Press Release
June 3, 2020

June 03, 2020

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Isang magandang hapon sa ating lahat. Mr. President, I rise on a point of personal and collective privilege.

The last four months has shaken the world in proportions previously unimaginable in our lifetime. While the world is no stranger to pandemics what makes Covid-19 extraordinary is that it comes at a time of immense global economic and social interconnectedness brought about by the unprecedented advancement in technology. This same extraordinary level of interlinkages that has generally worked to our advantage is also what enabled the rapid spread of the virus, and brought much of the world to a standstill. For the most part of this year, Filipinos have joined the rest in this global paralysis. Isang napakalaking sakripisyo ng mga mamamayan.

More than two months since the implementation of the Enhanced Community Quarantine and the enactment of the Bayanihan Heal as One Act, we have seen the disarray that accompanied its implementation. The different guidelines issued by government agencies and conflicting pronouncements of top officials created confusion on the ground. As documented by the press, law enforcement and some local government officials have generally displayed heavy-handedness in executing quarantine procedures. While there have been instances where violators were made to plant vegetables and watch Covid-related instructional videos the dominant stories are those of abuse and violence. Who could forget the story of Mang Dodong Jimeda who became the face of the daily injustice the poor is experiencing in this pandemic? The 58-year old fish vendor was detained when he failed to present a travel pass while trying to buy fish to sell. It took his family a week before they were able to locate him and raise P3,500 for bail. However, he had to wait two more days before being released as his family failed to submit a photo of their house, one of several requirements in posting bail. The stark contrast between Mang Dodong's ordeal and the President's shameless defense of Maj. Gen. Debold Sinas' mananita fiasco did not escape the attention of the public. In a rare move, business groups issued a joint statement criticizing this appalling unequal treatment, and called for the upholding of the rule of law. Section 4 (c) of the Bayanihan Act mandates the President to provide emergency subsidy to low income households. At P270 billion (per COVID19PH Citizens' Budget Tracker), the Social Amelioration Package is the largest slice of the Covid response budget pie. Ngunit nakakapanlumong malaman na ang tulong pampinansyal para sa mga pinakanangangailangan, ay hindi pa rin naipamimigay sa kabuuang 18 milyong pamilya. The 10th Presidential Report to Congress showed that there is still P2B that has yet to be distributed in the SAP of the DSWD; that is almost 360,000 families who have not received assistance. This leaves me with the many distressing images of our kababayan lining up in droves for their financial assistance, making social distancing a cruel joke. They wait in line, sometimes from sun-up to sundown, under the oppressive heat of the sun. Some of them fainting, and even dying while waiting for their turn, with some even being turned away in the end. Nagtitiis silang pumila para sa kaunting ayuda. Sa Pilipinas ganito kahirap ang maging mahirap.

Metro Manila and other high risk areas are on the third day of their shift to General Community Quaranti, and it has been made apparent that the Bayanihan Act failed to prepare the country for reopening. The downgrading of our level of quarantine has been met with general skepticism and anxiety that adequate safeguards are not in place to ensure the safety of the people. As soon as the President made the announcement, creative minds in social media went on overdrive by re-branding GCQ as Get Covid Quickly, and calling the public's impending daily life "Survivor Philippines", an obvious dark reference to the Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest. These memes may be couched in black humor, but the fear is real. And that fear is not unfounded, Mr. President.

As of yesterday, the total number of confirmed cases is 18,997 according to the DOH, and we can expect the numbers to climb as more testing are being done and adjustments to the backlogs being settled. On the same day the IATF announced its recommendation to ease restrictions to jumpstart the economy, the DOH registered 539 new infections and 17 more Covid-related deaths, the largest number of cases reported in a single day since the virus was first detected in the country. While this may be an artificial surge given the backlog in testing and validation, it is also revealing of the gap in our official data, data that is supposed to guide us in making sound policy decisions. In explaining this growing disparity in the data, the DOH pointed to the "long and tedious" process of verification and the lack of personnel ensuring the accuracy of the data. Considering that data is paramount in battling this pandemic, logic points us to closing this gap by making sure that the "long and tedious" process shall be mitigated by increasing the number of laboratories that conduct testing without sacrificing the integrity of the verification process. Needless to say, logic also points to the obvious solution to the shortage in personnel. It has been four months, Mr. President, FOUR LONG MONTHS since we reported our first case of Covid-19 infection in January. Public health authorities squandered the first few weeks of the ECQ by overlooking the need to upgrade our health system capacity. By now, we should have had established sufficient infrastructure and mustered enough human resources to adequately respond to this health crisis. There is no doubt that there has been a ramping-up of health facilities, and that public-private partnerships have been effective in improving the capacity for testing, isolation, and quarantine. However, this is clearly not enough. Our public health facilities, the last line of defense of the poor who are a most vulnerable sector is still far from target in raising the line of our health system capacity.

Among the emergency powers the Bayanihan Act vested on the President is to implement measures to prevent the further spread of the virus through detection, protection, and treatment. He has also been given the power to "expedite and streamline the accreditation of testing kits and facilitate prompt testing by public and designated private institutions". But what many have been calling for in the past several months, mass testing has been agonizingly slow in coming. The empty Presidential bluster that tried to downplay the threat of the virus combined with government's low testing capacity, what is supposed to be crucial to a strategic viral containment was at a crawl for months. What we can learn from the success of Vietnam or New Zealand is that testing is key to any Covid strategy. Testing is key because it will lead us to the necessary isolation of those who tested positive, and to contact tracing. But even our contact tracing efforts are too sluggish that the World Health Organization acting representative couldn't help but urge us to "push harder" and "work harder" because any delay in contact tracing will make it hard for us to catch up with the rate of transmission. Again, Mr. President, APAT NA BUWAN NA ANG NAKAKARAAN. Kamakailan lang natin napunuan ang kapasidad upang maabot ang sapat na bilang ng mga mate-test. Yet this is not to say that we have actually started maximizing this increased testing capacity as we have yet to hit the target 30,000 tests per day. In our 3rd day of GCQ, we have what can be considered a Covid-19 testing and tracing crisis as manifested by testing backlogs, conflicting claims on testing capacity of the country and non-optimal use of testing laboratories, allegations of overpriced testing kits and price manipulation of testing equipment, slow contact tracing efforts, and delays in the release of test results.

Masakit man sabihin ngunit hindi natin maikakaila, if there is something this public health delays have shown us, and what this pandemic has exposed is that our healthcare system is ill-equipped and unfit to deal with an outbreak of this magnitude. It lacks the demonstrated capacity to test, trace and treat to keep pace with the spread of the virus. Public health experts lack the flexibility and decisiveness to implement the necessary mass testing for all high risks and exposed individuals due to the lack of testing kits, limited capacity of laboratory facilities as testing centers, and insufficient hospital bed capacities and quarantine facilities. It also failed to set up contingency measures to ensure that healthcare services of other non-Covid diseases remain uninterrupted. It failed to recognize early on the fundamental importance of research on production and manufacturing of local testing kits and upgrading testing centers for effective public health response. It is also painful to be reminded that we hold the distinction of having the highest number of virus-hit health workers, where 13% of all confirmed cases are doctors and nurses. What makes this more excruciating is that these high rate of infection is attributed to a shortage in personal protective equipment and a clear lapse in observing infection protection and control protocols.

And talking about PPEs, I would also like to join other Senators in bringing up the issue of the purchase of PPEs and testing kits at questionable prices. Dahil sa Bayanihan Act, isinuko na ng Kongreso ang kanyang "power of the purse" pagdating sa pagtalaga ng mga gagastusan ng gobyerno. Kaya kailangang bantayang maigi kung saan napupunta ang pera. Mahalaga na naibunyag ni Senator Ping Lacson na doble ang halaga ang pagkakabili ng DOH ng mga PPEs para sa ating mga frontliners kumpara sa mga pribadong organisasyon. Ayon nga kay Senator Grace Poe, mula P400 hanggang P1,000 ang presyo ng isang set ng PPE sa merkado. Ngunit kung titingnan natin ang report ng DOH na bumili ng isang milyong set ng PPEs sa halagang P1.8 billion, bawat set ay pumapatak na P1,800, halos doble na ng presyo ng pinakamahal na PPE. On another item Senator Lacson raised, government purchased Nucleic Acid Extractors used in Covid-testing for P4 million. On the other hand, Project Ark purchased the same for P1.75 million. Even the swabbing system has discrepancies: the private sector procured theirs for $16 per unit, while the government purchased it for twice the amount, at $32. If one is aware of how things like these go, PPEs and testing kits MIGHT JUST BE THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG. Paano natin mapagkakatiwalaan ang isang gobyerno na gamitin sa maayos ang pera ng bayan kung may mga taong walang konsensyang pinagkakakitaan ang pandemyang ito?

Now that we have relaxed restrictions under GCQ there is still that lingering question whether we abided by the conditions and guidelines set-up by the WHO since the motivation driving this easing up is to restart economic activity. Foremost among the conditions WHO has set is the evidence that viral transmission has been controlled. The latest forecast report from the University of the Philippines, covering April 1 to May 25 in NCR alone, there is indeed an indication of a flattening of the curve. However, lag in the validation process with still a few thousand cases waiting to be validated is keeping many from being entirely optimistic. In fact, having no reliable data there has been no definitive statement among health experts and data scientists about a flattening of the curve lest they unceremoniously find themselves falling flat on their faces.

Mr. President, in the face of the apparent weaknesses of our Covid-19 response, I do recognize the enormity of the challenge and the best efforts being exerted by our national and local health authorities. That despite working within a weak and fragmented health system, and facing immense pressure from all fronts, we acknowledge their work and thank them for not giving up and for continuing the fight. But just like in any fight, we need inspirational and innovative public health leaders who will rise up to the occasion.

Fighting this Covid war is unthinkable without proper data to guide us. It is therefore imperative to have an honest to goodness and better data analytics and information management. Malinis, matapat, maasahan at napapanahong datos at impormasyon na siyang gagamitin para sa maayos na pagpapasya at pagbuo ng mga epektibong polisiya. This data, which must be fully and clearly disclosed to the public would give us a better picture of where we are in this fight, and help us navigate the new normal.

I am also heartened by the news that government intends to mobilize more contact tracers. With proper training and protection, they can help improve our contact tracing efforts. To complement efforts of contact tracers, I urge the DILG to review and revise its guidelines for Barangay Health Emergency Response Team and encourage people's participation. Iwanan na natin ang naratibo na pasaway ng ating mga kababayan at pagkatiwalaan silang makakapag-ambag sa isang community-based promotive, preventive and protective response sa Covid-19. Ang mga registered at accredited people's organizations at civil society organizations sa ating mga komunidad, are in the best position to complement local epidemiological and surveillance units.

Yesterday, Thailand became the second large economy in Southeast Asia next to Vietnam to bring down the number of infections. With zero new confirmed cases for the first time in over two months they are allowed the luxury of planning for a four-phase easing process. I point this out as I recall images of our kababayan crowding the streets and scampering for a ride on the first day of GCQ, damning social distancing, damning safety just to get to work. And, yes, we are nowhere near zero confirmed cases. Our unpreparedness is extremely appalling. Our people's safety must be of primary concern, saving lives our goal.

Mr. President, we have been talking about flattening the epidemic curve for more than two and a half months now. It's time we also pay close attention to the congestion in our economic emergency rooms that's about to happen. Financial distress is now very high among Philippine firms, just as oxygen shortage signals the need for intubation and intensive care. We need to talk about the flattening of the economic curve so that preventable job losses resulting from business demise can be avoided.

The flattening of the economic curve will initially be about assisting distressed businesses. But it will ultimately be about individuals and families who will be losing their jobs and incomes. That distinction between firms and their workers is important -- some businesses can and should be saved, while others might be too far down an irreversible path to insolvency. Firms may or may not survive, but people will need to survive.

I would like to credit the Bangko Sentral for acting quickly to ensure that our economic protective equipment would be available to the banks that would be approached by firms in distress. Yet, despite the BSP's support, the banks are still charging high interest rates fearful they will be exposed to the economic contagion if they offer relief to everyone. The banking system may be an essential industry but even the shift from MECQ to GCQ will not lead to a re-opening of their doors.

On the other hand, businesses both large and small also hesitate to get help from the banks. There is an out of pocket cost since banks will only lend a small amount to a distressed enterprise, or a little at a time even as your revenues in the coming months might not be enough to pay for recurring costs such as wages, rents, and utilities. A loan taken out today by an enterprise owner will require risking and taking out even more out of pocket capital to repay fresh loans that will be due next month and certainly much sooner than the hoped for recovery of the business.

In other words, Mr. President, the BSP can bring water to the horse, but the horse must want to drink the water: the bank must want to lend and the firm must want to take the risk associated with borrowing. The deputy governor of the BSP admitted as much to the joint meeting of the Finance and Economic Committee last Friday -- he said that the BSP has done its part, it has made money available to the banks but the horse will not live if it hesitates to drink. If the BSP were the only doctor in the economic emergency room, soon enough this is what it would tell us -- "Pasensya na po, ginawa na po namin ang lahat ng aming maaring gawin upang buhayin sya."

I think we now understand that further actions on the monetary side will only make sense if other things are done that will address the hesitation of the banks that is also in turn related to the hesitation of firms. To my mind, this means that the proposed Bayanihan to Recover as One (BARO) bill, as it is will not provide reassurance -- neither on the challenge of keeping the health epidemic curve flat nor on the challenge of keeping the economic epidemic curve flat.

Many Senators have questioned the competence and faithfulness of the Health Secretary -- and for good reasons. But since he is still there at the helm, it is incumbent upon us to scrutinize how he intends to provide the assurance, secure the resources and strengthen the organizational set-up that will assure us that we are not risking a second-wave or a costly relapse in the coming months.

The credibility of the action plan of our health authorities is also important in addressing the uncertainties that concern the economic sector. The latest issue of the Economist Magazine inform us that countries like Sweden, Finland and China have seen a reduction in economic activity in key sectors of 30%, 20%, and 10% respectively. These numbers give us a sense of the magnitude of jobs that may be lost until everybody is vaccinated -- especially if a second wave of infections spreads. What will those numbers be for the Philippines?

I therefore appeal to my colleagues in the Senate to exercise the oversight mandates that the Filipino people have assigned to us. Should the BARO Law be passed, it is necessary to complement it with a program of action and a Budget of Expenditures and Sources of Financing (BESF) document that is based on our own best understanding of what needs to be done.

The country's health is too important to leave to Secretary Duque, especially if the country's economic health will also be infected by the inadequacies of his leadership. The same can be said of Secretary Dominguez. The country' economic health is too important to be left in the hands of government economic managers who are not even able to agree among themselves.

Just as our colleagues in the Lower House have worked tirelessly to craft a Philippine Economic Stimulus Act (or PESA) the Senate too will want to scrutinize and deliberate on the paradox of how we should get the horse to drink the water that it has been served. Passing the BARO bill will simply not cut it and the total of eight bills filed by the members of the Senate need to be synthesized into a counterpart bill for PESA.

Three things are becoming clear to me.

First, the BSP and banks can only do so much in terms of providing credit; fiscal policy must step up;

Second, government spending needs to make up for the economic stimulus that has disappeared when investors stopped spending, when consumers including OFW families became cautious and tourists stopped coming. The Bayanihan Law only authorizes the Executive to move money around, but not really to spend more than what it and the GOCCs were authorized to spend for Fiscal years 2019 and 2020. That is a fundamental flaw of the Bayanihan Law.

Third, NEDA and the Economic Cluster of the Cabinet must quickly put together a Plan B -- a Plan B that will generate new sources of employment and new investments destinations that will be ready to replace those that will be lost. These new drivers of growth can be in the areas of:

1. ICT and Digital transformation for Education, working at home, Telemedicine, logistics and public services;

2. Agriculture and Food Manufacturing;

3. The Health Sector, of course -- but based on a program of work that ensures adequacy of preparedness of infrastructure not just at the national aggregate level but at the level of every Metropolitan and Regional hospital catchments;

4. A fourth sector, which is about smaller urban developments and urban-rural transport networks, can attract the interest of investors anxious to pivot towards opportunities outside of Metro Manila.

Mr. President, whether we admit it or not the decision to restart economic activity at a time when the flattening of the epidemic curve is still unclear is to transfer much of the responsibility from the state to the public. The sacrifice this government has exacted from our people has been extremely high, especially from the poor in terms of loss of daily income, job insecurity, and hunger. Now that we have shifted to GCQ and asked them to go back to work, without mass testing we are putting their lives at risk. Nakadismaya na ipinasa din natin sa mga employer ang responsibilidad na ito. It doesn't take an expert to realize that this administration's crisis leadership is abysmal. The absence of a coherent masterplan, the contradicting statements coming from our public officials, the inefficient implementation of the Social Amelioration Program, the excesses of our law enforcement, are just a few examples of the short-sightedness of the government in dealing with this pandemic. What could have been a great opportunity to slow down and contain the infection, the ECQ was left on its own without the aid of mass testing. But the challenge now for government is to step-up, and employ the "whole of society" approach to the crisis. It must realize that Covid-19 is first and foremost a health problem, and that putting the police and military in the forefront is fighting the wrong war. It must provide a wide berth to include more health professionals and scientists, get the involvement of development workers, and synchronize efforts with the private sector. It must allow the empowerment and capacitate LGUs and communities, as we have seen in the larger role the BHERT has played, and by capacitating local resources such as giving Kaligtasan Tanods information and education functions. It is also imperative that this government must be ready and willing to spend more.

While the pandemic has kept the world at a standstill, we cannot be paralyzed by it for long. Restarting the economy is necessary but it must come with the appropriate protection for our people. Health and economic safeguards must be in put in place before we send them out to what is now called the new normal. Fiscal responses to the clear and present danger of a deep economic recession needs to be aggressive. Let our rallying cry be: SAVE LIVES, SAVE JOBS.

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