MANILA — If Vice-President Leni Robredo were to be elected the next president of the Republic of the Philippines, all eyes will be on controlling the pandemic first and fixing weakened institutions next.
Robredo shared a glimpse of how her presidency would be different at a weekly meeting of the Rotary Club of Manila on Thursday, the first in a series on presidentiables.
“Because we’re in the middle of a pandemic, the first order of business is to really be controlling the pandemic. Focusing all our efforts on decreasing the number of COVID cases dramatically so we can fully reopen the economy,” she said.
“And to do this, we must realign the national budget so that it will be more akin to addressing the pandemic,” she added.
The Department of Budget and Management allotted P1.92 trillion or 38.3 percent of the proposed P5-trillion 2022 National Expenditure Program to the social service sector, which includes health and education-related programs.
This is the biggest chunk followed by a P1.474-trillion budget for infrastructure.
But some independent think tanks like the Institute for Leadership, Empowerment, and Democracy (ILEAD) flagged the absence of funds in the proposed budget allocated for contract tracing, massive testing, boosting the public health system, risk allowances for health workers and funds for immediate purchase of vaccines.
ILEAD’s executive director Zy-Za Nadine Suzara also hit the allocation for infrastructure projects amid a pandemic.
Robredo herself had questioned the “disconnect” in the supposed misplaced budget priorities, noting the lack of funds for health workers’ benefits and the P170-million budget cut for the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine, the main testing center for the coronavirus.
On Thursday, Robredo said the first thing she would do in her first 100 days in office, should she be elected president, is to realign the budget by “allotting more funds for healthcare services and facilities, COVID-19 response, social services for Filipinos.”
“This also means improving access to hospitals, building more facilities if needed, improving infrastructure to access COVID-19 vaccines, the logistical support for vaccines,” she said.
“Time and again, I have said that health is the front-end domino. We address it and the rest of the challenges become less daunting,” she explained.
The vice president said there will be a comprehensive plan in place involving testing, contact tracing, treatment and vaccination — some of the issues raised against the current administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Robredo also vowed to empower the healthcare system, take better care of medical frontliners and vaccinate as many people as possible.
Addressing the pandemic, she said, should come first before opening up the economy.
“I have never subscribed to the false dichotomy of health versus the economy. For me, for us to be able to open our economy again, we have to control the virus first. We have to control the transmission first,” she said.
“I know that we have to live with the virus. But it is a different thing to live with them and not controlling them,” she stressed.
Robredo, a lawyer with an economics degree, noted the high number of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) that have closed shop during the pandemic and advocated for a stimulus package for them in the hope of creating more jobs for those who became unemployed during the pandemic.
But she declined to provide an estimate as to how many jobs she will create once she is in office.
“I do not want to overpromise. I just can’t promise the number of jobs without really understanding what is the exact plane we are taking off from. I don’t have enough data to say that, you know, we have this much money to infuse in this particular activity,” she said.
“So as I have said, it’s many different moving parts and you know, one thing I can promise is I will make sure that my administration will inspire confidence as far as the business sector is concerned,” she added.
But key to inspiring confidence is business, she said, is to ensure a level playing field for all businesses by keeping corruption in check and fixing weak institutions.
“The last five and a half years have seen—we have seen a weakening of institutions. So a lot of it will be, you know, a lot of focus will be on that. A lot of focus will be on governance. A lot of focus will be on fixing the kind of politics that we have,” she said.
One of the biggest issues that emerged in the course of the pandemic is the allegedly overpriced and anomalous 12-billion pesos worth of contracts that Pharmally Pharmaceuticals allegedly bagged despite not having sufficient capital and funds to purchase the needed medical supplies.
“The Pharmally scandal has been very frustrating because the alleged corruption is happening in the middle of the gravest health crisis of our time,” Robredo said.
“[W]e always hear government officials say that we do not have enough money, only to find out that there are irregularities such as this. In our minds, how could Pharmally get all these contracts without colluding with ranking government officials? I think it’s a fair question to be asked by the public and I hope that the ongoing investigation gets to the bottom of this,” she stated.
Robredo said three things are important to address corruption —accountability, transparency and people empowerment.
“It is not enough for public servants to be clean. It is not enough to say that this particular… this particular public servant is not corrupt. But it is very important to make sure that there are systems in place to force public servants to be corrupt,” she said.
She called for transparency in making public officials accountable and the passage of the law on freedom of information.
She once authored a full disclosure bill requiring public officials to post everything on how they are spending public funds.
“The reason why we worked very hard in making sure that we would get, from year to year, unqualified COA opinion is to show everyone that we were—we have been very serious in making sure that we have been very prudent in the way we spend public funds no matter how small our—no matter how small our budget is,” she said.
“It is really good governance that will pave the way for a better Philippines. It is good governance that will give the necessary changes that we have been dreaming of,” she reiterated, as she also called for greater stakeholder participation in governance, citing her and her late husband Jesse Robredo’s example in Naga City.
NO MARTIAL LAW NEEDED
Robredo rejected outright the possibility of declaring martial law in order to address the pandemic.
“There is no need for Martial Law to reign because we have, you know, we have enough laws that we can use to help us get through this crisis. If only government was more efficient, if only government was, you know, was more accountable,” she said.
If at all, she added, there’s a need to declare a health and education crisis.
GENDER NOT A FACTOR
In the Rotary Club meeting, Robredo was asked how she would differentiate her presidency from other presidents, particularly 2 former female presidents — Cory Aquino and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo — whose tenures were marked by coup attempts and military unrest.
She brushed off concerns female leaders are perceived to be indecisive.
“I feel that decisiveness does not have anything to do with gender…An efficient government is a government that gets the job done, and that is exactly what—that is exactly what we have shown at the OVP, what we are set to do,” she said, referring to her widely-praised efforts to link private companies and NGOs with communities needing help.
In the midst of the pandemic, her office provided teleconsultation services, swab tests, free shuttle services for medical frontliners and vaccination express aside from providing aid during calamities.
Robredo said female leaders around the world, particularly in New Zealand, Germany and Taiwan, have shown that their collaborative and empathetic leadership were key to steering their country in the right direction.
President Rodrigo Duterte had previously called Robredo weak and useless as the hashtag #NasaanAngPangulo trended last year, with the President nowhere to be found as Robredo and her volunteers toiled overnight to provide much-need aid to flood-stricken Cagayan Valley in the aftermath of a typhoon.
“It is easy to equate being a strong and decisive leader with brashness and aggression, with a loud, domineering style of leadership. But for me, that kind of leadership, more often than not, disempowers and frightens others into silence. This should not be the case,” she said.
“Being a strong and decisive leader means nurturing and empowering others to become the best version of themselves. It means channeling strength without bluster in a manner that is firm yet dignified, compassionate, empathetic, and thrives quietly yet decisively amidst adversity,” she continued.
“I think we were able to—we were able to showcase that, the five and a half years that I was Vice President.”