MANILA - The Senate on Tuesday passed the Bayanihan to Recover as One (Bayanihan 2) bill on final reading as the Philippines continues to battle health and economic crises due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Twenty-two senators voted to pass the measure a day after the chamber opened the 18th Congress' second regular session and after President Rodrigo Duterte appealed to legislators during his State of the Nation Address (SONA) for its speedy passage.
Sen. Francis Pangilinan was the lone dissenter.
"With Bayanihan 2, the government would be assured of sufficient funding for the ramped up testing for COVID-19 and for contact tracing," Senate Committee on Finance chair Sonny Angara, the principal sponsor of the bill, said in a statement.
"The new law will also allow the government to continue providing assistance to Filipino businesses and workers impacted by the pandemic," he added, citing the pandemic's frontliners and displaced overseas workers.
Under the Senate's version of the Bayanihan 2, a P140-billion fund will be appropriated for the following programs:
- Procurement of COVID-19 testing, extraction kits and other supplies for the control of diseases (P10 billion)
- Cash-for-work programs for displaced workers (P15 billion)
- Unemployment or involuntary separation assistance for displaced workers (P17 billion)
- Capital infusion for low-interest loans for micro, small and medium enterprises (P50 billion)
- "Plant-plant-plant" program, cash subsidies and interest-free loans for agriculture (P17 billion)
- Cash subsidies for transport sector workers (P17 billion)
- Cash subsidies for tourism sector workers (P10 billion)
The education sector will also receive assistance for scholarship and training programs during the pandemic.
Pangilinan cited the DOH's "failure" in addressing the COVID-19 crisis as his basis for opposing the passage of the Bayanihan 2.
"We vote no to additional funding specified in the Bayanihan 2 because we believe that Sec. Duque ought to be fired before billions more are allowed to be released to the DOH," the opposition senator said in plenary.
"Naghihingalo ang ating ekonomiya dahil sa palpak at kulang na pagtugon sa pandemya... We must hold him to account," he said.
"I am afraid that under the mediocre leadership displayed consistently since the pandemic hit us, none of these 13 interventions [under the Bayanihan 2] will be met or achieved," he said, warning the chamber of possibly wasting billions of funds.
Pangilinan was among the senators who signed a resolution seeking for Duque's resignation as Health chief for the DOH's lapses in COVID-19 contact tracing, testing, and alleged irregularities in the procurement of health supplies.
But President Rodrigo Duterte repeatedly said that he continues to trust Duque despite several missed targets in responding to the pandemic.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto noted that the bill holds a limited amount to counter the pandemic after the executive branch "put a lid on how much we can appropriate."
"This bill is a product of compromise with a veto-threatening executive," Recto told his colleagues.
"If we need to borrow more, let us do it... The sky will not fall if we reach 9 percent, for as long it is a one-shot deal and not end up a fiscal habit," he said, referring to the country's deficit-to-GDP ratio.
The Senate earlier proposed to include a P236-billion basket of programs in the Bayanihan, but had to pull the amount down to P140 billion after economic managers said that the Philippines does not have enough money to fund the initial proposal.
Recto said he has "doubts on the therapeutic potency" of the Bayanihan 2, but underscored that the global pandemic "is not a flu which can be starved."
"The virus may be faster than the bureaucracy, but it should not be able to outrun this Senate," he said.
OTHER HIGHLIGHTS OF BAYANIHAN 2
The second Bayanihan 2 repeals several provisions of its predecessor, including the government's power to arrest individuals who violate quarantine protocol.
Under the new bill, the President's power to take over hospitals and other crucial infrastructure during the COVID-19 crisis was also revoked.
The Bayanihan 2 also "encourages" the government to procure COVID-19-related supplies from local manufacturers.
Angara was elected to chair the Senate delegation to the bicameral conference committee.
Other members of the panel are Senators, Recto, Pia Cayetano, Franklin Drilon, Imee Marcos, Grace Poe, and Migz Zubiri.
Senate President Vicente Sotto III said he expects the Bayanihan 2 to be submitted for Duterte's signature in a week.
"Matagal na siguro diyan ang 1 linggo. Nakahanda na 'yung sa House. Aprubado na. Magthi-third reading na lang din sila," Sotto told TeleRadyo.
"'Yung budget baka doon lang magka-huddle ng konti... kung magkano lang ang puwede natin ibigay," he added.
The Senate was supposed to approve the Bayanihan 2 on final reading before the closing of the first regular session in June, but it was not certified then as urgent by Duterte.
The President eventually changed his mind and urged the Senate to swiftly pass the Bayanihan 2 bill under the second regular session.
The Philippines reported its first confirmed COVID-19 case on Jan. 30, a Chinese woman who arrived from Wuhan where the disease first emerged.
Duterte has placed parts of the country under community quarantine since March, hurting the Philippine economy as several sectors, including aviation and non-essential businesses, were barred from operating.
Despite having one of the world's longest lockdowns, the Philippines has yet to flatten its COVID-19 curve as the number of new coronavirus cases continue to rise in the country.
As of July 27, the Philippines has logged 82,040 confirmed coronavirus infections, of which, 53,649 are active cases. The death toll is 1,945.