600 million (US$12.3 million) as subsidies and allowances for students severely impacted by the pandemic, PHP one billion (US$20.6 million) worth of scholarships to be appropriated by the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA), and PHP 300 million (US$6.1 million) worth of subsidies and allowances to teaching and non-teaching personnel, and part-time faculty in state universities and colleges.
In terms of financial support to digital technology related infrastructures and know-how, the law has allocated PHP 3 billion (US$61.8 million) for the development of smart campuses across the country, PHP10 million (US$206,000) for a research fund for the Health Technology Assessment Council, and PHP 15 million (US$309,000) for the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman’s Computational Research Laboratory.
The law has also provided funding support to certain vital sectors of the Philippine economy to stimulate recovery from the negative impacts of the pandemic. The law earmarked PHP 39.472 billion (US$814 million) as a capital infusion to government banks to allow them to extend more loans to small and medium-term enterprises (SMEs).
It also provided PHP 24 billion (US$495 million) financial assistance to farmers and the “Plant, Plant, Plant” initiative of the Department of Agriculture (DA).
Likewise, around PHP 9.5 billion (US$195.9 million) has been extended to the Department of Transportation (DOTr) to assist businesses in the transport sector that were seriously affected by the pandemic, while extending PHP 4.1 billion (US$84.5 million) to the tourism industry, which was exceedingly affected by the pandemic, including PHP100 million (US$2 million) for training and subsidies to tour guides.
The LGUs were also apportioned PHP1.5 billion (US$30.9 million) financial assistance, including PHP two billion (US$41.2 million) worth of subsidies for the payment of interest on local government loans from state-run banks.
Though far from perfect, the national response of the Philippines against the COVID-19 crisis has considerably gained some milestones and relative successes, more particularly in saving millions of Filipino lives. The recent assessment of the World Health Organization (WHO) affirms such a prognosis that indeed the efforts of the Philippines in strengthening its health capacity are as highly effective in saving lives.
Dr Rabindra Abeyasinghe, WHO representative to the Philippines, recently said that “the fact that you have one of the lowest proportions of fatal cases in the region – also is an acknowledgment that you have expanded your clinical capacity, your hospital capacities. You have equipped your clinicians through proper training.”
To date, the fatality rate of the country is more or less around 1.7 percent out of the total number of cases, which is relatively low.
With the timely passage of the Bayanihan Act 2, the Philippines’ COVID-19 mitigation efforts will surely improve. The law is thus far instrumental in prioritising investment in people, in the healthcare system/infrastructure, and the strengthening of the various coping mechanisms critical to a more resilient Philippines.
Investments in the healthcare system/infrastructures; in education; in re-tooling and building the digital skills of Filipinos; and investments in digital-friendly information ready technology and infrastructure amid the pandemic, will in the long run yield growth and more productivity, and are keys in building a more resilient and buoyant Philippines.
Likewise, strengthening the coping mechanisms of Filipinos, especially those in low-income households, and of SMEs, by providing them access to various social welfare assistance and financing offered by various government agencies, will serve as a cushion to further cope with the upsetting impacts of the pandemic. This financial assistance will compensate for lost income, allowing people to buy essentials like food, and make it possible for SMEs to continue operating even amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Furthermore, the added financial support to the “Plant Plant Plant” program as spelled out in the Bayanihan Act 2, is also essential not only in effecting a more self-reliant and resilient Philippines amid the pandemic and in the post-pandemic era but is imperative in building-up the food security of the country.
A vibrant food/agricultural sector is not only indispensable in preventing malnutrition, one of the leading global causes of sickness but is equally vital in managing a pandemic, more importantly in feeding the population of the country in a sustainable manner.