Paco A. Pangalangan, Executive Director, Stratbase ADR Institute
If the objective of the Bayanihan Heal as One Act was to unite the Filipino people to collectively respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, as its title implies, then it should have focused more on creating an environment that empowers multi-sectoral partnership and a bit less on granting the president a brand-new set of special powers.
If it is to be effective, the response to a health crisis on the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic cannot come from a single institution or sector of society alone. Everyone must do their part, individuals and institutions alike. This crisis will test how well the national government, local government units, business communities, the media, academe and civil society groups can work together.
Since Luzon was placed under an Enhanced Community Quarantine, many institutions jump into action. The health sector workers have emerged as modern-day heroes, local government leaders have stepped up with pro-active and innovative street level action, while civil society and some of the biggest movers in the business community have mobilized their resources, networks, and expertise to help those left most vulnerable by the COVID-19 induced lockdown.
In addition, there are multi-sectoral initiatives that draw on the strengths and linkages of different groups to expand the effectiveness of their response. Project Ugnayan, for example, is a fund raising initiative being led by the some of the country’s top business groups in cooperation with the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation (PDRF) and the religious group Caritas Manila. Already, the initiative has raised over P1.5 billion pesos to extend help to vulnerable communities around Metro Manila.
The first wave of donations came from the generous support of: Aboitiz Group, ABS-CBN/Lopez Group, Alliance Global Group and Megaworld, AY Foundation and RCBC, Ayala Corporation, Bench/Suyen Corp., Century Pacific, Concepcion Industrial Corp, DMCI Group of Companies, Gokongwei Group of Companies/Robinsons Retail Holdings, ICTSI, Jollibee, Leonio Group, Mercury Drug, Metrobank/GT Capital, Nutri-Asia, Oishi/Liwayway Marketing Corp., PLDT/Metro Pacific Investments Corporation, Puregold, Ramon S. Ang & Family, SM/BDO, Sunlife of Canada and Unilab.
The sector’s response to the urgency of the cause is growing with new supporters: Cebuana Lhuillier, Management Association of the Philippines, One Meralco Foundation, PepsiCo/PepsiCo Foundation, Tao Commodity Trader, Tao Corporation, Health Solutions and New Marketlink Pharmaceuticals.
With low income households bearing the brunt of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Project Ugnayan aims to provide 1 million poor families with food vouchers that they can use at their local groceries store. To avoid drawing large crowds and in accordance with social distancing guidelines, the project’s door-to-door distribution of grocery vouchers will be implemented in collaboration with Caritas Manila’s bandwidth of parishes and ground support from local barangays and the Philippine National Police. The project also supports ABS-CBN’s “Pantawid ng Pag-ibig” project, another food distribution initiative.
It is multi-sectoral synergies such as this that people had hoped a Bayanihan Heal as One Act would encourage. And while this new measure does allocate funds to help low-income families during this time of crisis, and it does provide more support for health sector workers, it also grants the president broad powers to re-allocate funds, regulate the movement of people goods, and to undertake other “reasonable and necessary” steps to combat COVID-19.
Nor can people ignore earlier attempts to include provisions that reeked of authoritarianism and were prone to government abuse, such as a provision granting the president the power to “takeover” private companies.
The provision started out relatively innocently enough, granting the president the power to takeover hotels to house health workers and public transportation to move health workers, but quickly expands the list to include public utilities, like telecommunications companies that provide us with access to calling, texting and to the internet.
Definitely not a provision that creates an environment that promotes openness and inclusiveness, but rather one that incites fear and demands compliance.
Thankfully, the most dangerous clauses of the Bayanihan Heal as One Act were removed by legislators in the final version, but only after an uproar from the public and other sectors when the initial draft of the bill was leaked to the media. This, in and of itself, is another example of how working together creates an influential force.
Nevertheless, the powers granted to the president in the new law, are by no means tame. If left unchecked, this law that was passed to help Filipinos in this time of crisis could be abused and could lead to a crisis of its own.
So while the spirit of Bayanihan calls on us to work together to kill COVID-19, it also calls us to come together to demand transparency and accountability from our government as it responds to this pandemic.
Lastly, with the number of confirmed cases in the country steeply sloping upwards and with treatment facilities and frontline health workers already pushed to their limits, people should keep in mind that as individuals they too must do their part to flatten the curve.
For most that means staying home, staying informed, and doing what we can to support frontliners. But one way that the public can help is by reminding elected officials to heed the World Health Organization’s sound advice: isolate, test, treat, trace. Hopefully, together the collective voice will be heard.
This article was originally published in philstar.com. Image Source: The STAR/ Walter Bollozos.