MANILA — The number of confirmed new coronavirus cases in the Philippines soared to 462 on Monday as President Rodrigo Duterte asked Congress to grant him additional powers to deal with the public health crisis.
But instead of additional powers, the president should consider naming a “credible” point person at the national level to coordinate efforts with local governments, said lawyer Tony La Viña, former dean of the Manila-based Ateneo School of Government.
“Sa totoo lang, ang kailangan nya ‘czar’ who really will run this for him,” La Viña told ABS-CBN News. “You need a health official on top of all this to call the shots.”
The job, so far, falls on Health Secretary Francisco Duque III, who heads an inter-agency task force handling the government’s response to the fast-spreading virus.
In a public address last March 12, Duterte said Filipinos should heed what doctors would say and that Duque would “tell us what to do.”
“Sundin ho ninyo kung anong sinasabi ng mga doktor kasi sila po ang marunong niyan,” he said then. “Ang military, ako, lahat na hindi doktor, walang alam, wala kaming maitulong sa inyo.”
But Duque was also saddled with criticisms over the government’s supposedly inadequate response to the crisis, as shown by the low volume of testing for suspected COVID-19 cases and slow turnaround for results.
The health department was also under scrutiny for allegedly giving preferential treatment to government officials and their families, who were tested despite showing no symptoms of the disease.
As a result, these VIPS, who included senators and Cabinet officials, used up testing kits, which were low in supply and should have been made available to patients in actual need of them.
The agency denied having a policy favoring the VIPs, but said it is extending courtesy to "officials holding positions of national security and public health." It said "all specimens are being processed on a first-in, first-out basis."
Duque himself had to go into home quarantine after coming in contact with a someone who had contracted the virus. The secretary later tested negative.
La Viña said the coronavirus crisis presents a “true challenge to everyone,” especially during the early stages of the government’s response.
But additional powers the president was seeking in separate bills filed before the Senate and the House of Representatives on Monday can already be exercised at present, he noted.
These include directing privately-owned hospitals and medical facilities, public transportation, and facilities such as hotels to house health personnel or serve as quarantine areas, he said.
La Viña acknowledged the “psychological” impact of an emergency power, similar to the martial law declaration in Mindanao in 2017 against ISIS-affiliated terrorists.
But seeking such powers in response to the present COVID-19 crisis could also indicate “incompetence or just plain laziness,” he said.
“An emergency powers law is for the lazy and unfocused, for the incompetent, for those who are at a loss on what has to be done,” he said in a tweet.
“A broad grant of emergency powers is like using a bazooka when sniper guns with telescopic sights are more effective.”
Another proposal would allow the president to cancel appropriated programs and projects and use the “savings” for efforts to combat the new coronavirus, such as the purchase of more testing kits and personal protective equipment.
Both the House and the Senate versions of the proposed measure also authorize Duterte to “reprogram, reallocate, and realign any appropriation” in the 2020 national budget “for whatever purpose the president may deem necessary and desirable to fund measures to address and respond to the COVID-19 emergency.”
The broadly-worded provision cited measures such as “social amelioration for affected communities, and the recovery and rehabilitation of areas where the emergency is subsiding.”
In a statement, Albay Rep. Edcel Lagman warned that “these extraordinary budgetary powers could be used for partisan designs.”
“In the rest of the world assaulted by COVID-19, no national parliament has granted its president or prime minister additional emergency powers to fight the pandemic, and no other president or prime minister has requested for any additional powers to address the public health emergency,” said Lagman, a former appropriations committee chairman.
He said the government should instead come up with a “well-prepared” supplemental budget when Congress resumes session on May 4.
In the meantime, he said agencies could tap into items such as the contingency and calamity funds in the current national budget.